12/05/2003 12:00AM

Marquee games galore in NFL


This Sunday's NFL schedule is arguably the best in recent memory.

Most of the media reports you've seen leading up to this weekend have discussed the five games between first- and second-place teams in the same division (Bengals-Ravens, Cowboys-Eagles, Colts-Titans, Dolphins-Patriots, and Chiefs-Broncos) and the NFC North's first-place Vikings vs. the NFC West's second-place Seahawks.

But the schedule's even deeper than that. The Bears and Packers, who meet at Lambeau Field, have been gaining on the Vikings, so their game is important.

In addition to all of the rivalry games above, we also have Redskins-Giants, Jets-Bills, and even Raiders-Steelers for good measure. In other years, the Buccaneers-Saints would have been considered one of the games of the day.

And the Sunday night game features Michael Vick's first start of the year for the Falcons against a Panthers team that is trying to get back on the winning track.

In horseplayer's parlance, it looks like a great card. We have the equivalent of some great stakes horses banging heads, a bunch of competitive matchups, and some contests between evenly matched cheap also-rans thrown in to fill out the program.

When narrowing down this week's selections, I thought I found value in some of the high-profile matchups, as well as some of the games that will be considered afterthoughts on the Sunday night wrap-up shows. But the money spends the same.

Bengals (+3 1/2) at Ravens

The Ravens have scored 44 points in each of their last two games, and the first meeting between these two teams resulted in a 34-26 win by Cincinnati, but I feel this game will be played close to the vest. Baltimore quarterback Anthony Wright has been playing over his head recently, but the Ravens still rely on their defense to set the tone. Cincy QB Jon Kitna and the two-headed running attack of Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson have been on fire, and they take care of the ball, which is crucial against the ball-hawking Ravens. The Bengals have won four straight and six of their last seven, highlighted by their upset win of the Chiefs that really gave this team confidence, and I look for them to complete their dream run by taking over first place in the AFC North. If the game comes down to a late field goal, we're in good shape with this wager.

PLAY: Bengals for 1 unit.

Chargers (+3) at Lions

This isn't one of those marquee games, but it does feature two teams that could put together playoff runs next year. The Lions have played well at home (three straight wins, and all four of their wins have come at home), but they haven't been asked to lay this many points since their first game of the season, against the Cardinals. The Chargers are playing better since Doug Flutie took over at QB, and he should have a field day against the Detroit secondary, with LaDainian Tomlinson also having plenty of running room. The Lions won their Super Bowl on Thanksgiving, and this just looks like a flat spot for them.

PLAY: Chargers for 1 unit.

Buccaneers at Saints (-1 1/2)

At 6-6, the Saints still have hope for the playoffs and have a relatively weak schedule the rest of the way after the Bucs. Lately, that hasn't been a problem for them - they've beaten the Bucs three straight times, including a 17-10 win at Tampa five weeks ago. Deuce McAllister has nine straight 100-yard games and is setting up the passing game of Aaron Brooks nicely. If the Bucs had been showing any heart lately, especially on defense, you would think this would be a great spot to take the dog. But the Saints' defense played much better in the first game against the Bucs and should be able to shut down the Bucs again. I also expect an even better showing from the Saints' offense.

PLAY: Saints for 1 unit.

Cardinals (+9 1/2) at 49ers

The Cardinals are one of those teams that, just when you think there can't be a worse team in the league, they step up and pull an upset. They did it earlier this year against the Packers and also against the 49ers, and they can do it again here. This line is fluctuating between 9 1/2 and 10. Double-digit dogs in the NFL are 9-5 against the spread this year, and 9 1/2-point dogs are 2-0. And all of those were with good teams laying that many points. The 49ers, at 5-7, shouldn't be giving this many points to anyone, especially with a quarterback controversy brewing between Jeff Garcia and Tim Rattay.

PLAY: Cardinals for 1 unit.

Dolphins at Patriots (-3 1/2)

The Patriots were lucky to escape with a 38-24 win at Indianapolis last week, and a lot of people are saying the Dolphins are the play here, based on their extra three days of rest and the apparent resurgence of Jay Fiedler's career. But I see the Patriots' defense as a much tougher test for Fiedler, especially if the Dolphins have to play in a New England snowstorm. As for the Patriots' close call, I see that as a good team making its own breaks. Just like their Super Bowl run two years ago, when, even though they might have received some favorable calls (most notably the "tuck rule" vs. the Raiders), they made the plays they had to make in order to win. Barring a fourth-quarter collapse, they should continue to win here.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Panthers at Falcons (+1 1/2)

If Vick had been healthy all year, this could have been another marquee matchup. The Panthers have lost two straight games, and that is very relevant here, since both were against mobile quarterbacks (Quincy Carter and Donovan McNabb) who were able to scramble and avoid the Carolina pass rush and make big plays. Vick is even better at that. Actually, the key here is that the Falcons' defense has been improved greatly the past five games and should be able to slow down the Panthers' offense as long as they keep Stephen Davis in check. Football is a team game, but I will still take Vick over Jake Delhomme any day or night.

PLAY: Falcons for 1 unit.

Last week: 5-2 for a net profit of 2.8 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

Season record: 38-28-5 for a net profit of 7.2 units.