01/09/2004 12:00AM

Only two teams can go on


Saturday's NFL action was to feature four teams that arguably are in the midst of their best runs ever.

The Rams and Patriots both won their only Super Bowls in recent years (Rams in 2000, Patriots in 2002). The Titans (previously the Oilers) made it to their only Super Bowl in 2000, and the Panthers are in the playoffs for only the second time in their history and have a bright future under coach John Fox.

On Sunday, we have four storied franchises that have had moderate success in recent seasons but are trying to return to their glory days.

The Packers haven't been to a Super Bowl since 1998, after winning it in 1997, but are still mostly associated with the Vince Lombardi era of the 1960's. The Eagles haven't been to the Super Bowl since 1981, when Dick Vermeil was their coach. The Colts haven't been to the Super Bowl since Jim O'Brien kicked the winning field goal vs. the Cowboys in 1971, back when the Colts were still in Baltimore and straight-on kickers were the norm. The Colts are still best known as the team that lost to Broadway Joe and the Jets in 1969. The Chiefs haven't been to the Super Bowl since they beat the Vikings in 1970, three years after they lost the first Super Bowl to the Packers.

So only two of these teams will win Sunday and keep alive their fans' hopes of returning to the promised land.

Colts at Chiefs (-3)

When handicapping a football game, it's hard to incorporate special teams into the equation, but the Chiefs have a knack for defensive and special teams touchdowns when they play at home, and I can see that being a major factor in this game.

And there's one other special teams item I want to bring up. Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt has not missed a kick all year. Well, that's what every announcer keeps saying every week. If you'll recall the classic comeback vs. the Buccaneers on Monday night, Oct. 6, however, Vanderjagt missed wide right in overtime, but Simeon Rice of the Bucs was penalized for "leaping," and Vanderjagt was given a second chance to win the game. That kick was under pressure. It was outdoors. It was also on grass. All those factors will be in play Sunday (plus less-than-ideal weather). Nobody is perfect, and I can see him missing a key field goal under these conditions, just like he did in the 2001 AFC wild card game against the Dolphins, when he missed a 49-yard field goal in overtime.

But even if none of that happens, the Chiefs should still get the job done. They are undefeated at home and actually play defense at home, too. A lot is being made of the Colts' 7-1 road record, but the Dolphins and Titans were the only teams with winning records that the Colts beat. And the team they lost to on the road was Jacksonville.

So the Chiefs have the home-field edge - which is obviously factored into the line - but they also have the coaching edge. I'll take Vermeil, especially with an extra week to prepare, over Tony Dungy.

Vermeil and his staff have the offense clicking, just like his days in St. Louis. The Colts shut down Broncos running back Clinton Portis last week, but that had as much to do with Indy getting out to a huge lead as it did the Colts defense actually stopping him. Priest Holmes should be able to slash through the Colts defense for big gains, and he will also be a factor in the passing game. Quarterback Trent Green will spread the ball around to receivers Eddie Kennison, Johnny Morton, Dante Hall, and tight end Tony Gonzalez, who will likely be matched up against Colts strong safety Mike Doss, who is recovering from a high ankle sprain.

The Chiefs defense will obviously be challenged by Peyton Manning & Co. - I'm certainly not expecting it to completely shut down the Colts - but just a few defensive or special-team plays should be enough to get the win and cover.

PLAY: Chiefs for 1 unit.

Packers (+5 1/2) at Eagles

The Packers' bandwagon is getting pretty crowded - especially with the feel-good story of Brett Favre - and that makes me leery of this pick, but the factors still point to Green Bay.

The Eagles have home field throughout the playoffs, but I'm not so sure that's a good thing. Last year, they lost the NFC title game at home to the Buccaneers (in the last game at Veterans Stadium, no less), and this year they were only 5-3 straight-up at home and 4-4 against the spread, which are the worst marks of any team with a first-round bye. When the Eagles get behind, the infamous Philly boo-birds make it a home-field disadvantage. The most recent loss was three weeks ago to the 49ers, who are a very similar team to the Packers (A quarterback who can throw on the run, strong running game).

Speaking of that running game, in the first meeting between these two teams, Nov. 10 in Green Bay, Ahman Green ran for 192 yards against this Eagles' defense, and it appeared the Packers had it won until the Eagles scored their only two TDs in the fourth quarter to pull out a 17-14 win. They did it by picking on Green Bay cornerback Bhawoh Jue, who was subbing for Al Harris. Harris is back at full strength, as evidenced by his interception return in overtime last week that beat the Seahawks. That hurts the Eagles' chances, as does the loss of Brian Westbrook, who was the team's best running back and punt returner this season.

The final reason to bet the Packers is the same as the first: Favre. Whether he's healthy or injured or grieving, there's not another quarterback I'd rather have my money on in a big game.

PLAY: Packers 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.