09/09/2005 12:00AM

NFL Picks: Back to the betting board


LAS VEGAS - On Thursday night, the NFL season kicked off with the Patriots showing they're not going to give up their reign easily.

Winners of the last two Super Bowls and three of the last four, the Patriots showed with a 30-20 victory over the Raiders that despite the Eagles and Colts making offseason improvements and the loss of their own offensive and defensive coordinators that they're still the team to beat.

I was on the wrong side of the game, taking the Raiders +7 1/2 with my first NFL bankroll play of the season. It looked like a pretty good bet as the Raiders showed life early with a nice opening touchdown drive and a Kerry Collins-to-Randy Moss bomb midway through the second quarter to take a 14-10 lead. At halftime, they still looked competitive, trailing just 17-14, but then the Patriots took control in the third quarter by doing the fundamental things that really great teams do. They won the field-position battle, pinning the Raiders deep with punts, and then the defense took over by applying pressure to Collins. An interception - which was closer to a fumble on a sack but ruled an INT because it was caught in midair - led to a short 20-yard TD drive for the Patriots and a 23-14 lead after the blocked extra point. From that point on, with the Pats covering the spread, the Raiders never really challenged as New England continued to pressure Collins and double-team Moss.

The Patriots kept chipping away at the Raiders' defense and built the lead to 30-14. Some sports books did move the line to Patriots -8 on Thursday afternoon, so there was some point-spread drama when the Raiders scored a late touchdown to pull within 10 but then missed the two-point conversion.

I was watching the game at the Gold Coast, and the final TD had a lot of bettors cheering as the game went over the closing total of 48 1/2. Bettors who took the popular favorite/over parlay were also pleased.

But I wasn't among them, so it's on to Sunday's full slate of games.

The biggest "key" number is NFL betting is 3. Roughly one in six NFL games is decided by exactly a field goal, so it's easily the most common point spread, followed by 7, 4, 6 and 10. With that in mind, I guess it's not too much of a coincidence that all four of my plays Sunday have spreads of 3. In fact, one of the games I considered was the Bengals over the Browns, but I decided to pass when the line moved from -3 to -3 1/2. Hopefully I can continue the theme and win at least three of them (and a push wouldn't be too bad).

Seahawks (+3) at Jaguars

The Seahawks are a team that has been on the cusp of good things for a few years now. They just never seem to live up to their potential. The Jaguars are also seen as a team on the rise. These teams are viewed pretty equa (both teams have over/under season win totals of 8 1/2), so it's plain to see why the Jags are favored by 3 with the home-field advantage, but I think I would favor the Seahawks on a neutral field. So there is a little value in the line. The Jaguars' starting defensive line had some problems with good running teams in the preseason and that should help the Seahawks' Shaun Alexander get off to a good start. Expect him to be fighting for every extra yard this year after losing the rushing title to Curtis Martin last year by a single yard. The Seahawks should shut down the Jags' running game and put pressure on Byron Leftwich. In all, I'm not so sure the right team is favored and taking the points is a bonus.

PLAY: Seahawks for 1 unit.

Jets at Chiefs (-3)

Here I'm laying the field goal with the Chiefs at home. Kansas City has one of the biggest home-field advantages in pro football - especially with the festive opening day - and their offense should be clicking from the start with a healthy Priest Holmes carrying the load and Trent Green spreading the ball around. My only concern with this play is that I don't trust the Kansas City defense - in fact, their softness vs. the run will likely have me betting against them more than on them this season. If the Jets' Chad Pennington was entering the season at 100 percent and not looking to dump the ball off short so much, I'd probably be on the underdog. But the Jets will probably take a few weeks to get rolling and won't be able to keep up with the Chiefs' scoring machine.

PLAY: Chiefs for 1 unit.

Packers (+3) at Lions

I mentioned this play in Thursday's Daily Racing Form, so I won't repeat myself too much here. Basically, while the Packers might be on the decline and the Lions are improving, I feel the Packers are still the stronger team and worth taking the points. The Lions' defense still needs a lot of work and should get picked apart by Brett Favre, Ahman Green & Co. The Packers' defense isn't much better, but Lions quarterback Joey Harrington has to prove he can step up in the regular season and expose such weaknesses. Just like with the Jets, the Lions might be the play later in the year, but I'll stick with the Pack out of the gate.

PLAY: Packers for 1 unit.

Colts at Ravens (+3)

When the schedules first came out, I circled this game right away. The Ravens will be run, run, running with Jamal Lewis and the Colts aren't very good at stopping the run. Again, I don't want to read too much into the preseason, but the Colts' defensive line was continually blown off the ball by every offensive line they faced. I just hope the Ravens don't get too fancy and try to win with Kyle Boller throwing the ball. The Colts obviously have one of the most potent offenses in the league, but there's no mistaking that they have a much harder time with a physical defense like the Patriots every year in the playoffs or even the Bears this preseason. The Ravens are certainly on that level and will be jamming the receivers and pressuring Peyton Manning into mistakes. It's the upset pick of the opening weekend.

PLAY: Ravens for 1 unit.

Season record: 0-1 after Thursday's night play of Raiders +7 1/2 for a net loss of 1.1 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).