11/09/2004 12:00AM

Nine picks, nine winners. It happens.

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LAS VEGAS - It's funny how a passing conversation can turn around a season.

Back on Sept. 29 at the NTRA Annual Meeting at The Mirage here in Las Vegas, Bill Nader of the New York Racing Association came up to me and said, "Great pick this weekend."

I asked, "Which one?" as I ran through the weekend in my head, knowing I had gone 2-1-1 on Saturday in college football and 1-4 in the NFL on Sunday. I assumed he must have meant one of my college winners.

"The New Orleans Saints," he said, citing a game in which the Saints were 7-point underdogs at the Rams and won 28-25 in overtime.

"Uh," I stammered out of embarrassment, "you do realize that was my only winner out of five games, don't you?"

"Really?" Nader said. "I don't remember the other ones. I just remember reading your comments and you made a great case for that game being the biggest upset of the weekend and it sounded like you liked that one more than the others."

That conversation really lifted my spirits. At the time I was off to a 4-11 start in the NFL, and I've thought about it every time I've sat down to do my game write-ups - to try and state my case for liking a game. And several times, when I've struggled to come up with a strong enough case for picking a team - especially since I tend to play a lot of underdogs - I would change my plays for the better.

After having my record slowly climb back to respectability, I finally got back to .500 on the season at 22-22-1 by going 5-0 last Sunday.

I had the Bills +3 vs. the Jets (a 22-17 outright upset), the Steelers +1 vs. the Eagles (an easy 27-3 upset), the Bengals +1 vs. the Cowboys (a 26-3 Cincy win), the Cardinals +3 at the Dolphins (a 24-23 upset that I had to sweat more than any other as the scoring went back and forth late in the game), and the Bears +9 vs. the Giants (a 28-21 upset that didn't look good when the Giants went up 14-0 in the first quarter).

That followed a 4-0 record on Saturday with my college football plays: Northwestern +3 1/2 at Penn St. (a 14-7 outright upset), Clemson +17 at Miami-Fla. (a 24-17 outright upset), North Carolina +10 1/2 vs. Virginia Tech (a 27-24 spread-covering loss by the Tar Heels), and Oregon +21 1/2 at California (a near upset in a 28-27 win by Cal).

For the season, my college bankroll plays improved to 21-16-1 for a net profit of 3.4 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). The NFL ledger of 22-22-1 is a net loss of 2.2 units with the vig, but my combined football record is finally back in black at 43-38-2 for a net profit of 1.2 units.

NFL betting trends

There's no doubt that my recent success in the NFL has been due to underdogs barking a lot lately. Last week, dogs went 9-4 against the spread, with one game - Cowboys at Bengals - closing at pick-em at the Stardust. So note that some records won't seem to add up to the full 14 games this past week or the 130 total games played so far this season. For the year, underdogs are now 67-57-5 (55 percent) against the spread.

My favorite subset - home underdogs - went 3-1 last weekend, with the Bills, Steelers, and Buccaneers pulling outright upsets and the 49ers unable to pull off the feat. That record doesn't include the Bengals, who opened as a 1 1/2-point dog before the game was bet to pick-em, or the Rams, who opened as 2-point home dogs to the Patriots and closed as 2-point faves. Home dogs are now 9-2 over the past three weeks and a profitable 20-18-1 (53 percent) on the season after being 11-16-1 after six weeks. This week's home dogs are the Jets +1 1/2 vs. the Ravens, Browns +4 1/2 vs. the Steelers, Saints +4 vs. the Chiefs, Cardinals +2 1/2 vs. the Giants, and Cowboys +6 1/2 vs. the Eagles on Monday night.

Home and away teams split 7-7 against the spread, and road teams still hold a 66-59-5 (53 percent) edge.

In totals wagering, overs continued their roll as scoring has been up in recent weeks. Last weekend, overs were 10-3-1 and now hold a season-long advantage at 66-61-3 (52 percent), after winning at only 40 percent in the first four weeks at 24-36 and going 42-25-3 (63 percent) since then.

Once again, there were no double-digit favorites, but the teams with the biggest spreads (Giants -9 vs. the Bears and Colts -7 1/2 vs. the Vikings) failed to cover. The Seahawks and Broncos did cover as 7-point chalk.

The AFC continued its dominance by going 5-3 last week in interconference play and has pulled to 20-13-1 (61 percent) vs. the NFC.

Who's hot, who's not

The Chargers have earned a well-deserved bye week, as they are the league's top spread team at 7-1-1. The Patriots are right behind at 5-1-2. The surging Steelers, who have won and covered six straight, are 6-2 against the spread along with the Ravens. The formerly high-flying Eagles have lost three straight against the oddsmakers and are 5-3 along with the Bills, Jets, Jaguars, Giants, Vikings, and Cardinals.

The Bengals, Dolphins, and Saints are tied for the worst spread record at 2-6, with the Raiders barely ahead of them at 3-6. It's a long list of teams at 3-5: Chiefs, Titans, Panthers, Redskins, Rams, Cowboys, and Falcons.

In totals wagering, the Steelers had their first under since the third week of the season (in a game played vs. the Dolphins during hurricane season). They are now 6-2 with the over, along with the Colts, Rams, and Saints. The Chargers are 6-3 with the over.

During their bye week, the Jaguars became the co-leaders in the under standings, along with the Redskins and Eagles, at 6-2, as the Panthers had their second straight over and are now 5-2-1 with the under. The Broncos had their second push of the season and are 5-2-2. Teams at 5-3 with the under include the Ravens, Bears, and Falcons.

Coach prop bet winner (er, loser)

Tuesday's resignation by Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt brought a resolution to an interesting proposition bet at Wageronsports.com: Who will be the first NFL head coach to be fired or resign?

These types of bets aren't allowed in Nevada sports books, but offshore operations are under no such regulations. Back in August, Wageronsports.com had Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer as the 3-1 favorite with Wannstedt the second choice at 7-2, followed by the 49ers' Dennis Erickson and the Saints' Jim Haslett.

After the first month of the season, Schottenheimer was looking more like a coach of the year candidate than one about to receive a pink slip, so Wageronsports adjusted its odds and made Wannstedt the 2-1 favorite with Erickson at 5-2 and Haslett at 4-1.