01/04/2002 12:00AM

NFL finales require more guesswork than usual


Bookmakers and bettors agree that this is most difficult week of the NFL season to predict.

Some teams can't wait to clean out their lockers, while others bound for the playoffs might rest players.

The Eagles-Buccaneers game on Sunday night is anyone's guess because the two teams play again next week in Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs. Nothing can be gained by either team with a win, so no one knows who will play or how much they will play. And the coaches may be reluctant to use their best game plan, for fear of revealing something for next week.

Some teams playing in the later games this week will already have their playoff destiny determined by the time their games kick off. Most sports books will take down odds on the Rams-Falcons, Dolphins-Bills, and Raiders-Jets games once the early games kick off. By the time the lines go back up, they could vary greatly if a team has lost its motivation. If you're feeling clairvoyant, there are some interesting parlays you could put together based on these scenarios.

For instance, if you think the Jaguars can knock off the Bears (which I do) thereby clinching home field in the NFC for the Rams, you could bet a two-team parlay with the Jaguars on the money line to the Falcons +15 vs. the Rams. St. Louis coach Mike Martz has said if the Bears lose he will rest many starters.

If you think the AFC teams that need to win will do so, you might want to parlay the Jets, Seahawks, and Ravens on the money line. On the other hand, if you think the Jets or Seahawks will stumble, you could parlay the Raiders or Chiefs (who play the Jets and Seahawks, respectively) to the Vikings +10 on Monday night. In that scenario, the Ravens would have already clinched a playoff spot, and so would be unlikely to play hard with a short week before their opening-round game.

Jaguars (+5 1/2) at Bears

The Bears need to win this game to clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs. The Jaguars, however, are playing their best football of the year - winning three in a row before losing 30-26 last week to the Chiefs - and show no signs of packing it in. Stacey Mack has three straight 100-yard rushing games and complements the passing game of Mark Brunell. In addition, WR Jimmy Smith has 105 catches and is only one behind league leaders Rod Smith and Keyshawn Johnson. The Bears might pull out the game in the end, but the line value is clearly on the dog.

Play: Jaguars for 22 units.

Broncos (+2) at Colts

Along with the Titans and Saints, these are the two most disappointing teams this year. As the season winds down, the Colts seem to have given up, especially on defense, while the Broncos are showing more pride, as evidenced by their 23-17 win over the Raiders last Sunday.

The return of QB Brian Griese and RB Terrell Davis has the offense back on track, and WR Rod Smith will be looking to pad his stats against a weak Colts secondary. In my opinion, the wrong team is favored.

Play: Broncos for 22 units.

Bengals at Titans (-5 1/2)

The Titans let me down last week after leading the Browns by 14 only to give up two late TDs to the Browns and lose, 41-38. But I saw enough to back them again this week. The Titans' offense is clicking and should put up around 30 points again this week against a Bengals defense that isn't playing as well as it was earlier this year. In addition, Bengals RB Corey Dillon isn't 100 percent and that will further hinder their offense. The Titans beat the Bengals 20-7 three weeks ago in Cincinnati, and this should be even more lopsided.

Play: Titans for 11 units.

49ers (-2 1/2) at Saints

The 49ers can improve their playoff position if they win and the Packers lose to the Giants. The games are at the same time, and expect the 49ers to take care of their half of the equation. The 49ers stumbled last week in losing to the Cowboys, but don't expect the Saints to put up as much of a fight. They certainly didn't in their 40-10 loss to the Redskins on Sunday night.

The 49ers' defense isn't playing as well as the Redskins and the Saints should be able to score more points this week, so I will also look to the over.

Play: 49ers for 11 units and another 11 units on over 46.

Jets at Raiders (-4)

No Darrell Russell (drug suspension). Possibly no Jerry Rice (visiting ailing father in Mississippi) or Sebastian Janikowski (swollen foot). No problem. The Raiders can't be ecstatic about any of those players being out, but they need to finish the season on a strong note heading into the playoffs and the Jets should be a perfect warm-up opponent. The Raiders will be able to run on the Jets' defense, and QB Rich Gannon has plenty of other weapons to throw to besides Rice.

The Jets lost at home to the Bills last Sunday in a game they needed to clinch a playoff spot, so there's no reason to believe they will be able to knock off the Raiders.

Play: Raiders for 11 units.

Starting bankroll: 1,000 units.

Bankroll entering last week: 923 units.

Last week: 2-5, including double-play loss on Titans, for net loss of 46 units.

Current bankroll: 877 units.