04/21/2004 11:00PM

NFL Week 1 lines up for play


The eyes of the football world will be on the NFL draft this Saturday and Sunday, but for bettors, if you have waited until now to start your research on the upcoming season, you're already behind the learning curve.

Super Bowl futures have been up since before last season's title game, with the defending champion Patriots as the 5-1 favorites, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants, followed by the Rams at 6-1, the Eagles at 7-1, and the quartet of the Buccaneers, Titans, Chiefs, and Colts all at 8-1.

Super Bowl futures aren't everyone's cup of tea, but of more immediate interest is the fact that the full NFL schedule was released last week, and by Monday, the Imperial Palace had already posted lines for the first weekend of games. In the next month or so, the odds on each division race, the ever-popular over/under season win totals, and all of the Sunday/Monday night games and select marquee games from each week will be available. That makes a lot of opportunities for the informed NFL bettor to get involved early.

As for the opening-week numbers, the season kicks off with the Patriots -3 over the Colts on Thursday night, Sept. 9.

Underscoring the current era of parity, there are no double-digit favorites, with the Rams -9 over the Cardinals as the highest line. The Eagles -7 over the Giants is the only other line that is even higher than 4 1/2.

There are only three road teams favored in the 16 games: Jaguars -4 over the Bills, Ravens -1 1/2 over the Browns, and Falcons -1 over the 49ers. Those final two games are among five that are at 1 or 1 1/2 points. The others are the Saints -1 1/2 vs. the Seahawks, Redskins -1 vs. the Buccaneers, and the defending NFC champion Panthers -1 vs. the Packers in the first Monday night game of the season.

Now that's parity.

The other lines are the Bears -4 vs. the Lions, Texans -3 1/2 vs. the Chargers, Dolphins -3 vs. the Titans, Jets -4 vs. the Bengals, Steelers -4 1/2 vs. the Raiders, Vikings -3 1/2 vs. the Cowboys, and the Broncos -3 vs. the Chiefs in the Sunday night opener.

As for this weekend's draft, don't expect Super Bowl odds or opening-week odds to change at all because of it. Oddsmakers have already factored in that the teams that are drafting high will be getting stud players. But football is a team game and one or two players do not necessarily improve a team's strength overnight, especially with rookies.

For instance, a lot of talk is going around that the Giants could trade up to get Eli Manning, but even if he ends up being a great pro, there is a learning curve for rookie NFL QBs. A team will probably be helped more by drafting Iowa offensive tackle Robert Gallery, who can help solidify an offensive line, but don't expect that team's odds to plummet, either.

Just as important as the draft, and of a more immediate benefit, is the acquisition of players via trade or free agency. The Patriots didn't need much help with their returning roster, but they still improved their running game with the trade to acquire Corey Dillon from the Bengals.

A major question is where Kurt Warner will end up playing. Rams coach Mike Martz is back-pedaling on news reports that had Warner being released June 1. He could be trying to trade him and doesn't want teams to just wait for Warner to come to them free of compensation. Regardless, whomever gets Warner could gain a significant upgrade at QB, much more than any rookie could bring.

But, again, don't get carried away by any one player (the NFL isn't basketball). The key as a handicapper is to assess the cumulative effect of players being added to a team. If you can catch on to that before other bettors, that's where you can find the most betting value at this time of year.

NBA favorites tough to beat

After the first two games of the eight NBA opening-round playoff series through Wednesday, favorites - the home team in each series - were 15-1 straight up and 12-4 against the spread (an impressive 75 percent).

Obviously, those teams had the better records and the home-court advantage, but the pointspread is supposed to be the great equalizer. That hasn't been the case as the haves have dominated the have-nots, and the oddsmakers haven't been able to make the spreads high enough to slow them down.

I'm usually an underdog player, so my 1-2 mark on Wednesday dropped my playoff record to 3-6 for a net loss of 3.6 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). The silver lining is that it could be worse; I would be 4-12 if I had backed every dog.

The series moves to the homes of the have-nots on Thursday and Friday, and we're generally seeing a six-point swing in the pointspreads, a doubling of the three points generally given by oddsmakers for home-court advantage.

So a team that was favored by 10 in the first two games at home is now around a four-point choice on the road.

Keep in mind that a matchup that crosses over pick-'em (such as the Heat-Hornets, in which the Heat were favored by 6 and then 5 points in their two games in Miami, and now has the Hornets favored by 3 in Charlotte) looks like an eight-point move, but since it's rare to see a line at pick-'em in the NBA playoffs, the extra two-point swing from -1 to +1 is negligible.

Still, that doesn't explain the double-digit swing in the Kings-Mavericks series. The Kings were favored by 5 and 4 1/2 in the first two games, and now the Mavericks are favored by 6 in Saturday's third game. Many people are saying these are two teams that dominate at home and struggle on the road - and that's certainly true - but I will take the Kings +6 because I think it will be a close game just like Tuesday's 83-79 home win by Sacramento. I will also look for another low-scoring game and take the under at 218.

Conversely, I will take the over 180 points in the Pistons-Bucks game on Saturday. The Bucks gained a lot of confidence in Wednesday's win to even the series, and while I'm not sure they can pull the upset - or even cover the 4 1/2-point spread - I see the offense picking up in this series.

I'm passing on the Hornets-Heat and Timberwolves-Nuggets.