09/04/2003 11:00PM

One little half-point can mean a lot


LAS VEGAS - It didn't take long for the importance of a half-point in NFL wagering to illustrate itself.

In Thursday night's opener, the Redskins were favored by 3 points pretty much all over Las Vegas. Earlier in the week, a few sports books took some Redskins wagers and moved it to 3 1/2 only to have it pounded back to 3. As game time approached, the money was coming in on the Jets, and the line dipped to 2 1/2 at some books before getting bet back up. You can be sure that those numbers were snatched up by professional bettors/"wise guys" and didn't last long. Those few bettors were the only ones cashing while most of the world was getting refunds.

When the Redskins won 16-13, falling on the number, those books got sided (meaning they pushed all their bets on 3, but lost most of the bets made after they adjusted the line and before they moved it back again).

In recent years, many sports books, including the Stardust, have begun adjusting the juice attached to the key point-spread numbers of 3 and 7. In this case, when money came in on the Jets, the Stardust made Jets bettors lay -120 (instead of the standard -110, or 10-11 odds) to get +3 while letting Redskins backers willing to lay -3 have even-money. When they got more money back on the Redskins, they moved it back to -110 on both sides.

So, without wavering on the 3-point spread, all those bets were refunded, though those sports books saved themselves from getting sided.

But Thursday's game was just an appetizer compared with Sunday's full menu. Sports books around Las Vegas will be standing-room only with 10 games kicking off at 10 a.m. local time, and the excitement will carry through the three afternoon games into Sunday and Monday night.

Ravens (+5 1/2) at Steelers

This is one of only four divisional games on the opening-week slate, and it should be a hard-hitting affair. The Ravens are going with rookie quarterback Kyle Boller. Against Pittsburgh defenses of the past, it would be crazy to take a rookie quarterback, but this is no Steel Curtain. The Steelers allowed 30 points on eight different occasions in 2002, and they start the season without linebacker Joey Porter, who got shot in the buttocks and right thigh outside a Denver nightclub last week. In last year's season finale, the Steelers won 34-31 when Ravens QB Jeff Blake got intercepted in the end zone with 18 seconds remaining instead of throwing the ball away and trying a field goal to set up overtime. In that game, Jamal Lewis gained 86 yards on only 14 carries (6.1 yards per carry) and should help take some pressure off Boller and allow him the time to look deep for receiver Travis Taylor. This game should be decided by a field goal, too, so I like the points.

PLAY: Ravens for 1 unit.

Colts (PK) at Browns

The Browns opened as a 1 1/2-point favorite, but this game has been bet to pick-'em. I think the money is on the right side. The Colts welcome back running back Edgerrin James to the offense, along with quarterback Peyton Manning and record-setting receiver Marvin Harrison. The Browns have some talented players, too. Starting QB Kelly Holcomb beat out former No. 1 draft pick Tim Couch during training camp, but I can't stop thinking that he will be looking over his shoulder if anything goes wrong. He will be facing a Colts defense that has added more speed (getting more in line with the type of defense that coach Tony Dungy likes) and forced 13 turnovers in four preseason games. The Colts rallied to beat the Browns 28-23 last year, but with James back in the lineup, the Colts are much more likely to break faster from the gate and not have to come from behind.

PLAY: Colts for 1 unit.

Broncos (-6) at Bengals

This is the only favorite in my NFL picks this week. Coincidentally, this is also the only game on the whole opening weekend in which the road team opened as a favorite (although the Rams and Colts could be made favorites by the time you read this). While the Bengals should be improved on defense under new head coach Marvin Lewis, they will have a hard time slowing down the Broncos' arsenal of weapons (RB Clinton Portis, receivers Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, and Ashley Lelie, and tight end Shannon Sharpe). Laying less than a touchdown vs. the Bengals (a notorious slow-starting team) isn't too much to ask of a team I expect to start fast and make a Super Bowl run.

PLAY: Broncos for 1 unit.

Saints (+3) at Seahawks

The Saints led the NFC in scoring last year but also gave up a lot of points. The offense should still be explosive with running back Deuce McAllister and quarterback Aaron Brooks, who will be throwing to Joe Horn, Donte Stallworth, and Jerome Pathon. The Seahawks also are stronger on offense than defense. All things considered, I was on the fence with this game and probably would have passed, but then Seahawks cornerback Shawn Springs went down with a broken shoulder blade. That will make it easier for Brooks & Co. The Saints have a 16-8 record on the road (15-8-1 against the spread) since coach Jim Haslett took over three years ago. Haslett has also got them off to good starts the last three years. They fizzled down the stretch each of the past two seasons, but that's of no concern to us this week.

PLAY: Saints for 1 unit.

Season record: 0-0-1 after having Jets +3 Thursday night in their 16-13 loss to the Redskins.