12/31/2004 1:00AM

It's wise to take points on crazy day


LAS VEGAS - It has long been said that any NFL team can beat any other team on any given Sunday. That often makes the NFL unpredictable when form doesn't hold. The final Sunday of the NFL season is usually more of a crapshoot than usual with many playoff teams resting starters for the postseason and other teams having given up on the season.

Sunday's schedule is taking those two factors to the extreme as more teams than usual have already been locked into their playoff seeds and have already announced they are resting a lot of starters. That has played havoc with some of the point spreads.

Adding to the craziness of this final day, the sports books here in Vegas will be taking afternoon games involving playoff hopefuls (Jaguars, Seahawks, and Broncos) off the board after the kickoff of the 10 a.m. games until they know where those teams stand in their playoff scenarios.

With all that in mind, I'm going with four early games that are minimally affected by other contests, plus the Sunday night finale.

Dolphins (+11) at Ravens

Baltimore needs to win this game to have a shot at the playoffs (the Bills, Broncos, and Jaguars would all have to lose), so I guess that's why this line has been bet so high. However, I don't see that much difference between these two teams. Both have good defenses and have been inconsistent on offense, but the Dolphins have been playing hard on both sides of the ball under interim coach Jim Bates with back-to-back wins over the Patriots and Browns. The Ravens have put themselves in this must-win situation by not winning previous must-win games, so there's no reason to trust them to win here let alone cover the double-digit spread.

PLAY: Dolphins for 1 unit.

Bengals (-3) at Eagles

The Eagles showed last Monday night vs. the Rams that they're content to play out the string and wait to put forth their best effort in the playoffs. There are other games like this Sunday, but I trust the Bengals to take advantage of the situation as they try to build for next year with second-year quarterback Carson Palmer getting more comfortable with the offense and the defense getting better under head coach/defensive guru Marvin Lewis.

PLAY: Bengals for 1 unit.

Saints (+7 1/2) at Panthers

Both teams have something to play for, a rare commodity on this Sunday. Both need to win and then get help to get in the playoffs. The Panthers are in the slightly better position (needing a Vikings loss or a Rams loss or a Seahawks win while the Saints need either a Rams loss or wins by both the Seahawks and Vikings), but when this game kicks off they have the same motivation. If this was around 3 or 4, I would pass, but it has been bet to more than a touchdown, probably because the Panthers have been so good to bettors over the second half of the season. I think that provides value on the underdog as this game should be played with a playoff-like intensity and go down to the wire.

PLAY: Saints for 1 unit.

Jets at Rams (+3 1/2)

This is the other game with both teams being fully motivated. The Jets can clinch an AFC wild-card spot while the Rams need a win and either a loss by the Seahawks later in the day (to give St. Louis the NFC West title and a first-round home game) or a loss by the Vikings or a tie in the Saints-Panthers game to get in as a wild card. The Rams took care of business Monday night vs. the Eagles and showed a strong running game while letting quarterback Marc Bulger work off his rust. The Jets look like a team that is beginning to believe its own negative press clippings. I have to take the motivated home underdog.

PLAY: Rams for 1 unit.

Cowboys (+2 1/2) at Giants

This game has no playoff implications and i will be interesting to see how much wagering handle it generates, but I like this play more than the other games that have less certainty about which players will be on the field. The Cowboys have played hard down the stretch, highlighted by their 43-39 road upset of the Seahawks in their last prime-time game four weeks ago. The Giants, the team that quit last year on coach Jim Fassell and lost their last eight games, have lost eight straight and are a team in turmoil again. It's not a sexy play, but I will close out the regular season with a live road dog in prime time.

PLAY: Cowboys for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-3 for a net loss of 0.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 37-41-3 for a net loss of 8.1 units.

Tuesday: Orange Bowl
Oklahoma (+3) vs. Southern Cal

This game is as close to an NFL game as a college game can get as Oklahoma and USC - two teams full of players that will be playing in the NFL soon - play for the BCS championship. Both teams have explosive offenses and stellar defenses, so even though I give a slight edge to Oklahoma on both sides of the ball, I'm not going to make a case that Oklahoma will dominate. But I will point out that Oklahoma's accomplishments are looking more and more impressive as the Big 12 continues to excel in bowl games, going 3-1 both straight up and against the spread through Thursday while the Pac-10 is 1-2 with both losses being outright upsets as double-digit favorites. UCLA, a team USC struggled with in the last game of the season, was upset by a mediocre Wyoming team in the Las Vegas Bowl, but the acid test was Thursday's night's 45-31 Holiday Bowl victory by the Big 12's Texas Tech over California, a team that outgained and nearly beat USC earlier in the year. Add in the historical trend of betting against Heisman Trophy winners (who are 1-4 against the spread the last five years and 4-10 ATS since 1990) and all my handicapping angles point to the underdog.

PLAY: Oklahoma for 1 unit.

Bowl record: 5-4 for a net profit of 0.6 units through Thursday night's games. College season record: 33-25-1 (57 percent) for a net profit of 5.5 units