01/02/2006 12:00AM

Offshore books lift Steelers to favoritism

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LAS VEGAS - If any doubt remained about the power and influence of the offshore sports betting industry, it was pretty much blown away Sunday afternoon when the opening lines were posted for this weekend's NFL wild-card playoff games.

The AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals will host the rival Pittsburgh Steelers this coming Sunday in the last of the four wild-card contests. At 3:15 p.m. this past Sunday, Las Vegas Sports Consult-ants sent its opening number of Bengals -3 to its sports book clients.

The Las Vegas Hilton opened the Bengals at -3 (-120), while the Stardust opted for the Bengals -2 1/2. When offshore books such as CRIS, Olympic, and Pinnacle posted the Steelers as 2-point favorites, bettors in Vegas loaded up on the Steelers plus the points. In fact, if you had been in line right away at the Hilton you could have had the Steelers +3 at even money.

To their credit, book managers at the Hilton and Stardust adjusted their odds aggressively. Ed Salmons at the Hilton said he took "two and a half" limit bets on the Steelers plus the points, while Bob Scucci said on the "Stardust Line" radio show that his book moved the line on some bets at less than the $10,000 limit.

That all happened within the span of about half an hour, and by 5 p.m. just about every sports book here and offshore had moved the Steelers to 3-point favoritism, which is where the line stood Monday morning and will probably remain throughout the week.

The over/under on the contest opened at 44 1/ 2 and slowly climbed to 46, where it had pretty much settled by noon Monday.

Here's a look at the line movement on the other wild-card games:

Redskins at Buccaneers: In the wild-card opener set for Saturday afternoon, the Bucs opened as low as 1 1/2-point favorites at the Stardust (offshores opened at 2) and quickly got bet to 2 1/2, which is where it stayed through noon Monday. The Stardust opened the total at 37 1/2 (same as offshore) and the under got bet to drop it to 36 1/2 there. As of Monday, most shops were dealing either 36 1/2 or 37.

Jaguars at Patriots: The Stardust and MGM Mirage properties opened the Patriots as 7 1/2-point favorites while most other books went with 8. Within an hour, all books here in Vegas were at 8. The total opened at 38 1/2 at the Stardust, Caesars, MGM Mirage, and Stations and also got bet to the under, settling at 37 at most books Monday. Weather forecasts in the New England area will obviously be monitored closely for this Saturday night game.

Panthers at Giants: The Hilton opened this game at Giants -3 (even) and Panthers +3 (-120). With most other books opening at 2 1/2 (though Caesars has the line at just 2), bettors laid the extra juice with the Panthers, and it was at -135 on the +3 as of 5 p.m. By noon Monday, 2 1/2 was the consensus line with the total at 43 points.

Super Bowl futures

In adjusting future-book odds, LVSC has the Colts as the even-money favorite to win the Super Bowl with the Seahawks the second choice at 7-2. The Broncos are next at 9-2 with the two-time defending champion Patriots at 7-1. The Bears, the No. 2 seed in the NFC, are 10-1, followed by the Steelers, the No. 6 seed in the AFC, at 14-1; the Giants at 16-1; the Bengals at 18-1; the Buccaneers, Redskins, and Panthers at 20-1; and the Jaguars as the longest shot on the board at 50-1.

As for the actual game line, the Hilton and Station Casinos have the AFC as a 10-point favorite over the NFC with a total of 49 points.

College bowl season wraps up

Wednesday night is the highly anticipated BCS title game between No. 1 USC and No. 2 Texas in the Rose Bowl, with the defending champion Trojans favored by 7 1/2 points.

My college bankroll record stood at 5-5 heading into Monday's bowl games. Prior to starting with my picks, I had a bettor who goes by the name of M.J., the champion of the Leroy's College Challenge this season, share his top bowl plays, since he obviously has a handle on college football this season.

Heading into Monday, he was 2-0 with wins on Memphis in the Motor City Bowl and Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl before losing with Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.

So, as a public service - and also because I have no strong opinion on the game, as I believe USC is the right side but I usually kick myself when laying more than a TD - I'll leave it to M.J. to break down the title game.

Rose Bowl (Wednesday)
USC (-7 1/2) vs. Texas

M.J. said: "In all my years of following college football, I don't think I've ever anticipated a game as much as this one. This is a true heavyweight matchup. This is Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier at the height of their greatness. It is arguably the best college football matchup on paper in the past two decades, perhaps in history. If all of this is true, then why are the Trojans favored by 7 points? It's because they're the two-time defending national champions, they are coached by the best defensive coordinator in college football (head coach Pete Carroll), and the game is being played in Los Angeles, where the Trojans have a huge advantage in having all of the comforts that home cooking can bring. The only scenario that would be better than this for USC would be if the game were being played at the Coliseum. All of these reasons lend plenty of credibility to them being favored by a touchdown.

"That said, the Texas Longhorns are 12-0 and have blown out everyone in their way save for an 11-point win against a spirited Texas A&M squad in College Station. The Longhorns are the real deal in all three phases of the game (offense, defense, special teams). The point spread appears that it was set perfectly. I'm choosing to pass on this game from a betting standpoint, as I prefer to sit back, relax, and take in every moment of what should be a true classic between these two titans. But if you forced me to pick a side, I would take the mighty USC Trojans, especially with Carroll having extra time to prepare."