01/08/2004 1:00AM

Like one favorite, love one dog


LAS VEGAS - Saturday's NFL divisional playoffs feature four intriguing teams. Two of the past four Super Bowl champions - the St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots - are in action, along with the playoff-tested Tennessee Titans and the upstart Carolina Panthers, many of whom got their first playoff experience last week in a victory over the Cowboys.

The Panthers-Rams game kicks off at 3:30 p.m. Central in St. Louis in the dome, so weather will not be a factor. The Titans-Patriots starts at 8:15 p.m. Eastern in Foxboro, Mass., where game-time temperature is expected to be around 10 degrees with winds out of the north at 10-15 m.p.h.

All in all, it should be an interesting afternoon and evening of football. On to the matchups:

Panthers at Rams (-7)

Count me among the surprised that this line has dipped to 7 at most sports books. Last Sunday at the Imperial Palace, I missed out when they posted the Rams -7 and it was quickly bet up to 7 1/2. The line was posted as 7 1/2 in just about every other sports book, and I thought that would be the number I would have to lay. I was kicking myself.

But the money slowly has come in on the Panthers, and the line had settled at 7 as of Thursday morning with a few holdouts at 7 1/2. The books that have the game at 7 1/2 probably are anticipating more money on the Rams when the usual favorite-loving tourists come into town. The line move isn't too surprising since a lot of the so-called experts on TV, including those on ESPN, have been talking this week about the strong play of the Carolina defensive line. The Rams' offensive line, especially with tackles Orlando Pace and Kyle Turley matching up against defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker, can hold its own and should be able to break Marshall Faulk free for some nice runs.

The key to backing the Rams is that their strength - receivers Torry Holt and the return to the lineup of Isaac Bruce - plays right into the weakness of the Panthers' secondary. Carolina was able to keep its Achilles' heel from being exposed the past few weeks as they closed the regular season vs. the Cardinals, Lions, and Giants, and then drew the Cowboys' woeful passing game in the wild-card round last week. They don't get so lucky this week. The Rams have scored at least 27 points in every home game this year, and with the extra week of rest, they should have no problem getting into the 30's.

The extra week of rest should help the Rams' defense as tackles Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis have been battling ankle sprains in recent weeks. They will be key, along with ends Grant Wistrom and Leonard Little, in neutralizing the Panthers' offensive line and containing running back Stephen Davis. Of course, a lot of early points by the Rams' offense could also effectively take Davis out of the game.

In the divisional playoffs, the home team coming off the bye has a big edge and this just looks like one of those blowouts where the point spread won't come into play. The Rams have considerable more playoff experience and are going against a team that will consider its season a success even with a loss.

PLAY: Rams for 1 unit.

Titans (+6) at Patriots

That's not the case with the underdog in this matchup. The Titans have every bit as much playoff experience as the favored Patriots, and even though they haven't won a Super Bowl, they did come within one yard of forcing overtime in their 23-16 loss to the Rams in 2000.

The Patriots have won 12 straight games and are worthy of the top seed, but they haven't always blown out teams in that run. The first game in the streak was actually a 38-30 win over these same Titans. Tennessee outgained the Patriots by more than 100 yards in that game, and led 27-24 before unlikely hero Mike Cloud ran for a touchdown and then Ty Law added a defensive score. The Patriots ran for 161 yards in that game, but the Titans' run defense (No. 1 in the league) has tightened up since then, including shutting down the Ravens' Jamal Lewis last week.

League co-MVP quarterback Steve McNair has been the man for the Titans all season, but has gotten support lately from a resurgent running back Eddie George, pounding away at opposing defenses. George's backups, Chris Brown and Robert Holcombe, offer a change of pace and more options for McNair in the passing game.

These two teams really match up evenly (as evidenced by the fact the line was pick-em when they first met), so that alone gives value to a play on the Titans. Another thing in Tennessee's favor is the oddsmakers' over-under of 36-37. A 6-point spread equates to a 21-15 New England win, but I see the Titans scoring more than that. This looks like a 20-17 game either way, which would get me the cover in any case.

It's hard to go against the Patriots here, because I've been riding them all season (and I would be gladly laying the points in any other matchup), but I don't think they get the cover here, and there's a very good chance they might make an unceremonious early playoff exit.

PLAY: Titans for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-2 for a net loss of 0.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).
NFL season record: 57-37 (61 percent) with five pushes for a net profit of 16.3 units.