12/29/2003 1:00AM

Packers top favorite of wild-card weekend


LAS VEGAS - It's going to be hard for this weekend's NFL wild-card playoff round to be wilder than some of this past weekend's games. Cases in point:

* The Rams lost 30-20 to the Lions as a 12-point favorite, giving the Eagles home field throughout the NFC playoffs.

* The Bengals were bet up to an 8 1/2-point favorite and lost 22-14 at home vs. the Browns to end their Cinderella-story season and give the Ravens the AFC North title.

* The Colts, another 8 1/2-point favorite with playoff implications on the line, fell behind the Texans 17-3, giving hope to the Titans and their fans that they might win the AFC South and get a home playoff game. But the Colts then pulled a Silky Sullivan, and rallied to win 20-17.

* The Seahawks beat the 49ers 24-17 Saturday as a 2 1/2-point underdog to finish the season 10-6, but they still needed a loss by either the Vikings, Packers, or Cowboys to make the postseason. The Seahawks got it when the Cowboys lost to the Saints. The combination of Seattle's win and the Cowboys' defeat also meant that either the Packers or Vikings would miss the playoffs, with the Vikes holding a tiebreaking edge if both teams won or both lost.

* It looked like both would win as the Packers routed the incentive-less Broncos 31-3 and the Vikings, a 7 1/2-point favorite, led the Cardinals 17-6 with under two minutes to play. However, the Cardinals scored a touchdown on a fourth down to make it 17-12 after a failed two-point conversion. Then they recovered an on-side kick, and scored another TD on a desperation pass as the clock expired to win 18-17 and knock the Vikings out and put the Packers in.

Wild, wild stuff. But that's in the past. Shortly after the playoff matchups and starting times and dates were announced, the sports books in Las Vegas posted their opening lines. Here's a look at the early betting on this weekend's four playoff games:

Titans at Ravens: Even before they took the field Sunday night vs. the Steelers, the Ravens were installed as a 1-point favorite all over town, and the number had not changed as of noon Monday. The most common total was 40 points, though the Stardust opened a little higher at 40 1/2 and the Caesars properties opened at 39 1/2 and saw it bet up to 40.

Cowboys at Panthers: The Panthers were made a 3-point favorite, with early money coming in on the Cowboys. The line didn't move off 3, but the Stardust adjusted the juice so that Cowboys' backers had to lay -120 (lay $1.20 to win $1 instead of the standard 10-11 odds) with the Panthers at -3, but with backers getting even money. The MGM Mirage properties moved it to -115 on the Cowboys +3 and -105 on the Panthers -3. The total opened at 34 at most books, though Caesars opened at 34 1/2 and it got bet down to 33 1/2. The Stardust also opened at 34 1/2 and it held the line.

Seahawks at Packers: The Packers were made the biggest favorite of the weekend with most books putting up -7, though Caesars obviously anticipates some money on the public team (and the sentimental choice with the death of Packers quarterback Brett Favre's father), and made it 7 1/2. Most books opened the total at 44, though again the Stardust and Caesars opened a half-point higher and again the under got hit at Caesars and was lowered to 43 1/2.

Broncos at Colts: In a rematch of their meeting two weeks ago, in which the Broncos won 31-17 as a 7-point dog, the Colts were made a 3-point choice with a total of 49. Those numbers look pretty solid, though the Stardust did raise the juice on the Colts to -120 before it was bet back down.

Super Bowl odds

At 4:30 p.m. Sunday, even before the odds were set for the wild-card games, the Imperial Palace put up its adjusted odds to win the Super Bowl.

The Patriots, who have home-field throughout in the AFC, were made the 2-1 favorite to win it all, with the Eagles, the top seed in the NFC, a distant second choice at 5-1. The other teams with first-round byes, the Rams and Chiefs, are both 6-1. The Packers and Colts each have to play this weekend and are each 15-1, followed by the Titans at 16-1, the Broncos and Ravens at 20-1, the Panthers at 30-1, the Cowboys at 50-1, and the Seahawks at 60-1.

Do you want to get either the Patriots or the Eagles at 10-1 to win the Super Bowl? Well, you can if you're willing to tie up your money for 13 months and bet them to win the 2005 Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. The Patriots and Eagles as well as the Rams and Chiefs are all 10-1. The Colts, Titans, and Buccaneers are at 12-1, with a group of eight teams - Packers, Broncos, Ravens, Panthers, Dolphins, Cowboys, Vikings, and Falcons at 20-1. The host Jaguars are 40-1.

NFL bankroll stumbles

My NFL bankroll plays over the weekend were a rollercoaster ride as I won on the Patriots -8 vs. the Bills and lost on the 49ers -3 vs. the Seahawks on Saturday, and then continued the losing streak on the Bears +10 vs. the Chiefs and the Giants +4 1/2 vs. the Panthers on Sunday - only to rally with the Cardinals +7 1/2 vs. the Vikings and Steelers +7 1/2 vs. the Ravens. The 3-3 record and net loss of 0.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1) lowered my published overall season record to 55-35 (61.1 percent) with five pushes for a net profit of 16.5 units.

For those tracking my progress in the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest, I didn't use the Patriots game among my plays there and went 2-3 to finish in 26th place among the record 346 entries. If I had used the Pats instead of one of my three losers and gone 3-2, I would have been in the money in a tie for 18th - and also would have won the $10,000 mini-contest that runs the final three weeks of the season. As it was, I finished in a four-way tie for first in the mini-contest at 12-3.

But despite the disappointing finish, it was a very successful regular season in the NFL, and now on to the playoffs.

Bowl games

But before we get back to the NFL, we have to get through the bulk of the bowl season, which hasn't gone too well for my bankroll. I started out last week's bowl slate nicely on Monday, with North Carolina St. -11 1/2 over Kansas in a 56-26 victory in the Tangerine Bowl. But then I lost with Boise St. -10 vs. TCU in Tuesday's Fort Worth Bowl (a 34-31 non-covering victory), New Mexico +3 vs. Oregon St. in the Wednesday's Las Vegas Bowl (a 55-14 rout), and Pittsburgh +2 1/2 vs. Virginia in Saturday's Continental Tire Bowl (a 23-16 loss).

Two plays were pending earlier this week with Nebraska -3 vs. Michigan St. in Monday's Alamo Bowl and Fresno St. +3 1/2 vs. UCLA in Tuesday's Silicon Valley Bowl. We'll try to close out 2003 with a couple of winners on New Year's Eve.

Music City Bowl
Wisconsin (+3) vs. Auburn

Compared to the shootouts we've seen so far this bowl season, this should be a defensive battle (the total is one of the lowest at 46 1/2). Both teams love to run the ball, but they both also stuff the run pretty well. The difference should be the passing game of Wisconsin, with Jim Sorgi spreading the ball around to Lee Evans and the rest of a talented receiving corps. Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez is also very good at getting his team ready for bowls, the Badgers' having won seven of the last eight (5-2 against the spread, 3-1 as an underdog).

PLAY: Wisconsin for 1 unit.

Liberty Bowl
Utah (-2) vs. Southern Miss

In another battle between defensive teams, the edge has to go to the team with the more capable offense. The Southern Mississippi offense doesn't qualify. Utah's Alex Smith is a thinking man's quarterback and rarely makes mistakes, which shouldn't be too surprising since he's a nephew of Michigan St. coach John L. Smith. Alex Smith has completed 67 percent of his passes and thrown only two interceptions all season. The Utes also get back running back Brandon Warfield, who had been out with a knee injury. They should muster enough offense to get the win and cover.

PLAY: Utah for 1 unit.

Bowl record: 1-4 for a net loss of 3.4 units through Saturday.
College season record: 33-35 for a net loss of 5.5 units.