12/21/2002 12:00AM

'Must-win' factor adds value to these plays


This is the time of the NFL season when playoff hopefuls are in must-win situations. But as a wiseguy once told me, "If a team in a must-win game was so good, they wouldn't be in this position in the first place."

Oddsmakers know the public is going to jump on teams that "need" a win, especially when they face teams that are out of the playoff picture, but that generally gives more value to the other side. That being said, I'm on six underdogs Sunday.

Titans at Jaguars (+3)

The Titans have won eight of nine games and are on a roll, but they won't roll over the Jaguars, who have been playing well lately and would still be alive for the playoffs in the wide-open AFC if not for the loss to the Browns on that hail Mary touchdown two weeks ago. The Jaguars will put up a fight and would love to play spoiler against their division rival.

With the exception of the last two weeks, comfortable wins over the Colts and Patriots, the Titans usually don't blow out opponents and play very tight games. Going on the road (where they are just 1-2 against the spread as a favorite) after playing Monday night could be what it takes to end their hot streak.

PLAY: Jaguars for 2 units.

Bills (+6 1/2) at Packers

Both these teams are battling for playoff positioning, so they have equal motivation. The Packers usually are a great play at home (especially in cold weather), but Drew Bledsoe and the boys from Buffalo are used to these conditions, so getting nearly a touchdown is a bargain. In addition, both offenses have excelled in the cold, and the two defenses have been vulnerable against strong passing attacks, so I think this total (over under 42 1/2) has been adjusted a little too low.

PLAY: Bills for 1 unit, and over 42 1/2 points for 1 unit.

Saints at Bengals (+7)

This is an ugly play for what could be an ugly game. For every example that shows the Saints are one of the NFL's elite, there's one that shows tendency to play down to their competition (for proof, see their losses to the Lions and Vikings). The Bengals usually can't close the deal, but their offense has been vastly improved, and they should have success against the Saints' sieve-like defense (sixth-to-last in the league at 25.6 points allowed per game). If the Bengals can just score in the 20's, they should cover this number.

PLAY: Bengals for 1 unit.

Texans (+6 1/2) at Redskins

This is a rare game this week with no playoff implications (as is the next game), but I love the Texans' penchant for backdoor covers and playing the full 60 minutes. The Texans' defense, with two Pro Bowlers in defensive tackle Gary Walker and cornerback Aaron Glenn, has played tough all season, and the offense should do enough against an inconsistent Redskins D.

PLAY: Texans for 1 unit.

Rams (+1) at Seahawks

Here's another potential shootout with both offenses playing well and suspect defenses, but I'll pass on the total of 46. The Rams are 6-0 with Marc Bulger at quarterback, and they should continue to rack up the points against the Seahawks' defense (ranked 30th in the league). The Seahawks, fresh off an upset of the Falcons, are also putting up points more consistently, but the Rams' defense (eighth in the league) should hold them in check.

PLAY: Rams for 1 unit.

Broncos (+4) at Raiders

In the game of the day, the Raiders are going for a season sweep after whipping the Broncos 34-10 in Denver last month. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, however, has owned his former team and should be able to turn the tables. This game could be similar to the Raiders' 23-17 loss last week vs. the Dolphins in terms of the Broncos having the edge running the ball and defending the run, allowing them to control the tempo.

PLAY: Broncos for 1 unit.

Season record: 58-59-4 for a net loss of 3.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1), heading into Saturday's games.