12/22/2005 12:00AM

NFL Analysis: Five dogs a-barkin?


LAS VEGAS - In December, the NFL usually puts a few games on Saturdays, but this is ridiculous.

Of course, the reason the NFL has 13 games this Saturday is because it didn't want to play a full schedule on Christmas Day.

The short week is the same for everyone, so I'm not even accounting for that in my handicapping. It's much more important to look at what teams have extra motivation in trying to secure playoff berths or higher seeds and which teams are playing out the string. Of course, it's common for teams in "must-win" situations to come up short and teams with "nothing to play for" suddenly come up with solid efforts. Just like last week when I went 4-1, I'm going with more teams that at first glance look like bad teams in bad spots but on closer inspection appear to have value.

Bills (+14) at Bengals

The Bengals have had a great season, have clinched the AFC North and are still playing in hopes of securing a first-round bye, but this is an awful lot of points to be laying. The Bills played the Broncos tough last week before falling 28-17. The offense is much better now that Kelly Holcomb is back at quarterback and should be able to move the ball on the Bengals. The Bills' defense stood up to the Broncos' running attack last week and should be able to keep the Bengals from getting out to a big lead like they've enjoyed lately. While I'm making this selection based on feeling the Bills can stay close from the beginning, adding to the value of the play is that a two-touchdown spread presents a possible backdoor cover if the Bengals get up by more than two touchdowns and decide to start resting their starters late in the game.

PLAY: Bills for 2 units.

Steelers at Browns (+7)

This looks like a game in which the Steelers should roll to victory as they need it to maintain their wild-card edge over the Chargers, but don't expect their rivals from Cleveland to roll over as home dawgs. Since their 34-21 loss at Pittsburgh Nov. 13, the Browns are 3-2 against the spread, including a near upset of the Bengals two weeks ago and also a 20-14 non-cover to the Jaguars in which they were very competitive. First-year coach Romeo Crennel has the Browns heading in the right direction and this will be a great game to gauge his team's progress and I expect it to come down to a late field goal.

PLAY: Browns for 1 unit.

Chargers (+1) at Chiefs

As I've mentioned many times, I like to assign point spreads to games more than a week in advance partly to take advantage of early lines around town. Last week, I lined this game at Chiefs -1 and that's what the Las Vegas Hilton had, so I passed. After the Chiefs lost to the Giants on Saturday and the Chargers pulled the big upset of the undefeated Colts, I thought for sure the oddsmakers would switch favoritism to the Chargers by a point or 2 and maybe as high as 3. For some reason, the Chiefs have remained a 1-point choice. Granted, the Chiefs are said to have one of the biggest home-field advantages in the league (and they are 5-1 both straight-up and against the spread at Arrowhead Stadium), but the Chargers have gone into New England, Washington and Indianapolis and won, so I don't see that as a problem. The Chargers have the better overall team, especially the way the defense has stepped up, and are riding the momentum of their upset win when most people had written off their playoff chances. They should win here to stay alive heading into the final week.

PLAY: Chargers for 1 unit.

Cowboys (+5 1/2) at Panthers

Here's a game I did bet last week. The Cowboys were +3 1/2 and I thought it was a great line as I thought it should be a field goal at most. Oops. The Cowboys got blown out 35-7 by the Redskins and now this line is getting closer to a touchdown. That's OK as I'll just bet the Cowboys again with the bonus points. It's not likely that coach Bill Parcells will let his team have a performance like that two weeks in a row and I expect the Cowboys to circle the wagons, so to speak. The defense should bounce back from that embarrassing outing and the injury to Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers should help Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe have a little more time in the pocket and could prove the difference.

PLAY: Cowboys for 1 unit.

Titans (+5 1/2) at Dolphins

I'm still trying to figure out why the Dolphins keep getting favored by so many points even when they don't cover (-5 three weeks ago vs. the Bills, which they beat only 24-23, and -8 1/2 last week vs. the Jets, which they beat only 24-20). The Titans nearly upset the Seahawks last week in a 28-24 loss and a repeat effort should get an outright win over the Dolphins. Miami's Chris Chambers has stepped up at receiver in the second half of the season and goes against a young secondary, but for every time Tennessee's Pacman Jones gets burned, he also comes up with a big play. I'll go against the Dolphins again as an overpriced favorite.

PLAY: Titans for 1 unit.

Last week: 4-1, including 2-unit wins with Chargers +7 1/ 2 vs. Colts and Eagles +3 1/2 vs. Rams, for a net profit of 4.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 31-42-6 for a net loss of 18.5 units.