12/17/2004 1:00AM

NFL bends slightly on Super Bowl rules


LAS VEGAS - Back in late January, during the week prior to the Super Bowl, casinos here were blindsided with last-minute cease-and-desist letters from the NFL, which ruled that this city's parties - which have been going on for years - were in violation of the league's broadcasting copyright.

The law doesn't allow commercial distribution without express written consent from the copyright holder. The edict was put out that the league would pursue legal action if the casinos charged admission to view the game or showed it on screens larger than 55 inches diagonal.

Casinos were rushed into a two-minute drill to avoid lawsuits, with several canceling parties (including the Palms, Orleans, and Aladdin) and others downsizing their events and bringing in smaller TV's.

This season, the NFL gave a lot more notice in a letter to the American Gaming Association, which distributed it to its members last month. At this time, with most casinos still working on their Super Bowl game plans, little detail is being released about specifics, but two separate casino spokespeople mentioned clearing out more room around the sports books (meaning slot machines) to accommodate the huge crowds that come here for the big game.

"We've canceled events that we have done previously, so we won't be having a party in the Hollywood Theatre," said Alan Feldman, spokesman for the MGM Mirage casinos, which include the MGM Grand, Mirage, Bellagio, Treasure Island, and New York New York. "What we will do is show it in the sports books and in bars where the games are normally shown."

That was one concession by the NFL. In layman's terms, the game can be shown in any venue (no matter how large the screen) if it's in the normal course of their business - ergo, sports books and bars.

"The NFL has given some ground, which is very good," Feldman said. "We appreciate that they gave us nearly three months in advance and they acknowledge that we have to accommodate our regular customers.

"At the end of the day, we want to work with the NFL. The situation that happened last year was unfortunate, and I'm glad to see us move forward."

But enough about a game to be played seven weeks from now. We have 12 NFL games this Sunday to look at, and I have plays on four of them (in addition to my play on the Panthers +3 1/2 vs. the Falcons on Saturday night).

Texans (+1) at Bears

Everything points to a play on the Texans here. Both teams are 5-8, but the edge goes to the Texans when you consider the relative strengths of their respective conferences. The AFC is 34-17-2 against the spread vs. the NFC (34-19 straight up), and yet the Texans are a slight underdog. The Texans have the much better offense, with Domanick Davis running back to his past form and David Carr and his receivers head and shoulders above the Bears' starters. The Bears' defense has fared better this season, but - and this is a big but - Chicago is 0-4 this year without Brian Urlacher and he is expected to be out with a sore hamstring. About the only thing in the Bears' favor is the home field and potential frigid conditions, but I don't think that will be enough to level the playing field here.

PLAY: Texans for 1 unit.

Saints (+7 1/2) at Buccaneers

Here's my ugliest pick of the week, and I feel uneasy making it since the Saints' defense is so porous. But I just can't pass up taking this many points considering the Saints' offensive firepower. The Bucs have battled back into playoff contention and remain on the bubble in the NFC despite last week's loss to the Chargers, but they still haven't shown enough. Their only win over a team with a winning record was two weeks ago vs. the Falcons, a team that is due to fall from grace. If the Saints can just show enough pride, like they did last week as 7-point dogs at Dallas, they could pull off their second straight upset.

PLAY: Saints for 1 unit.

Broncos (-1) at Chiefs

Just like in the Titans-Bears game, I think I'm getting the better team in what is basically a pick-em line. This game opened Chiefs -1 last Sunday, and I think the money is on the right side. The Broncos actually play defense, and will just need a stop or two to keep the K.C. offense from keeping up with Denver. Reuben Droughns should run wild against the Chiefs' porous defense (32nd in the league in yardage allowed) and hopefully will keep Jake Plummer from having to force throws. If Plummer has time, he should light up the Chiefs' secondary just like teams have been doing all year, including the Titans and backup QB Billy Volek last week.

PLAY: Broncos for 1 unit.

Ravens (+8) at Colts

Okay, first let me get this out of the way: Peyton Manning is great. He's about to break Dan Marino's single-season TD pass record, he's a shoo-in for MVP, and he's a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. All that being said, he still has to prove to me that he has that intangible of being a "winner." Yes, I know he had record-setting performances last year when he got the "hasn't won a playoff game" monkey off his back, but the fact remains that when he faces a top-notch defense, he's nowhere near as dominant. Examples: the AFC title game vs. the Patriots last season, the season-opening loss to the Pats, and the two games vs. the Jaguars this year. Now he faces one of the NFL's most physical and athletic defenses in the Ravens, and I can see him throwing more interceptions than TD's. On the other hand, the Colts' defense is mediocre at best, and the Ravens should be able to pound the ball with Jamal Lewis (or Chester Taylor if Lewis can't carry the whole load) and control the clock. Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller is also playing much better, and that should continue on Sunday night. The total on this game is 49 points, but I see it being lower-scoring - the right recipe to keep the Ravens within the number or even pull the outright upset.

PLAY: Ravens for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-2 for a net profit of 0.8 units. NFL season record: 31-36-3 for a net loss of 8.4 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).