12/23/2003 12:00AM

Patriots can exact their revenge on Bills


LAS VEGAS - The final weekend of the NFL regular season begins with three Saturday games that feature teams with playoff aspirations (Patriots, Seahawks, Eagles) against divisional foes who will be heading home after these games (Bills, 49ers, Redskins).

The nightcap could be the most intense game of the day if the Redskins duplicate the effort they gave last week in a loss at Chicago and don't revert to their previous home outing against the Cowboys. They're tempting as a home dog, but I just can't back them against an Eagles team that needs this win to clinch the NFC East and a first-round bye. I'll pass on that game, but I like both home favorites in the earlier games, one of which is the playoff-bound Patriots while the other is the 49ers in the role of spoiler.

Bills at Patriots (-8)

"The Patriots should return to the playoffs after just missing last year. I'll be looking to back them right out of the box." That's what I wrote in my season preview. They are 12-2-1 against the spread, and I've seen no reason to jump off the bandwagon now. This is payback time for the embarrassing 31-0 loss that the Bills handed them in the season opener. Now the Pats get them at home and can wrap up home-field advantage with a victory. The Patriots are clicking on all cylinders and should be able to shut down the Bills' offense like the Dolphins did last week in a 20-3 victory. The Patriots' offense should methodically pick apart the Bills' defense, just like the Dolphins did.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Seahawks at 49ers (-3)

This game was off the board earlier this week because of the injury status of Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and 49ers receiver Terrell Owens. In upsetting the Eagles last week, the 49ers showed that they can play without the injured Owens (which they'll probably have to do next season anyway). This line could come higher if Hasselbeck is out, but I'll lay up to San Fran -6. The Seahawks need a win to keep their playoff hopes alive, but they don't travel well. They finished up their home record at 8-0, but they are 1-6 on the road, including losing their last six. I just feel the 49ers are playing better down the stretch - they beat the Cardinals more easily than the Seahawks did, and their only loss the past three weeks was in the snow at Cincinnati - and will enjoy the role of spoiler and set themselves up for a playoff run next year.

PLAY: 49ers for 1 unit.

Last week's NFL record: 6-1 for a net profit of 4.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Season NFL record: 52-32 (62 percent) with five pushes for a net profit of 16.8 units.

Bowl games

Let's look at some bowl games through next Tuesday. (I'm not making official bankroll plays on two Tuesday bowls, but at www.drf.com, I went with Navy +13 in the Houston Bowl and Texas -9 over Washington St. in the Holiday Bowl.)

Dec. 27: Continental Bowl
Pittsburgh (+2 1/2) vs. Virginia

Most of the focus of this game will be on Pitt sophomore receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who finished second in the Heisman balloting. His only bad game was vs. Miami-Fla., and Virginia doesn't have the same type of athletes in the secondary to duplicate that feat. While Fitzgerald and Pitt QB Rod Rutherford put on an aerial show, the Virginia offense could struggle. The weakness of the Pitt D is against the run, but Virginia hasn't done much on the ground this year, relying on the passing game of Matt Schaub down the stretch. But Pitt allowed only 14 touchdown passes during the year and should be able to keep its offense in the game to the point where Fitzgerald should make the difference.

PLAY: Pitt for 1 unit.

Dec. 29: Alamo Bowl
Nebraska (-3) vs. Michigan St.

Michigan St. was the Cinderella team in the Big 10 this year before midnight struck and they faltered down the stretch. The Spartans were tough against the run, but they don't often face the option in the Big 10 and could have problems with the high-powered Nebraska rushing attack. Michigan St. is also weak against the pass, and I think we could see a rare nice passing game from Nebraska QB Jamal Lord. On offense, Michigan St. relies on the passing game of Jeff Smoker, but that plays into the strength of the Nebraska defense, which was best in the nation against the pass. The Cornhuskers should cover the short number.

PLAY: Nebraska for 1 unit.

Dec. 30: Silicon Valley Bowl
Fresno St. (+3 1/2) vs. UCLA

Fresno St., coached by well-regarded Pat Hill, isn't a typical WAC program. The Bulldogs beat Oregon St. in non-conference play, and also covered in losses to Tennessee and Oklahoma. Fresno St. ended the season strong with five wins in their last seven games, coinciding with the return of quarterback Paul Pinegar. The key will be the offensive line protecting Pinegar from UCLA defensive end Dave Ball. The UCLA offense is pretty bad, and probably will be without starting running back Tyler Ebell. Other than that, this looks like a case of a more motivated team from a smaller conference going against one from a major conference that has to see this bowl as a letdown. Fresno is expected to bring a lot of fans to the Silicon Valley, while I'm not sure if UCLA fans will be too crazy about following their 6-6 team that lost its last four games and backed into this bowl.

PLAY: Fresno St. for 1 unit.

Bowl record: 1-1 through Monday after North Carolina St.'s 56-26 rout of Kansas as an 11 1/2-point favorite.

Season college record: 33-32 overall for a net loss of 2.2 units.