09/02/2003 12:00AM

NFL opener hints at action to come

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"Are you ready for some football?"

That catchphrase will be uttered many times Thursday night on ABC. Hank Williams Jr.'s theme song and the dulcet tones of Al Michaels are usually reserved for Monday Night Football, but they will both be on hand to help begin the NFL season with the New York Jets visiting the Washington Redskins.

In Las Vegas, Coast Casinos (The Orleans, Gold Coast, Suncoast) will be hosting parties - complete with drawings for $3,000 and other prizes - at each of its properties for those signing up by 4 p.m. for its season-long "Pick the Pros" football contest.

But this is just a one-time bash. Monday nights are the real football party nights in Vegas. It seems every casino and bar has giveaways, drawings, as well as food and drink specials. Monday Night Football always does well in the Nielsen ratings in this town, but the numbers really would be through the roof if they actually included all the people watching the televisions at all the parties around town, plus the people watching the game in poker rooms or in some casino pits.

So, if you're just looking to catch the game on Monday nights with friends and some cheap eats and drinks, it's hard to turn around without finding a big screen to view it on and plenty of refreshments. If your goal, however, is to also make some money while watching the games, then two Monday night promotions really stand out.

The Rampart and Cannery casinos have the easiest way to make money this football season. Their football contests cost $25 and use only one game per week - the Monday night contest - and require players to pick the straight-up winner, the pointspread winner, over/under total points scored, over/under 2 1/2 field goals made, and over/under 4 1/2 sacks. But that's not where the easy money comes in. You can automatically collect $100 at the end of the football season just by checking in each Monday night between 5 p.m. and midnight at the sports book where you register.

That's a free-and-clear $75 profit for just going out on Monday nights. Last year, this promotion was available only at the Rampart, but with the Cannery opening earlier this year and being added to the Rampart sports book network, you can enter there as well. And with the Rampart located just off the Summerlin Parkway on the west side of town and the Cannery just off I-15 on the north side, the gas expenses shouldn't eat away at too much of your profits.

Actually, you can still collect if you show up 15 out of the 16 weeks (there is no MNF game the final week of the season).

"We give our customers one mulligan so they can miss one week," race and sports book director Eric St. Clair said. "Things come up, so we want to give everyone a fair chance to collect the $100."

And that's on top of any other prizes you might win. The person with the most correct selections will earn $15,000, second place is worth $7,000, third place pays $5,000, fourth is $2,000, and fifth place pays $1,000.

The Stratosphere and its sister Arizona Charlie's properties have created a "Kickoff Payoff" promotion in which each property will draw 20 names for $1,000 apiece if either the first-half or second-half kickoff is returned for an official touchdown. To be eligible, you have to make a bet of $10 or more on the Monday night game to receive a drawing ticket (bets of $50 or more receive two tickets). The drawings will be held at the end of the game at each casino.

Always looking for an edge, I asked the Stratosphere's race and sports book directors Robert Jaynes, "If the first-half kickoff is returned for a TD, can a bettor get in the drawing by going down and making a second-half bet?" The answer was no.

Obviously, it's pretty rare for the first kickoff of a half to be returned all the way (without a penalty calling it back), but if and when it happens, those sports books will be the most exciting spots in town. And a lot of bettors around town will be wishing they had made the trip.

Even if neither kickoff is returned for a TD, there will be drawings for NFL merchandise after each game.

But enough about Monday, we have a game to watch and wager on Thursday.

Jets (+3) at Redskins

The main story line is the Jets' loss of quarterback Chad Pennington and whether 39-year-old Vinny Testaverde can get the job done. Expect the Jets to give the ball early and often to Curtis Martin against a revamped Washington defensive line to take the pressure off Testaverde, who should then be able to work off play-action. In the preseason games I saw involving the Jets, one thing I liked was the push of the starters on the defensive line. Even if they don't get there for sacks, closing the pocket on the Redskins' second-year QB Patrick Ramsey could lead the youngster into making mistakes. In addition, the Redskins (after losing running back Stephen Davis) don't have the running game to slow down the pass rush. This line originally opened with the Jets -2, and as solid a quarterback as Pennington is, he's not worth 5 points in the line. The value is clearly on the road dog.

PLAY: Jets for 1 unit.