12/31/2002 1:00AM

In NFL, form holds up

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LAS VEGAS - Despite all the talk about parity, the NFL regular season ran pretty much to form.

According to division odds released last spring by the Imperial Palace, five of the eight division winners were the favorites (Steelers at 1-3, Raiders at 6-5, Eagles at 5-9, Packers at 5-8, and Buccaneers at 1-2), three were short-priced second choices (Titans at 6-5 and 49ers at 2-1), and only one was a third choice (Jets at 11-5). If the Dolphins hadn't blown an 11-point fourth quarter lead over the Patriots on Sunday, it would have been six favorites and two second choices.

In fact, 22 of the 32 teams finished in the exact spot where the IP oddsmakers put them. That's pretty incredible when you consider that if one team is out of place, then another team must also be out of place. Again, the Dolphins and Jets were the only two that were two spots removed from their predicted order of finish.

Season over/under totals

That Patriots-Dolphins finale also caused a lot of money to change hands in the Imperial Palace's over/under season win totals proposition wagers. The total that caused the most conversation last summer was the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots at over/under 8 1/2 wins. The oddsmakers ended up setting a very solid number. The Pats entered Sunday's game with 8 wins and it looked like they would finish under. But their comeback not only put them over the total, but it also kept the Dolphins (whose total was pegged at 9 1/2) from going over their number.

In all, 14 teams finished within a game of their betting total with two landing exactly on the number. The 49ers had a total of 10 and won 10 (those over bettors had to be kicking themselves after the 49ers blew a 20-3 fourth-quarter lead to the Rams on Monday night). The Steelers also landed on their total of 10, and over bettors had a bad beat in a different sort of way. The house rules specify that that only regular-season wins are counted, so the tie with the Falcons doesn't count for half a win.

The biggest underachievers were the Bengals (with an over/under of 7, they won only 2), Rams (with an over/under of 11 1/2, they only managed 7 wins) and Bears (over/under of 8 1/2, and a final record of 4-12).

The Buccaneers and Giants both exceeded their totals by 2 1/2 wins. The Bucs' total was 9 1/2 and they won 12, while the Giants' total was 7 1/2 and they won 10.

NFL betting trends

As for the week-to-week betting, underdogs finished the season with a 10-6 record against the spread in week 17, bringing their season mark to 141-107 (57 percent) with six pushes.

Home dogs were especially successful, going 5-2 (including four straight up wins) to close the season at 53-36 (60 percent) with two pushes. That probably won't be relevant in the playoffs as we're unlikely to see any home teams installed as underdogs.

Another stat that can be discarded is that home and road teams finished at .500, going 125-125-6 during the regular season. Over and unders were nearly even, as overs (despite finishing 12-20 the past two weeks) closed with a narrow 127-125-3 edge. Note: There's one game missing as the Eagles-Texans game in week 4 didn't have a total.

College bowl betting trends

The college bowl season reached the halfway point following Monday's games as 14 games had been played in 14 days. There were then 14 games to be played Tuesday through Friday.

Through the first 14 games, underdogs had won eight straight up and were 9-4-1 against the spread.

The over/unders were an even seven apiece.

For those who follow the opening bowl line moves posted from the Stardust lottery of Dec. 9, the early bettors were hitting at a 75 percent clip through Monday's bowl games, going 6-2 on sides and 3-1 on totals.

Orange Bowl

Iowa (+6 1/2) vs. Southern Cal

This is the best matchup of the bowl season. Both teams are just a few plays from being undefeated and really throwing the BCS system into a frenzy. USC lost to Kansas State (by 7 points) and Washington State (by 3) while Iowa had just one bad quarter in its only loss, 36-31 vs. Iowa State. Both teams ended the season playing as well as anyone in the country. It has traditionally been a good bet to go against the Heisman winner in bowl games, and the Hawkeyes have added incentive as they will be out to show that their quarterback, Brad Banks, should have won the Heisman over USC's Carson Palmer. Banks threw 25 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. That last stat could be key as I think this will be a lower scoring game than most people expect. Both defenses have had 3 1/2 weeks to prepare for the other offense and will be highly motivated to stop the other team's star player.

PLAY: Iowa for 1 unit, and under 57 points for 1 unit.

Bowl record: 5-5 for net profit of 1.5 units (based on laying 1.1 to win 1) through Monday's games; season record: 33-34 for a net loss of 3.7 units.