09/07/2004 12:00AM

Patriots: Can't bet on 'em, can't bet against them

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The NFL season kicks off Thursday night with the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots hosting the Colts, and I won't have a bet.

When guests on the Las Vegas-based "You Can Bet On It" radio show say they don't have a play on the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, first college game of year, Monday night football, or any other marquee event, host Larry Grossman jokingly admonishes them with the line, "You have to bet on it, it's in our state constitution."

Well, hopefully I can make bail in time for the rest of this week's football action because I just can't pull the trigger on this matchup. When making my own line, I have the Patriots as a 4-point favorite. The consensus line earlier this week was 3 1/2, though on Tuesday it was inching toward 3. But that's nothing to warrant a play.

There are two other reasons not to bet. One of the most common betting systems over the past 20 years has been to go against the defending Super Bowl champion - which has covered only 46 percent of its games since 1985 - because the line is generally skewed in its direction. Last year, the Buccaneers were 6-9-1 against the point spread, the year before the Patriots were 6-10 (despite starting 2-0). The Ravens were actually profitable in 2001 at 8-7-1, while the Rams were 6-9-1 in 2000.

The other reason to shy away from this game is that the NFL's decision to crack down on illegal contact penalties was prompted by the Patriots' mugging of the Colts' receivers in January's AFC title game. When handicapping how Thursday's game is going to play out, I can't help but think that the officials might be wanting to send a message with this game, especially since it's assumed the rest of the NFL's players will be tuning in because it's the only game being played that night. If the Patriots get continuously flagged, or Marvin Harrison & Co. are allowed to run free, that makes a bet on New England even more tenuous.

Bet any 2004 NFL game right now

From a more practical standpoint, there are 255 more NFL regular-season games to played this year. I know that because the Plaza in downtown Vegas has lines up for every single one of them.

New sports book director Lou D'Amico posted them Monday and will be updating them all year long. D'Amico says the plan is to take a team's remaining games down when they kick off, and then re-post them the following morning. In general, the future games will come down Sunday morning and then be updated on Monday morning.

"This will appeal to local football bettors, plus it allows NFL fans who visit Las Vegas to wager on any of their team's games the rest of the year without having to make a return trip," said D'Amico, who also oversees the sister property at the Las Vegas Club across the street. He also points out that winning tickets can be cashed by mail.

D'Amico, who had been with the Hilton-Caesars family the past four years after an earlier stint there from 1985 to 1994, said he took his new job because it offered a challenge.

"I loved my time at Caesars and all the people I worked with," the 57-year-old D'Amico said, "but this is a great opportunity to be involved in something new. The casinos on the Strip are well established, but there is a new energy downtown that is appealing. The new owners here [Barrick Gaming] are looking to do new things, and this idea of offering lines on all NFL games is one of those things, and we hope it brings people in so they can see the new things we're doing downtown."

* Speaking of downtown, the Golden Nugget is also doing some exciting things with its sports book. In addition to the $5,000 buy-in Ultimate Football Challenge handicapping contest, the Nugget also has a weekly parlay card in which a player can win a cool $1 million, by going 20 for 20.

Bets to prime the pump

If you like looking ahead to future games, the Imperial Palace and Las Vegas Hilton also have selected NFL "games of the year" available, primarily Sunday and Monday night matchups plus some other rivalry games. In addition, the Las Vegas Hilton already has all lines up for the second week of the NFL season.

For proposition players, the Caesars Entertainment properties (Caesars, Bally's Paris, Flamingo, Reno Hilton, Caesars Tahoe, Flamingo Laughlin) have odds up on who will be the NFL's rushing, passing, and receiving leaders. For comparison shoppers, the same props are available at the Palms and the Station Casinos.

Vegas football contest deadlines

Local sports books will be packed all week as people sign up for football contests. Be aware of this if you're looking to get in and out of a sports book as the lines will likely be longer than usual.

Most contests have deadlines before Sunday morning's early games, but earlier deadlines of note are 1 p.m. Friday for the $1,500 buy-in Las Vegas Hilton's SuperContest, 9 a.m. Saturday for the $1,000 buy-in Station Casinos' Gambler's Challenge, 3 p.m. Saturday for the aforementioned Ultimate Football Challenge at the Golden Nugget, and midnight Saturday for the season-long prizes in the Hard Rock's Football Fantasy Contest.