09/03/2009 12:00AM

Patriots, Chargers top picks for title

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LAS VEGAS - The sports books here will be full Saturday with the first full day of college football, but except for the dyed-in-the-wool-fraternity-sweater fans that live and die with their alma maters, it's still seen as the appetizer for the start of the NFL season next week.

Even though many college football Saturdays equal NFL Sundays in terms of betting handle (due to the higher volume of games), the NFL is still king here in the desert and the loyal subjects are lining up to bet and enter the various contests around town. Many college contests also don't start until next week so that the casinos can get more people to sign up in those contests.

This year's NFL opener is next Thursday night, Sept. 10, when the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers host the Tennessee Titans. The Steelers are up to a 5 1/2-point favorite at a lot of books (I'm waiting to see if I can get Titans +6 by game time).

In the odds to win the Super Bowl, the Steelers are only the 10-1 third betting choice at the Las Vegas Hilton. The Patriots, with Tom Brady back after missing all but a few plays last season on a team that still went 11-5 without him, are the favorites at 4-1. The Chargers, who struggled to go 8-8 last year and sneak into the playoffs, are the second choice at 8-1. After the Steelers, the Hilton has the Colts, Giants, and Eagles all at 12-1; the Vikings, led by the nomadic Brett Favre, and the Bears at 15-1; the Cowboys, Ravens, Packers, and Saints at 18-1; the Titans at 20-1; the Panthers and Falcons at 25-1; and the Cardinals, who are trying to avoid the "Super Bowl loser hangover" which has kept six of the past seven Super Bowl losers from making the playoffs the following season, among a group at 30-1 along with the Texans, Seahawks, and Redskins.

The Rams and Lions are the longest shots on the board at 200-1. No one expects them to go from worst-to-first in their own divisions, let alone make a run at the Super Bowl, but bookmakers aren't likely to post odds much higher than that (the Falcons and Dolphins had several books facing major liability last year).

Part of the reason the Patriots and Chargers are seen as the most likely Lombardi Trophy winners (and with that expectation the AFC is -3 in the generic Super Bowl line) is because they're not expected to get much of a challenge in their divisions. They're both 1-8 at the Hilton, with the other teams in their respective divisions (Jets, Dolphins, and Bills in the AFC East, and Broncos and Chiefs in the AFC West) all around 10-1. The AFC divisions are seen as two-horse races, with the Steelers at 5-12 in the North with the Ravens at 11-4 (a decent bet in my eyes), and the Colts at 7-5 in the South with the Titans at 12-5.

Conversely, the NFC North has the Vikings at 3-2 and the Bears and Packers both at 9-5; the NFC South has the Saints at 7-5, the Falcons at 9-5, and the Panthers at 13-5; the NFC East has the Eagles and Giants both at 8-5 and the Cowboys at 3-1; and the NFC West has the Cardinals at 7-5, the Seahawks at 8-5, and the 49ers at 3-1.

A month ago, I wrote about how the line on the Denver-Cincinnati game had moved from the Broncos -3 all the way to the Bengals -3. It's now up to 3 1/2. Another line to move from -3 to -3 1/2 was Minnesota at Cleveland after the signing of Favre.

Other recent Week 1 moves have included the Ravens going to -10 vs. the Chiefs after the injury to Kansas City QB Matt Cassel; the Eagles being bet to a small 1-point favorite at Carolina (some books still have the Panthers -1); and the Chargers being bet up to -9 vs. the Raiders on the opening Monday night, Sept. 14.

* Again this season, starting next Saturday, I'll be breaking down my top NFL plays in this space each Saturday. Last year, I went 26-14-2 (65 percent) during the regular season for a net profit of 10.4 units.

Nevada +14.5 at Notre Dame

I'll make one college football play for Saturday's opening day. A lot of people are predicting a return to glory for the Fighting Irish because of what they perceive to be a relatively easy schedule, but if they're not careful, they could stumble out of the gate. Colin Kaepernick might be the best quarterback no one has heard of east of the Rockies, but that could change Saturday if Wolf Pack can match the Irish score for score, which I expect them to do. And the back-door cover could be left open as well.

Race and sports contest notes

Joe Hinson, 66, of Germantown, Tenn., who won the Summer Classic handicapping tournament at the Gold Coast back in July, won the Pick the Ponies at the Hilton last Thursday through Saturday. With a format of making 10 mythical $100 across-the-board wagers each day, he scored 16,725 points to collect the first-place prize of $29,640. Reno resident Jim Dempster, and a partner of Hinson's, was second with 16,130 points to win $14,820. Charlie Butremovic of Jewett, Conn., was third with 15,210 points to earn $7,020 in the tournament that drew 156 entries at $500 apiece (though early-bird entrants only paid $400 with the Hilton pitching in the other $100).

* The Hilton also has an early-bird deadline for the SuperContest, its high-end football competition. The entry fee is $1,500 and those signing up by Monday at 4 p.m. will be eligible for the $10,000 mini-contest over the last three weeks of the season. Deadline for all SuperContest entries is 11 a.m. next Saturday. Most major Vegas football contests have a deadline that same day, with the smaller contests going up until 10 a.m. Sunday. See last month's chart (http://drf.com/newsletter/nflcontests.pdf) for full details.

* The next major horse racing tournament in town is the Fall Classic at the Orleans on Oct. 1-3. The entry fee is $500. The top 25 finishers also will qualify for the Horseplayer World Series on Feb. 18-20.