09/30/2005 12:00AM

NFL Picks: Bettin' across the border


LAS VEGAS - NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has said his league will never play here as long as the city has wagering on NFL games.

When the NBA has played games here (both regular season and exhibition), the league has asked the city to take the games off the betting boards, including for the 2007 All-Star Game.

This Sunday night, the Cardinals and 49ers are playing in Mexico, where there are upwards of 150 legal sports books in the country and 20 in Mexico City where the game is being played.

It stands to reason that there won't be any wagering there, right? If you answered "yes" - bzzzzzzz - you would be wrong.

Sports books there are doing a bang-up business and treating it like the Super Bowl. Caliente Racetrack & Sports, which operates 80 of the bet shops in the country and half of the ones in Mexico City, not only has the Cardinals ?2 1/2 on the board and a mas/menos (that's over/under for us gringos) of 42 points, but offers props on each team's scores (Cardinals over/under 22 1/2, 49ers over/under 19 1/2), which team scores first, which team scores last, which team has longest touchdown, which team completes the most passes, and many other props that I couldn't interpret.

Victor de la Fuente is the wagering director for Caliente. He said American football is the No. 1 betting sport for his company, which gets a lot of business from Americans in Southern California crossing the border into Tijuana.

"American sports are big here, and nothing is bigger than the NFL," he said. "Our country is very excited about this game. We're seeing a lot of support for the 49ers, which is surprising because the 49ers and Cowboys are the most popular teams down here.

"We haven't heard anything from the NFL about not taking bets on the game. Sports betting is legal here. We take bets on all the soccer games that are played in our country, so we're just doing what we normally do."

Sounds like Las Vegas's argument all along.

David Malinsky is a well-known handicapper in Las Vegas who has selections on covers.com. He will also be in the Stardust Invitational tournament next Friday night at 9 p.m. In the past, he has consulted for some sports books in Mexico and concurs with de la Fuente.

"Football has been a big part of their betting menu for years," he said. "In this game, bettors there will have more betting options than here (in Vegas). There are about a dozen bet shops within walking distance of the stadium, which holds over 100,000 and probably 80,000 will have bets on the game, not that that doesn't happen in stadiums here in the states.

Not that the NFL will admit that.

"If you talk to an NFL official in an elevator, he'll tell you they love all the betting on the games and that it helps (with the popularity of the sports and TV ratings), but once outside the elevator they still feel they have to distance themselves from it," Malinsky said. "I just hope the stadium has enough telephones to handle all the people wanting to get down their second-half bets."

The NFL's tacit approval is just another example of professional league's slowly softening their stance towards sports betting. Malinsky also points out that CIE Entertainment, which owns the racetrack in Mexico City and 31 sports books, worked with the NFL to stage this Sunday night's game.

So, with the NFL's approval, here's this week's selections:

49ers (+2 1/2) vs. Cardinals

I'm not sure why the Cardinals are favored in this game, even though they're listed as the "home" team, but it's the equivalent of when the Saints were the home team vs. the Giants at the Meadowlands. De La Fuente estimates the crowd will be about 70 percent in favor of the 49ers. But besides that, the 49ers have flat-out been playing better than the Cardinals, who will also be without starting quarterback Kurt Warner. The Cards have no running game and the 49ers' pass rush should be all over Josh McCown. And the 49ers offense has shown spark with Tim Rattay hooking up with Brandon Lloyd. I'm also going to look to the under in this game. The total in Vegas is listed at 43 1/2 while, as stated about, the Mexican books have it at 42. I think they're on to something. The forecast calls for a chance of thunderstorms, and the last time an exhibition game was played at Azteca Stadium in 1994, the Oilers beat the Cowboys 6-0 in the rain and mud. It could be a slow track there, plus the altitude could take its toll on the players (Malinsky points out that the stadium is about a quarter mile higher than Denver ? "of course, with these two teams, they sometimes look winded in the first quarter," he said).

PLAY: 49ers for 2 units, plus under 43 for 2 units.

Bengals at Texans (+10)

The Bengals' bandwagon is going full-speed ahead. After going three weeks without hearing anything from readers in regards to my NFL selections (even when I started very poorly the first two weeks), I got two e-mails and one phone call from readers this past week saying I need to stop picking against the Bengals. Call me stubborn, but . . . I'm still not convinced the Bengals' defense is all it's cracked up to be and that this line has been inflated too much (the early lines at the Plaza a few weeks ago had the Bengals at ?4 1/2). I'm counting on Houston coach Dom Capers to have his team ready off the bye week (he's 2-1 in this role with the Texans) as they've had two weeks to prepare for this matchup. However, just like the Raiders last week, if I lose my third straight bet going against the Bengals, I'll pass on their games for a while until I have a better handle on them.

PLAY: Texans for 1 unit.

Colts at Titans (+7)

This is probably my second straight unpopular pick of the week, but I'm also not buying all the hype about the Colts' defense. I cashed with the Browns +13 1/2 last week in their 13-6 loss at Indy, and they proved many of my points. The Titans should be able to move the ball better than the Colts' previous opponents with Chris Brown having the running back job to his own with the drug suspension of Travis Henry and Steve McNair or Billy Volek should be able to scramble and buy time to throw downfield. I would not be surprised by the outright upset, but I'll gladly take the points as insurance.

PLAY: Titans for 1 unit.

Seahawks (+2) at Redskins

Like the 49ers-Cards matchup, this is another game where I'm not sure the right team is favored. The Redskins looked like one of the league's worst teams until their late rally vs. the Cowboys. I don't think that's enough to make them favored here, even at home. Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck has a sore arm, but Shaun Alexander makes this team go. I just don't see the Redskins being able to keep up, even with their good defense.

PLAY: Seahawks for 1 unit.

Cowboys at Raiders (-3)

Give credit to Bill Parcells ? he's doing it with mirrors. Cowboys are 2-1. But now they face an 0-3 Oakland team that needs a win. The Raiders have to be licking their chops after seeing the Redskins torch the Cowboys' secondary two weeks ago and the 49ers do the same last week. If they could do it, what do you think Randy Moss and Jerry Porter are capable of doing? But even if the Cowboys drop deep to try and take that away, that just opens up the middle of the field for short passes and for LaMont Jordan to run wild. This is a case of the Raiders dropping down in class after losing to the Patriots, Chiefs and Eagles.

PLAY: Raiders for 1 unit.

Last week: 4-1, including 1-0 on my 2-unit play on the Raiders +8 1/2, for a net profit of 3.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 6-9-1, including 1-1 on 2-units plays, for a net loss of 4 units.