10/04/2004 11:00PM

Nail-biters were the rule last Sunday


LAS VEGAS - Football is a 60-minute game, and NFL bettors certainly know that. Most games remain in doubt - especially in relation to the point spread - until late in the fourth quarter. Bettors can see their fortunes turn quickly, and that happened in nearly all seven of the early games last Sunday.

* The Redskins led the Browns 17-13, covering the spread by a single point, midway through the fourth quarter before Lee Suggs scored for Cleveland to pull out a 20-17 victory.

* The Patriots, 4 1/2-point favorites, were tied 17-17 with the Bills heading into the fourth quarter. A touchdown gave New England a 24-17 lead, but that lead was in serious jeopardy until a 68-yard fumble return by Richard Seymour gave the Pats a misleading 31-17 win.

* The Colts and Jaguars were also tied 17-17 well into the fourth quarter and the Colts needed a TD (and not a field goal) with 3:33 remaining to cover the 3 1/2-point spread in their 24-17 win.

* The Eagles dominated the Bears and led 19-3 with just over four minutes remaining. A Chicago TD cut it to 19-9 and the Bears would have been covering the spread if they had converted the two-point conversion. Even so, the Bears got the ball back and were in Philadelphia territory when they ran out of time.

* The Steelers' 28-17 win over the Bengals looks like an easy cover in the Monday morning newspaper, but in reality the Steelers trailed the Bengals 17-14 heading into the final quarter. The Steelers, favored by 5 1/2 and as high as 6 at some books, scored a TD to take a non-covering 21-17 lead. Then, with just over two minutes left, Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu picked off Carson Palmer, his roommate at USC, and broke six tackles in running it back for a touchdown to make the final 28-17. If he had been tackled, the Steelers likely would have run out the clock and not covered.

* The Texans led the Raiders 20-17 heading into the fourth quarter before finally pulling away in their 30-17 win, and the Giants' cover vs. the Packers as 7-point underdogs was never really in doubt even though they finally needed a Jeremy Shockey TD in the fourth quarter to pull out the 14-7 upset.

With all these games hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter, it's clear that anyone who says "I had it all the way" is probably deluding themselves.

NFL betting trends

Home-field advantage continues to be a non-factor in the NFL as road teams won nine of the 14 games this past weekend (10 road teams were favored) and were 8-5-1 against the spread. For the season, road teams are 35-22 (61 percent) with three pushes.

Favorites and underdogs are still splitting the action as the dogs went 7-6-1 last weekend and took a slight 29-28-3 edge on the season. It's a little surprising that stat is so close considering home underdogs - traditionally a solid play in the NFL - are only 8-13-1 after going 4-5-1 over the weekend. I'm still waiting for that trend to reverse, and this week's home dogs are the Texans +4 vs. the Vikings, the Chargers +3 vs. the Jaguars, and possibly the Redskins vs. the Ravens, which opened at pick-em on Tuesday morning.

There were no double-digit underdogs last weekend, so they stand at 3-1-1 against the spread despite not winning any games outright. This week, the Dolphins are +13 at the Patriots. After opening at 10, the Colts were -9 vs. the Raiders as of Tuesday morning, but that line could rise by the weekend.

The under went 8-6 last week and is hitting at a 60-percent clip at 36-24 through the first four weeks.

Who's hot, who's not

For the most part, the best teams in the NFL have also been the best bets. The Eagles are 4-0 both straight-up and against the spread, the Seahawks and Jets are 3-0 in both categories and the Patriots are 2-0-1. The exception is the Falcons, who are 4-0 in the standings but only 2-2 against the spread. The Colts have the one loss to the Patriots, but they are 3-0-1 in the parallel betting universe. The Jaguars, Giants, and Cardinals have rewarded backers at 3-1.

With the Rams and Chiefs winning and covering on Sunday and Monday night, respectively, the only winless teams against the spread are the Buccaneers (0-3-1) and the Bengals (0-4).

In totals wagering, the Jaguars, Browns, and Dolphins are 4-0 with the under, a result of solid defenses and mediocre offenses - and in the case of the Dolphins I'm being kind. The Seahawks and Panthers are 3-0 with the under with one less game played because of early bye weeks.

No team is undefeated with the over. Last week, I recommended the under in both the Colts-Jaguars and Jets-Dolphins games. They both stayed under, but unfortunately I didn't designate them as official bankroll plays. The Colts, Raiders, Texans, Steelers, and Chargers are all 3-1 with the over, while the Saints are the only NFC team at 3-1 with the over (though the Vikings and Cowboys join the Patriots and Jets at 2-1 because of bye weeks).

Bankroll updates

A 2-2-1 record is nothing to brag about, especially since it's a losing day with the vig, but I will take it after my start to the NFL season. On Sunday, I won with the Browns +3 vs. the Redskins, and the Texans +2 vs. the Raiders, lost with the Bears +9 vs. the Eagles and the 49ers +3 1/2 vs. the Rams, and pushed with the Buccaneers +3 vs. the Broncos. My NFL record now stands at 6-13-1 for a net loss of 8.3 units (based on laying 1.1. units to win 1).

The news was better last Saturday in the colleges with wins on Purdue -2 1/2 vs. Notre Dame (an easy 41-16 winner), BYU +3 vs. Colorado State (a 31-21 outright upset) and Arizona State +2 1/2 vs. Oregon (a 28-13 outright upset), and a loss on San Diego State +6 vs. UCLA (a 33-10 blowout). The 3-1 record and net profit of 1.9 units brings the college bankroll plays to 11-6-1 for a net profit of 4.4 units.

Clemson (+17) at Virginia

I will try to keep the winning ways going in ESPN's Thursday night matchup. I thought this point spread would be around 7 or 10. It opened at 14 on Sunday and as of Tuesday morning had been bet up to 17. I feel I'm getting a full touchdown more than my own line. Clemson is struggling at 1-3, but after its season-opening victory over Wake Forest, the Tigers have lost to respectable programs in Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, and Florida State. Virginia is 4-0 but has played a much easier schedule with Temple, Akron, North Carolina, and Syracuse, not exactly a murderer's row, with a combined record of 7-13. Virginia has also lost defensive star Chris Canty, and that will make it easier for the Tigers to move the ball and keep up with the Cavaliers' offense. I just can't see a blowout in this ACC rivalry.

PLAY: Clemson for 1 unit.