01/13/2005 12:00AM

Jets-Steelers likely to go over the total


The NFL is down to its version of the Elite Eight this weekend with the divisional playoffs.

The four teams that earned byes - the Steelers, Patriots, Eagles, and Falcons - are well rested and meet the four winners from wild-card weekend. The games last week were thrilling - well, three of them were, and then there was the Colts' blowout of the Broncos - and now the intensity picks up with the top teams back in action.

The bye teams, which in this round are also the home teams and favorites, are traditionally the teams to back in this round - from 1993 to 2003, they were 35-9 (80 percent) straight up and 25-17-2 (60 percent) against the spread.

That all changed last year, when the bye teams went 0-4 against the spread. The Rams and Chiefs were upset outright by the Panthers and Colts, and the Patriots and Eagles won their games but failed to cover.

So what does that mean for this year's divisional playoffs? You could either say that the trend is reversing and that the dogs will fare well again, or you can view last year as an anomaly and expect the bye teams to dominate as they have for the past decade.

As always, we have to take the games case by case.

But I will make one general observation: The wild-card winners, by virtue of playing the previous week, have more momentum, but the bye teams have usually been compensated by the fact that they've had the week of rest. In this weekend's four matchups, the rested teams aren't necessarily the healthiest.

Jets at Steelers (Over 35)

Just like last week, all four games this weekend are rematches of regular-season meetings. Each of the four home teams were home in the previous matchups, and each came away with a spread-covering victory.

On Dec. 12, the Jets outplayed the Steelers in the first half, but uncharacteristic penalties and two Chad Pennington interceptions in Pittsburgh territory had the Jets trailing, 3-0, at halftime. The game was tied, 3-3, heading into the fourth quarter when Jerome Bettis threw a touchdown pass to help lead the Steelers to a 17-6 victory.

That was a month ago, and the teams look pretty even now, especially when you consider that Pennington was only playing that day in his second game since recovering from a strained right rotator cuff. Pennington is much stronger now, and showed last week that he can stretch the field with deep throws to go with the ones underneath.

That makes my initial thought to take the Jets plus the points. This line opened with the Steelers between a 9- and 10-point favorite here in Vegas, and the early money showed on the Jets, moving it to 9 at most books and even as low as 8 1/2 at the MGM Mirage properties and the Stardust as of noon Thursday. I tend to agree that the money is on the right side, but I find it hard to pull the trigger.

The main reason for my trepidation is that the Steelers just seem to get the job done, no matter what it takes. It's always dangerous to go against teams like that. Take that previous meeting, for example - there's no reason the Steelers should have covered the 5-point spread, but they did. Good teams do that.

The more I looked at this game, the more I liked the total. It's wavering between 34 1/2 and 35 as of this writing. I think it will be higher-scoring than that, despite the 23 points scored in the first meeting. As stated above, Pennington is healthier now, and the Steelers offense, with all its skill players expected to go, should be fresh and ready to bounce back from a late-season scoring slump.

Another factor is the weather. It's expected to be in the mid-20's Saturday at Pittsburgh. The wind should be minimal, which will help the passing games, but at the same time, the cold temperature could lead to the football being dropped on the turf. The Steelers defense has a knack for forcing turnovers and returning them for big plays or TD's - it scored five touchdowns this season. That helps when cheering for an over. I can't decide which team to bet, but I think it will be close for most of the game, and it should go over this very low total.

PLAY: Jets-Steelers over 35 points for 1 unit.

Rams (+7) at Falcons

These teams met back in the second week of the season.

The Falcons jumped out to a 14-0 lead, the Rams rallied to tie the game at 17-17 late in the third quarter, and the Falcons ran off 17 straight points in the fourth quarter to win, 34-17.

I see this rematch being the same as the first meeting, going back and forth with momentum swings galore. The difference is this is a playoff game, and the Rams have a huge edge in postseason experience.

When the Rams fell behind, 14-0, in that first meeting, they abandoned the running game, gaining a mere 30 yards on the ground. They've been relying more on Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk the last few weeks, however, and this ground attack, in addition to giving the offense more balance, will also help slow down the Falcons' pass rush.

Another way the running game will help is it will keep Michael Vick off the field. The Rams, of course, need to contain Vick, but they also have to slow down the running game of the other Falcons, Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. That's easier said than done, as the Falcons led the NFL in rushing yards (2,672) and average yards per attempt (5.1). The Rams, however, have tightened their run defense in recent weeks when it has counted.

Another reason to like taking the points is that even though the Falcons were 11-5 this year, they were only 7-8-1 against the spread, meaning they had three non-covering wins in addition to the push. Although they pulled away in the week 2 win over the Rams, the Falcons tend to grind out wins with their ground game and don't get too far ahead.

That certainly leaves the door open for the Rams offense, which is back in form with a healthy Marc Bulger.

Getting a full touchdown with the more experienced team - and one that will certainly feel at home in a dome and on artificial turf - is too much to pass up.

PLAY: Rams for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-1 for a net profit of 1.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 44-43-3 for a net loss of 3.3 units.