11/04/2005 12:00AM

NFL Analysis: Sticking with first impressions

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LAS VEGAS - Who do you like this weekend?

I hear that question at least a dozen times each week, especially when I'm making my rounds to the race and sports books here on Thursdays and Fridays. It sounds simple enough, but it's really not. Often, my strongest opinions are games that I bet earlier in the week when I got a much more favorable line.

Example: after having lunch with a bunch of handicappers and oddsmakers - hosted by Leroy's owner Vic Salerno and marketing director Jimmy Vaccaro, to drop a few names - on Thursday, the single-named handicapper Fezzik asked who I liked the most this weekend. I told him my best bet was Army +14 vs. Air Force. The bad part was that the line was 11 all over town by that time.

Fezzik asked, "Do you still like them at +11?" I honestly said "no." He said I had a good bet, but I could tell he wasn't going to run out and bet it, and he shouldn't. A professional bettor rarely jumps in and takes a bad number after the line has steamed (note: the game was to be played Saturday afternoon, well after this was written and before most people will read this, so we'll see how good of a bet it really was).

But the point is that recommending plays can be a dicey exercise after the lines have moved. It would be easier if all the lines were homogenous. Many times I've backed off winning plays in print because I didn't want to put someone on a game and have them take a bad line (another note: this isn't to claim that I always win those game I pass or that I'm having a winning season, far from it).

But no more. If I like a game, I'll state my case and people can make their own decisions if they still like the game at the current price.

Falcons (-2 1/2) at Dolphins

I was at the Imperial Palace last Sunday at 4 p.m. when I first saw the line on this game. The IP put it up at Falcons -2 and I thought that was too low. The Dolphins were wrapping up their 21-6 win over the Saints at that time, while the Falcons were on a bye and the public's last memory of them was their 27-14 win over the Jets on Monday Night Football. I thought for sure that other books would make this line 3 and very possibly even 4. I grabbed the -2 and was surprised when most books posted it at -2 1/2.

Maybe I'm missing something, but while Michael Vick gets most of the attention, the Falcons have the top running game in the league and they also have an underrated defense that should hold the Dolphins in check. The more I thought about it during the week, the more I loved this game and couldn't believe the line stayed under a field goal at most books. There is a saying that you shouldn't increase your bets when you're losing, but I have to trust my first instinct because I cannot think of a bet I'm felt more confident about in a long time.

PLAY: Falcons for 3 units.

Raiders (+4 1/2) at Chiefs

Here's a game +7 with the Raiders last week at the Las Vegas Hilton, but I'm still going to risk giving it out even though the line has been dropping with the questionable status of Kansas City quarterback Trent Green and running back Priest Holmes (which certainly doesn't hurt our case). But more importantly, the Raiders are finally putting it together after a slow start against a very tough schedule. LaMont Jordan is running wild and Kerry Collins is spreading the ball around to all his receivers while Randy Moss is less than 100 percent. This is a game where we have two teams heading in opposite directions and I'll take the points.

PLAY: Raiders for 1 unit.

Bears (-3) at New Orleans

Talk about teams heading in opposite directions (and I'm not talking about the rumors about the Saints' franchise moving). The Bears' defense continues to impress and should be all over New Orleans/San Antonio/Baton Rouge quarterback Aaron Brooks. On the other side of the ball, Thomas Jones should run wild against the Saints' defense and Kyle Orton could even put up bigger numbers than he usually does in his caretaker-don't-make-mistakes mode.

PLAY: Bears for 1 unit.

Panthers (-1 1/2) at Buccaneers

Let's make it three in a row with teams seemingly heading in opposite directions. Both teams are 5-2, but while the Panthers are clicking on both sides of the ball, the Bucs look lost on offense since Chris Simms had to replace the injured Brian Griese.

PLAY: Panthers for 1 unit.

Steelers (-4) at Packers

This game opened at the Steelers -6 1/2 and has dropped to 4 with Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out and replaced by Charlie Batch. However, I contend that the Steelers win with the running game and defense and that they'll impose their will and come through. Yes, I know Jerome Bettis is also out, but Duce Staley can get the job done or even Verron Haynes. (Note: three weeks ago, I made the same argument in taking the Steelers -3 vs. the Jaguars and watched the Jags win 23-17 in overtime when backup QB Tommy Maddox had an interception returned for a touchdown, but I'm sticking to my guns and firing back again.)

PLAY: Steelers for 1 unit.

Eagles (+3) at Redskins

Most of the focus this week has been on the Eagles' soap opera with Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens, but what's being lost is that the Redskins failed to step up last week in a pivotal game vs. the Giants, losing 36-0 and I don't think they deserve to be this big of a favorite even at home.

PLAY: Eagles for 1 unit.

Colts at Patriots (+3 1/2)

By the time this game kicks, it will be the most overanalyzed game of the season, so I'll spare the details here. But suffice it to say that until Peyton Manning can win in Foxboro or against Bill Belichick's defense, I have to take the Patriots at home.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-4, including winning a 2-unit play on the Bears +3 vs. the Lions, for a net loss of 1.4 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).
NFL season record: 17-29-2 for a net loss of 17.4 units