09/15/2006 12:00AM

Last week's NFL losers shall rebound

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Heading into Week 2 of the NFL season, we have the benefit of having seen all the teams play last week - after a month of trying to figure out how teams would gel from watching the starters in snippets in the preseason.

I wrote something similar after the opening weekend of the college football season, but it goes double now with the NFL,

After watching the way such teams as the Bengals, Bears, and Chargers dominated in their openers, it's easy to assume they'll do the same this week and beyond. And after watching such teams as the Browns, Buccaneers, Packers, and Raiders all look pitiful, it's easy to think they can't compete. But it's dangerous to jump to conclusions based on one game in the No Form League. Teams routinely go from looking inept one week to world-beaters the next, and vice versa.

In fact, out of my five bankroll plays, I'm going to bet on four teams that lost their openers. And, no, the Raiders won't be one of them. I have my limits.

Note: These are my top five selections from this Sunday's NFL card. For my preferences in all 16 NFL games this weekend, you can go to drf.com/football, which will be updated each Friday during the season.

Browns (+10) at Bengals

Coming into the season, the Browns were among the teams I saw on the upswing and, even if they don't finish over .500 in the standings, I'm confident they'll have a winning spread record. Coach Romeo Crennel has the team headed in the right direction. His defense is picking up his system and his offense should continue to improve with Charlie Frye getting more playing time for the oft-injured Kellen Winslow Jr. and Braylon Edwards. So, I was very disappointed in the team's performance last week at home vs. the Saints, with plenty of dropped passes and missed opportunities. They have a tougher task here vs. the Bengals, who rolled over the Chiefs, but I think those results are reflected in this line. I have to trust my instincts and back the Browns here. If they fail again, it'll be time to step back and reevaluate.

PLAY: Browns for 1 unit.

Panthers (pick 'em) at Vikings

This line is another oddity. Before last week's games, the Las Vegas Hilton had the Panthers -3, and when lines went up after Sunday's games, it was at 2 1/2. Since then, the line has come crashing down and as of noon Friday was at a consensus pick 'em around Las Vegas with the MGM Mirage properties even going to Vikings -1. Granted, part of the reason is that Steve Smith might be out again for Carolina (he's listed as questionable), but I think it will take more than that to keep the Panthers from winning. Smith is a great player, but the Panthers are one of the best teams in the NFC and will be motivated to bounce back from the lackluster performance vs. the Falcons. The Vikings showed they're going to contend for the NFC Central crown with the Bears, but if the Redskins (whose first-team unit looked as bad as anyone's in preseason) were able to put up 16 points vs. them, I think the Panthers can have more success with or without Smith, and 20-some points should be enough to win.

PLAY: Panthers for 1 unit.

Saints at Packers (+2)

Here's where it really gets ugly. The Packers were overwhelmed by the Bears on both sides of the ball last week. Still, no matter how I try, I can't get the Packers' 52-3 win against the Saints last year out of my head. That came after the Packers started the season 0-4 and everyone was down on Brett Favre & Co. Favre might not be able to duplicate that performance, but I'm not going to bet that he'll lose two straight at Lambeau Field, especially against a defense that is much softer than the Bears'. The Packers are soft themselves on defense, but I'll take Favre in a shootout.

PLAY: Packers for 1 unit.

Rams (-3) at 49ers

The first thing people might say when seeing this pick is "the Rams don't win on the road, and especially on grass." That's been true, but this is a different Rams team under first-year coach Scott Linehan, and it has more of a focus on the running game instead of the aerial circus. The defense came up huge under new coordinator Jim Haslett in an 18-10 win over the Broncos last week. If the Rams can shut down the Broncos, the 49ers have next to no chance to sustain drives here. Plus, the 49ers are hurting on the offensive line with Larry Allen out and Jonas Jennings listed as doubtful. Add in the power running of Steven Jackson and this is one road favorite I can't pass up.

PLAY: Rams for 1 unit.

Redskins (+6) at Cowboys

Dallas won 14 of 15 games in this series, till the Redskins turned the tables last year with a sweep of the two games. The Skins' offense played better than it did in the preseason, and Mark Brunell has had some of his best games recently vs. the Cowboys (counting last year's 14-13 miracle comeback at Dallas on Monday Night Football). The key is if the Redskins' defense can contain Terrell Owens in his home debut. If any game on the schedule screams "last-second field goal," it's this one, so the points can definitely come into play.

PLAY: Redskins for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-3 for a net loss of 1.3 units (based on risking 1.1. units to win 1).