12/03/2001 12:00AM

Late-game defeats bury bettors

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NFL betting handle always dwarfs college betting, but the gap is even wider at this time of year, with few college games on the board.

With so few games to choose from, a big swing can greatly influence the bookmakers' and players' bottom lines. There were five early games on Sunday that looked like they were going one way but went the other. Most of them favored the bookies:

* Colts at Ravens (-7): This line opened at 7 1/2 and was bet down to 7 and even 6 1/2 at some books around Las Vegas. It takes a lot of money to get bookmakers to move past the key number 7, so most books had a lot of liability on the Colts. The Colts looked like a sure cover trailing 32-27 with possession and two minutes left. Then Peyton Manning was picked off by Rod Woodson, who returned it for a TD to put the Ravens up 39-27. To further frustrate their backers, the Colts marched down the field and had a chance at the backdoor cover, but poor clock management doomed them.

* Vikings at Steelers (-10): This line opened at 7 last week and the pros bet it up. Then, as news came out that Daunte Culpepper wasn't 100 percent, more money came in on the Steelers. Some books raised the line on "air" (meaning they didn't wait for the money to force the move), but most books still wanted the Vikings to keep it close. The Steelers dominated most of the game and led 21-3 midway through the fourth quarter. Only two Vikings TD's from backup QB Todd Bouman could have kept the majority of bettors from cashing - and that's what happened. In fact, the Vikings pulled within 21-16 and got the ball back on a Kordell Stewart fumble. If the Vikes had won outright, that would have killed a lot of teasers on the Steelers, too.

* Broncos at Dolphins (-3): This was certainly a bad beat/lucky win for those who bet it. The Broncos led 10-0 entering the fourth quarter but gave up three TD's (one on a fluke interception return by defensive end Kenny Mixon that put the Dolphins up 14-10) in less than four minutes. The Dolphins won 21-10.

* Patriots at Jets (-3): This is one that most bettors won. The Jets opened as a 4-point favorite and the public bet it down to 2 1/2 at some outlets before it settled at 3 everywhere. The Jets led 13-0 at halftime, but the second half was a different story as the Patriots rallied to win 17-16 and gave the public one of its rare winners on the day.

* Buccaneers (-6) at Bengals: This was a winner for some bookmakers but a loser for others. The Stardust opened the Bucs -5 1/2 and closed it at 5, while other books opened at 5 and saw it bet up to 6. It looked like all the Bucs backers would cash as they led 13-3 midway through the fourth quarter against a Bengals offense that hadn't done anything all day. The Bengals kicked a field goal to make it 13-6 and it still looked like a Bucs cover until the Bengals scored a tying TD with 8 seconds left in regulation. That meant the Bucs would need a touchdown in overtime to cover, and they had a chance. After pinning the Bengals deep in their own territory on a punt, the Bucs recovered a fumble at the Bengals's 3-yard line. But coach Tony Dungy sent Martin Gramatica out to kick the game-winning field goal for a 16-13 non-covering victory.

When favorites win but don't cover, that's usually bad for most players. In addition to the Steelers-Vikings and Bucs-Bengals games, that happened on two other occasions Sunday. The Saints beat the Panthers 27-23 as a 10-point favorite and the Bears rallied to beat the Lions 23-20 as a 7-point choice.

There were two other games of note on Sunday. The pro bettors won both, while the public was 1-1.

The Browns opened as a 3-point favorite over the Titans last week and the wise guys in Vegas bet it down immediately to 1 1/2. That's where most books had it all week long, but over the weekend the tourists decided the Titans were the better team, too, and the Titans became a 1-point favorite at many books. All the money was on the right side as the Titans rolled 31-15 (and it wasn't that close).

The Raiders opened as a 14-point favorite over the Cardinals and the wise guys also liked the underdog in this spot. The number was methodically bet down to 13 or 12 around town (closing at 11 1/2 at the Stardust), but the tourists kept betting the Raiders, always one of their favorites, especially since they usually dominate teams at home. But the Cardinals didn't roll over and pulled out a 34-31 overtime win. This game killed a lot of parlays and teaser cards on the Raiders, which clinched the big win for the bookmakers.

No sure things this weekend

While college handle is diminishing, there still were some major decisions on games last weekend.

After 12 Air Force players were suspended, the public jumped all over Utah, which opened at -11 1/2 and closed at 17. A lot of that move was on air, but bettors kept betting Utah thinking it was a sure thing. Final score: Air Force 38, Utah 37.

Miami-Fla. was bet up from 11 1/2 to 14 against Virginia Tech and Florida got bet up from 16 to 17 points over Tennessee. You probably don't need me to tell you both didn't cover (and Florida lost outright).

The bettors did get a big winner with Colorado. Texas opened as a 9-point favorite and was bet down to 7 1/2. Colorado won outright, 39-37

Winning moves

Further proof that the professional bettors did better than the general public this past weekend can be seen in the line moves last Sunday at the Stardust "lottery."

Line moves (which have been listed in the Wednesday Racing Form all season long) were 6-3 in the NFL last weekend and were 41-25 (62 percent) on the season. Unfortunately, last week was the last lottery of the season with the lack of college games on the board. College moves were only 5-6 last week, but still fared well for the season at 126-100 (56 percent).