05/07/2003 11:00PM

NFL's top games now open for bets

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A month ago, the Imperial Palace put up week 1 odds for the NFL season. But that was just to whet the appetite.

With the NFL draft behind us and teams already taking part in mini-camps, football is more and more on the minds of bettors in Las Vegas. And, so, the Imperial Palace has expanded its betting menu to include what it calls "games of the year," or marquee matchups throughout the rest of the NFL season.

In addition to the 16 opening-weekend games, there are four games listed in weeks 2-15 and five apiece in weeks 16 and 17. That's a grand total of 82 NFL games that you can bet right now, or 32 percent of the entire season's schedule of 256 games. All 16 Sunday and Monday night games are included (there's no Sunday night game in week 7 because of the World Series, and no Monday night game on the final weekend of the season).

"The main reason we put these games up early is because we get a lot of tourists during the summer, and they can bet some of their favorite team's games now if they know they won't be in town," said Jay Kornegay, the IP's race and sports book director. "They can cash winning tickets through the mail, or the next time they visit."

It's no surprise that a lot of the popular or "public" teams show up many times on the list. Including the opening week, the Packers have 10 of their games already on the betting board. The Jets have half (eight) of their games listed, while the Rams and Raiders both have seven.

Most of the traditional rivalries are also used. Some examples (assume the favorite is at home unless noted otherwise):

Week 2: Rams -3 vs. 49ers and Giants -5 1/2 vs. Cowboys.

Week 3: Broncos -3 vs. Raiders.

Week 4: Packers -2 1/2 at Bears.

Week 5: Eagles -7 vs. Redskins.

Week 9: Jets -3 vs. Giants.

Week 12: Chiefs -1 vs. Raiders.

But it's not just casual fans who like betting these games in advance. Professional bettors like to find games where they think the point spread will be much different when the teams actually play. They can get a much better number now, and they have the option later to try and catch a middle.

For instance, on Monday night, Oct. 13, the Rams are -3 vs. the Falcons. The Rams should bounce back from last year's disappointment and I think they will be closer to a 6-point favorite if form holds. The Rams should have a record of at least 3-1 in September and will be coming off a bye week. The public should be back on the Rams' bandwagon by then and if this line gets bet up to 6 or 7 points, that leaves a nice shot at a middle or a side. Even if the Falcons are playing great and the Rams don't play up to their potential, I still don't see oddsmakers making the Rams any less than a 3-point favorite at home on a Monday night, so I shouldn't be stuck with a bad number.

Of course, the risk you take is that injuries can and will happen, so there are no guarantees, plus we've all seen parity wreck havoc on many a preseason prediction. But here are some more games that might offer value.

Week 7: Rams -3 vs. Packers. Again, I'm thinking the Rams will return to dominance and oddsmakers will be hard-pressed to make them less than a touchdown favorite at home even vs. contending teams. In addition, the Packers' struggles in dome games is legendary (2-14 vs. the spread in their last 16 dome games, including 0-3 each of the past two years). If this line is bet up to 7 by Oct. 19, I probably wouldn't look to buy back any of my bet because I think -3 is a huge bargain in this spot.

Week 15: Bears -1 1/2 vs. Vikings. Unless the Bears completely fall apart (or the Vikings play out of their heads), I don't see how they wouldn't be a 3-point home favorite on Dec. 14.

Week 16: Colts -2 1/2 vs. Broncos. Same rationale as the Bears-Vikings game. This is the time to find some lines that will probably be at the key number of 3 by the time game week rolls around.

Season win totals coming soon

Kornegay and his staff are still working on the popular NFL over/under season win totals.

They are much tougher to set than individual game lines. Besides factoring in which players each team has lost or acquired, the oddsmakers have to go through all 16 games on each team's schedule to arrive at the number. Then, they also have to gauge public perception and whether they need to make one side lay more than the standard -115 on this prop.

The season win totals are expected to be posted by Monday.

College odds also posted

Sen. John McCain announced this week that he is moving forward with his college betting ban legislation. Nevada's legislators are confident they can defeat it, just as they did two years ago.

Meanwhile, odds are up on both the 2004 Sugar Bowl (the BCS title game to determine college football's national champion) and the 2004 NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Oklahoma is the 5-1 favorite to win the Sugar Bowl, followed by defending national champ Ohio State at 7-1; Miami and Texas both at 8-1; Kansas State, Georgia, Virginia Tech, Florida State, Michigan, and USC at 15-1; and Notre Dame, Florida, and Tennessee at 20-1.

Duke and UConn are the basketball co-favorites at 7-1, with Texas at 12-1 and five teams at 15-1: Arizona, Kentucky, Michigan State, Florida, and Louisville. Defending champion Syracuse is 40-1. Roy Williams's former and current teams, Kansas and North Carolina, are both 20-1.