09/25/2008 12:00AM

NFC flexes its muscles


We're just three weeks into the NFL season and the opinions are flying on local and national airwaves, around the water coolers, and in the bars around the country.

A lot of talk has been about how teams can't start 0-2 and make it to the Super Bowl (even though the Giants did that just last year) or that they can't start 0-3 and make the playoffs. (That will probably hold true this year with that group including the Bengals, Browns, Chiefs, Lions, and Rams.)

The Cowboys' 3-0 record isn't much of a surprise, but the fans of the Bills, Titans, and Broncos are giddy to be in that group, plus the Ravens are 2-0 with one fewer game due to their forced bye week.

Conventional wisdom says the league is even more wide open than usual with the Patriots having been taken down a notch with Tom Brady's season-ending injury. It was funny that the doubts about the Patriots were eased a little when they beat the Jets, 19-10, the following week, and the Pats were back to being double-digit favorites last week vs. the Dolphins before being routed, 38-13. Now the pendulum has swung back to where it's hard to find anyone to speak well of the Patriots' chances.

We've seen a major shift in the odds to win the Super Bowl in just the past three weeks. Before the season started, the Las Vegas Hilton had the AFC -6 in its generic line vs. the NFC. After Brady's injury, that was adjusted to pick-em but was bet back to AFC -1. It was pick-em again after Week 2, and then when I was going over the games last Sunday night with Andy Ducay, a 25-year veteran of the Vegas sports betting wars and a contributor to my website, he said, "The Patriots got whipped, the Colts lost again, the Eagles roughed up the Steelers, the Chargers are 0-2 [at that time] . . . the NFC must be favored by now." We looked at the board at the Hilton and sure enough the NFC was -3.

That's partly due to the poor performance of the supposed AFC elite, but also to the dominance of the Cowboys so far. In the traditional future book, the Cowboys are now solidly the favorite at 3-1 with a big drop-off to the Chargers at 8-1 (even though they've won only one game) and the Giants at 10-1.

I haven't heard anyone else talk or write about this next stat (though I'm sure the oddsmakers are aware of it and it's another reason the NFC is now favored), but the NFC is also 7-3 straight up and against the spread in interleague games so far this season.

Other NFL betting notes:

* So, we all know which five teams are unbeaten, but how many teams are perfect against the spread? Just three. The Titans are 3-0 ATS while the Ravens are 2-0, but the other perfect spread team hasn't won all its games outright. The Eagles are 3-0 ATS, thanks to their spread-covering loss to the Cowboys in the Monday Night shootout in Week 2. Even more surprising are the Broncos, who are 1-1-1 ATS with their non-cover vs. the Saints last Sunday and their push as a 1-point favorite in their controversial win over the Chargers two weeks ago.

* Favorites are 25-18-2 against the spread so far this season if you toss out to the two games that closed at pick-em. The fact that the public tends to bet favorites shows why sports books have had a rough start to the season, though they were helped this past weekend when, in addition to the Dolphins knocking off the Patriots, there were three games in which the favorites won but did not cover (Bills vs. Raiders, Giants vs. Bengals, Broncos vs. Saints). Those are usually good results for the house.

* In addition to the NFC closing the perceived gap on the AFC, here's another sign that parity has returned to the league. There have been five games already this season with double-digit spreads and the underdogs covered all five. This week's biggest underdog is the Redskins +11 vs. the Cowboys. The Chiefs are another potential one as the line on their game vs. the Broncos has climbed to 9 and even 9 1/2 at some books.

* Another angle that I love to track hasn't fared as well. Home underdogs are a woeful 3-8 against the spread so far this season. This week's home pups are the Chiefs +9 1/2 vs. the Broncos, Rams +8 vs. the Bills, Raiders +7 1/2 vs. the Chargers, and Bears +3 vs. the Eagles.

* Part of the reason home dogs haven't done as well is that there hasn't been a home-field advantage so far this year as road teams are actually 23-22-2 against the spread.

* In totals wagering, the overs (another way the public likes to bet) are 25-21-1 after going 11-5 this past week.

Sports book notes

There are more and more rumblings of Las Vegas trying to get an NHL team in the not-so-distant future, and there will be pro hockey here at 7 p.m. Saturday with the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche playing an exhibition game at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Believe it or not, hockey season is closer than you think as the season starts overseas next weekend, Oct. 4-5, with the Rangers playing the Lightning in Prague, Czech Republic, and the Penguins playing the Senators in Stockholm, Sweden. The Hilton, which also has over/under season point totals for each team, has the Red Wings as the 7-2 favorite to lift the Stanley Cup, with the Penguins and Canadiens as co-second choices at 8-1.

* The baseball playoffs start next week and Las Vegas Sports Consultants has the Angels as the 11-4 (slightly less than 3-1) favorite to win the World Series. It has been 100 years since their last championship, but the Cubs are 3-1, followed by the Red Sox and Rays both at 4-1, and the Dodgers at 8-1. As of deadline Thursday, there were still three playoff spots unsettled, but LVSC has the Phillies at 9-1, the Mets at 10-1, and the Brewers, White Sox, and Twins at 15-1. The odds on the surviving teams will be lowered when the field of eight playoff teams is set.