01/05/2004 1:00AM

Keep an eye on line changes


As the NFL playoffs proceed, the point spreads get tighter and tighter, as oddsmakers are in tune with the remaining teams and can anticipate how the public will bet. However, there was enough line movement Sunday, so we can cull a little bit of information as we look ahead to the divisional playoffs this weekend.

Panthers at Rams: This will be the first game Saturday (1:30 p.m. Pacific), and it was the first to have odds posted around Las Vegas on Sunday morning. Almost every book posted this line as Rams -7 1/2, though the Imperial Palace had the Rams as a 7-point favorite, and some locals casinos had the line at 8. Predictably, the lines all got bet toward the common number and was a solid 7 1/2 by Sunday afternoon. If you like the Rams and happen to see another 7, you will want to snap that up right away, because it's not likely to stay there. It's more likely to climb to 8 later in the week as more public money rolls in. As of noon Monday, the total ranged from 44 1/2 to 46, so there could be more shifting seen in that number.

Packers at Eagles: This will be the last game played this weekend (Sunday, 1:30 p.m. Pacific), but it was the second line to go up after the Packers' victory over the Seahawks. Most books went with the Eagles -5 1/2, though Coast Casinos and some offshore books had the line as low as Eagles -4 1/2, and Station Casinos and the Caesars group had it as high as Eagles -6. The line settled at 5 1/2 everywhere, but it will be interesting to see if bettors side with the Eagles at home and coming off the bye, or with the feel-good story of the Packers, who are always a strong public team. The total is a solid 42 across the board.

Patriots at Titans: This matchup wasn't determined until the Colts beat the Broncos on Sunday, or at least until halftime of that game. Vegas sports books held off on posting a number until the fourth quarter just to prevent a situation similar to last year, when the Steelers and 49ers pulled off two of the biggest comebacks in playoff history in the wild-card round. Las Vegas Sports Consultants came out with a line of Patriots -5 1/2, but most books opted to post it at 6. Despite their gaudy records of 14-2 straight up and 13-2-1 against the spread, the Patriots don't usually win by blowouts. Bettors might back the Titans and we could see the line settle at 5 1/2, just like the Eagles-Packers line. Barring reports of inclement weather, the total looks like it won't move much off of 37.

Colts at Chiefs: This point spread could see the most movement of any this week. The Chiefs opened -3 1/2 at most locales, with some books (Stardust, MGM Mirage, Harrah's) making the line -3 with increased juice of -120 for taking the Chiefs. It's obvious that this line probably would have been Chiefs -4 or -4 1/2 if it weren't for the Colts' dominating performance Sunday, so there's a good chance it could go up to those numbers. If the public jumps on the Colts' bandwagon, however, it could go down to 3. This total, at 49, was the highest and could climb higher, as Leroy's has already made it 50.

Wild-card wrap-up

The favorites (Titans, Panthers, Packers, and Colts) won all four games on wild-card weekend, and they were 3-1 against the spread, with the Packers being the only team not to cover. Home teams went 3-1 straight up - with the Ravens being the only loser - but only 2-2 against the spread. Here's a closer look at how the four wild-card games played out, with the point-spread in mind.

Titans at Ravens: Bettors cleaned up on this game. The Ravens opened as a 1-point favorite, but the Titans were bet to favoritism, closing as high as a 2-point choice. The Titans won, 20-17, on a 46-yard field goal by Gary Anderson with 29 seconds remaining. Bettors also fared well with the under, which opened at 40 1/2 and was bet down to 38 1/2. They were obviously glad to see the Titans settle for a field-goal attempt (instead of going for a TD) but then had to cheer against a late Ravens field goal that would have forced overtime. Teaser bettors won no matter which side they played on, the point spread or total.

Cowboys at Panthers: The Panthers were a solid 3-point choice. Some books took more money on the Panthers but were reluctant to move off the key number. The outcome wasn't too much in doubt, with the Panthers leading 16-3 at halftime and 26-3 well into the fourth quarter. The Cowboys didn't do much on offense, but they did manage a 47-yard TD drive to put the game over the total of 34. The Panthers added a late field goal to make the final 29-10. Teaser bettors lost on the Cowboys but won again on both the over and the under.

Seahawks at Packers: The Packers, at -7 1/2, were the biggest favorite of the weekend, but they were the only one not to cover. In fact, they never got clear of the number, as their biggest leads were 13-6 at halftime and 27-20 with 2:44 remaining. That late TD put the game over the total of 44. Packer backers needed a defensive score in regulation to cover, but instead the Seahawks scored a TD with 51 seconds left to force overtime. At that point, there was no way the Packers could cover - and, of course, that's when they got the defensive TD by Al Harris to win 33-27. This is the only game that didn't fall within a 6-point teaser (both ways) of the total.

Broncos at Colts: The Colts were a solid 3-point favorite, though most books took more Broncos' money. This was never really close, as the Colts ran out to a 31-0 lead en route to a 41-10 rout. Just like in the Cowboys-Panthers game, it was a score by the losing team that put the game over the total, as the Broncos scored a garbage-time TD with 7:04 remaining to put the game over the total of 49. Teaser bettors, again, lost on the road dog but won on either side of the total.

College bowl wrap-up

The college bowl season wrapped up Sunday night, with LSU beating Oklahoma, 21-14, in the Sugar Bowl to claim its half of the national title with USC.

Bet takers were fine with LSU, a 6 1/2-point underdog, and the game falling under the total of 49, but they would have been ecstatic if Oklahoma had tied the game late and won 24-21 in overtime. As is the case in many championship games like this, bettors tend to take a shot and bet the underdog to win straight up, so the LSU victory meant a lot of sports books were paying off on the Tigers at odds between 9-5 and 2-1.

All in all, the Vegas sports books were happy with the bowl season, as they saw fairly balanced action and higher-than-expected handle. Say one thing about the BCS: Despite its obvious flaws, it kept more people paying attention to, talking about, and betting on college football.