11/15/2004 12:00AM

Line activity burns bettors this time

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LAS VEGAS - The line moves listed here every Wednesday are only part of the picture. The chart shows how the opening lines get pounded into shape among the Stardust in Las Vegas, numbers available offshore, and other Vegas properties that put up early lines, such as the Stratosphere, Las Vegas Hilton, and Imperial Palace.

The people betting early are mostly professionals who have done their research ahead of time for the coming week's matchups and try to attack soft numbers or shop around for differences in the lines and arbitrage in an attempt to hit middles.

Once the lines stabilize, however, the public takes over the rest of the week and can certainly move the lines more.

So, even though early bettors from a week ago Sunday night went 7-7 in the colleges and 3-2 in the NFL (see the bottom of the accompanying chart), this past Sunday was a big loser for a lot of bettors since most of the big moves during the week went up in flames.

* The Steelers opened as 6-point favorites over the Browns, and every "expert" seemed to predict the Steelers would finally have their letdown after wins over the Patriots and Eagles. All the money on the Browns moved the line down to 3 1/2. The Steelers romped, 24-10.

* The Rams opened as a 1 1/2-point favorite over the Seahawks when the line opened last week, but by gametime Sunday the Seahawks were favored by 2 or 2 1/2 points around town. The Rams won, 23-12.

* Other moves weren't as drastic as those two, but the Colts were bet up from 9 1/2 to 8 1/2 before routing the Texans, 49-14; the Falcons were bet up from 4 1/2 to 3 1/2 vs. the Buccaneers before winning, 24-14; the Chiefs got bet down from -3 to 3 1/2 vs. the Saints, but the Saints won, 27-20; the Redskins were bet from -3 to -4 vs. the Bengals, but the Bengals won, 17-10; and the Patriots were bet up from -8 1/2 to -7 vs. the Bills before rolling to a 29-6 victory Sunday night.

* The only big move to go the bettors' way Sunday was the Cardinals, bet from +3 to +1 vs. the Giants, getting money at home and going on to win, 17-14. The other five games saw relatively balanced action (Ravens-Jets, Bears-Titans, Lions-Jaguars, Vikings-Packers, and Panthers-49ers).

Contest players lose, too

The struggles of most bettors in general were also reflected in the big handicapping contests in town.

In the Golden Nugget's Ultimate Football Challenge, which has the steepest entry fee at $5,000, only one of the top 11 contestants heading into the week won a best bet ("El Loco IS" had the Rams, but the others used either the Browns, Seahawks, Texans, Jets, Bucs, or Redskins).

In the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest, where a record 411 handicappers put up the $1,500 entry fee, only one of the top 11 contestants was able to go 4-1; the majority (6 of 11 if the Cowboys covered Monday night, 7 of 11 if the Eagles covered) went below .500.

Out of the top six contestants in the Station Casinos' Gambler's Challenge, with its $1,000 entry fee, only the leader had a chance for a winning week (if the Eagles covered). Two contestants went 0-5, and two others went 1-4.

This week's early moves

When the lines for this upcoming weekend's game went up at the Stardust at 5:45 p.m. Sunday, there was less action during the first hour than there has been in recent weeks. Maybe it was because the college season is winding down, or maybe it was because bettors were scrambling for money after the bloodbath.

Regardless, only five college lines were bet enough to move off their opening numbers. Later in the evening, there was more action. Actually, four of the five moves from the chart continued to steam: North Texas was bet down to -4 1/2 in Thursday night's game vs. Arkansas St.; Iowa was bet down to -3 vs. Wisconsin; Boston College was bet up to -13 1/2 vs. Temple; and Florida continued to take money as Florida St. was bet up to -6 1/2.

Not included in the chart, which I limit to the first hour after the lines are posted, were the following significant moves in big-time rivalry games:

* Washington took money vs. Washington St. in their annual Apple Cup matchup as WSU opened -12 1/2 and was bet aggressively to 10.

* Michigan, which opened as a 3-point favorite vs. Ohio St. at the Stratosphere at 5:15 p.m., was listed as a 4-point favorite at the Stardust but was bet down to 4 1/2 later Sunday night.

* Auburn was bet from -9 to -9 1/2 vs. Alabama later Sunday, and then Caesars Palace and The Mirage made the line -10 on Monday morning.

Home teams the focus in NFL moves

There was more action on the NFL slate, as 11 of next weekend's 16 games were available (minus the four games involving teams playing Sunday and Monday night, plus the Titans-Jaguars game because of the uncertain status of Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair).

Seven of the point spreads were bet enough to move off their opening number, with all seven being bet in the direction of the home team. Four were home underdogs and three were favorites.

As usual, most of the moves involved the key numbers of 3 and 7.

The Panthers opened -2 1/2 over the Cardinals and the line was moved to 3. The Stardust attached a money line of -120 for those wanting to take the Cardinals +3, and those willing to lay the 3 with the Panthers were able to get even money (+100).

The Texans took money vs. the Packers, bet from +3 1/2 up to 3. Bettors who wanted to take Green Bay back at -3 had to lay the -120, and Houston bettors willing to take just +3 got the even money.

Two games opened at 7, with the Vikings being bet down to -7 1/2 vs. the Lions. The Bucs also took money at -7, but the Stardust tried to slow down bettors with the -120 premium at that price. By Monday morning, the Bucs also were bet down to -7 1/2.