08/28/2003 11:00PM

NFL lesson: Don't forget big picture


LAS VEGAS - Most publications try to predict the straight-up win-loss records of each team and which teams will make a Super Bowl run. But, we're going to try to anticipate which teams will provide value when taking the point spread into consideration on a weekly basis, and which teams will be overpriced and good teams to bet against.

Last year, I struggled with my weekly picks and finished the NFL season at -17.9 units. One letter writer from Philadelphia called it "downright embarrassing." No argument here.

During the off-season, I went through my notes to see where it all went wrong, and it became clear that I has been relying too much on team's performances from week-to-week instead of keeping the ups and down of an NFL season in perspective. I then went back to my preseason articles and made a startling discovery - if I had followed my own advice on many teams, I would have fared much, much better.

Some examples from the NFC: I stated that with the emphasis on Emmitt Smith's pursuit of Walter Payton's career rushing record, the Cowboys would be a good under bet early in the season (the under was 6-2 when Smith broke the record and 8-2 in their first 10 games); the Packers would be a go-against team early in the season (they started 0-4 vs. the spread); the Bears were a fluke in 2001 and would also be a go-against team (1-6 in their first seven games); the Lions would be a live home dog (they were 5-2 against the spread as a home dog, including 2-1 vs. the Packers, Bears, and Patriots, games which I specifically mentioned); the Saints would be a go-against team (they started 1-5-1); the Rams would struggle in road games on grass (1-5 for the season).

Of course, the crystal ball was also fuzzy at times, mostly on totals. I thought the Saints would be a good under bet and they went over in their first nine games. I thought the Falcons would be a good over team, but they started 5-1 with the under before hitting their stride later. I also thought the Bucs' totals might be too low and make a good over bet, but they went under in six of their first eight games.

Overall, though, I had a pretty good handle on the season but didn't stick to the game plan. There's something to be said for first impressions, but nobody to blame but myself.

Today, we'll look at the NFC and then focus on the AFC in Monday's editions.

NFC East

Eagles: This team showed a lot last season when Donovan McNabb was hurt. The under should be a solid play early as Duce Staley gets back in playing shape following his holdout.

Giants: The Giants will be dangerous in a home dog role, which they will probably be vs. the Rams, Dolphins, and Eagles within the first seven weeks of the season.

Redskins: With the departure of running back Stephen Davis and the slow maturation of quarterback Patrick Ramsey, the Skins have to be considered a go-against team, especially vs. a number of early-season opponents with tough defenses. The under should also be given a look in most of their early games.

Cowboys: Quarterback Quincy Carter has been looking deep in the preseason and the Cowboys could be involved in some high scoring games. Look to the over. This team could improve quicker than most people expect under new coach Bill Parcells.

NFC North

Packers: According to last year's records, Green Bay has the third-easiest schedule this year, but what that will mean is that the Packers will be overpriced. They're a go-against team. In addition, the Packers were 0-3 against the spread last year in games in domes. Look to play against them Nov. 2 at Minnesota.

Vikings: Speaking of the Vikings, they should always be considered a live dog. The defense is still the main question, so the over is attractive early in the season. But if the defense gels, this team could be dangerous come playoff time.

Bears: The Bears went from the penthouse to the outhouse last year, so all the value of betting against them is long gone. A spot play might be Sept. 29 when they open the new Soldier Field vs. the Packers, most likely as a dog.

Lions: Running back James Stewart's injury in Thursday's preseason finale is no reason to write off the Lions. His loss won't hurt the Lions' competitiveness and may in fact give better odds on the Lions if everyone bets the other way. After being favored vs. the Cardinals in their opener, they should be considered as a dog the next five weeks.

NFC South

Bucs: The Bucs haven't missed a beat, going 4-1 in preseason and looking serious about defending their title. Even though an old betting axiom says to bet against the Super Bowl champ early the next season, be wary of jumping in front of this freight train.

Faclcons: Doug Johnson is capable of keeping the Falcons in the race until Michael Vick's fractured fibula heals, so they could be a good bet early. When Vick returns, watch for an overadjustment in the line and look to bet against the Falcons, but only until Vick gets back to his super self.

Panthers: With a good defense and Stephen Davis grinding out the clock on offense, the under is the obvious way to look as long as the oddsmakers don't beat us to the punch.

Saints: The Saints are an up-and-down team that I always have a hard time figuring out, but look for them to start the season strong against a relatively soft schedule. After that, your guess is as good as mine, and probably better.

NFC West

Rams: The Rams are back, and so are Rams-over parlays. Also take a look at betting them in the first half of games.

49ers: The 49ers lost their last 10 games against the spread last year, and should be a go-against team early this season under new coach Dennis Erickson.

Seahawks: A lot of people are tabbing the Seahawks as a sleeper team this year. With so many people jumping on the bandwagon, it might be prudent to look the other way the first few weeks vs. the Saints, Cardinals, Rams, and Packers.

Cardinals: The Cards went 4-0 in the preseason, but don't be fooled. They still have too many holes. Look to go against them, and for the under.