01/30/2004 12:00AM

Pats and the over obvious plays


LAS VEGAS - During all the Super Bowl hype of the last two weeks, bettors have been dissecting the game from every angle.

Will the two-week gap help the better team (Patriots) or help the team that has had to play three playoff games, including the last two on the road (Panthers)? Will the Patriots' Super Bowl experience help them cope better with all the distractions? Will the Reliant Stadium dome be open or closed? Will Super Bowl underdogs continue to fare well as they have in recent years, or will we revert to the favorites rolling to blowouts?

But when all the smoke has lifted, and they clear off the field from the pregame concert, and they do the ceremonial coin flip, it's time to play football. None of that other stuff will matter. It's the players on the field who will determine the winner, not some historical trend. So let's break it down.

Patriots (-7) vs. Panthers

The analysis of this Super Bowl has to begin with the New England defense against the Carolina offense. Pats coach Bill Belichick and his staff are the best at game-planning their defensive packages to shut down an opponent's strength. They stuff the run with their linebackers, drop the 'backers into the passing lanes, blitz the corners, whatever it takes. They play together as a team. In fact, that's my first prediction for Super Sunday: The Patriots will be introduced as a team, instead of as individual players, just like they were before their Super Bowl win over the Rams two years ago.

The Panthers have been a run-first type of team all season, with Stephen Davis racking up more than 1,400 yards and DeShaun Foster filling in when Davis has been hurt. But they will have a harder time versus the Patriots, who allowed only 3.4 yards per rush this season. Nose tackle Ted Washington, all 375 pounds of him in the mold of William Perry, clogs up the middle and allows linebackers Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Roman Phifer to run free and make the tackles.

It doesn't get any easier when teams try to pass on New England. The Pats led the league with 29 interceptions, and cornerback Ty Law picked off NFL co-MVP Peyton Manning three more times in the AFC title game. Law shut down Marvin Harrison in that game and will likely be on Carolina's talented but undersized Steve Smith in the Super Bowl.

The Panthers really have to hope for big plays - such as the overtime TD that Jake Delhomme threw to Smith against the Rams or the alley-oop pass to Muhsin Muhammad versus the Eagles - because I don't think they will be able to sustain many drives against the New England defense.

The Patriots aren't flashy on offense, but most of the time they don't have to be. They convert third downs (mostly because they're good at picking up yards on first and second down), get in the end zone when the opportunity arises, and avoid big mistakes. Running back Antowain Smith was an afterthought all season, as New England used the short passing game in lieu of a ground attack, but he has stepped up in the playoffs and should be a factor Sunday.

Man for man, the Panthers have a great defensive line, with tackles Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner and ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker, but just like the Pats' defense, the strength of the Panthers' offense is the way it plays as a unit. The line gives Brady time, and his quick release certainly helps. The receivers - who remind me of the Redskins' Fun Bunch, with their small size and speed - run precise routes and make all the catches.

Everyone talks about Belichick's defensive game-planning, but he doesn't get enough credit for preparing his offense. The Pats not only scout the opponent but scout themselves, and can anticipate what the opposition is likely to do and make adjustments ahead of time. A perfect example was the touchdown on the opening drive versus Indianapolis. Brady pump-faked to the outside and Colts cornerback David Macklin took the bait. With him out of position, Brady fired the ball to a wide-open David Givens.

The total on the game has been 38 for most of the past two weeks, with about half of the sports books in town lowering it to 37 1/2 as of Friday morning. This is an extremely low total for a Super Bowl - only the second time it has been under 40 in the last 18 years - and I think the game will soar over.

I feel like such a square for taking the favorite and the over, but the fact that it's the Super Bowl, with even more TV timeouts than a regular-season game, gives me all the more reason. The offenses will have more time to really get themselves set and execute big plays - which could include reverses, flea-flickers, etc. - and the defenses and special teams certainly have the ability to score. I just think in a dragged-out game like this, there will be more chances to get over this number.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit and over 38 for 1 unit.

Playoff record: 6-4 for a net profit of 1.6 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).
Season record: 61-39 (61 percent) for a net profit of 18.1 units.

Prop wagers continue to grow

With the explosion of prop bets in recent years, there are literally hundreds of ways to bet on the big game. You can start with who receives the opening kickoff, and continue with the first team to have a penalty, first team to score, and first coach's challenge. You can also bet on whether there will be a safety, a successful two-point conversion, a score in the final two minutes of the first half, or overtime.

There are also props on the skill positions and over/under how many yards they will gain or catches they make and head-to-head matchups between opposing players. The really crazy props are the ones that mix sports, such as Adam Viniatieri's Super Bowl field goals vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James' 3-pointers in his NBA game earlier in the day, Brady's completions vs. Vince Carter's points, or Panthers' total points vs. total goals scored in all three NHL games Sunday.

The true professional bettors will pound a prop when they really feel they have an edge, but for the other 99 percent of us, I would recommend not betting more than 10 percent of your normal bet on a prop. My personal strategy is to wait until Sunday afternoon and find the props that have been bet a lot and take the other side. For instance, if the oddsmakers had something as a pick-'em and the other side gets steamed way up and now you can get it at +150 (bet $1 to win $1.50, or the equivalent of 3-2), you have value. Bet a few of those, and, depending on the prices you get, you don't even have to hit 50 percent to show a profit.

Here are some specific props I like:

* First player to score a TD: This is the most popular prop every year. Brady is 25-1 and is worth a play. He runs the quarterback sneak well, or he could not want to risk throwing an INT in the red zone and run it in himself. I can picture a Steve Grogan-like bootleg.

* Double result: This prop asks you to predict the halftime leader and tie it to the game winner. I like the tie option. Tie at the half/Patriots win game pays 10-1. Tie/Panthers pays 18-1. If you bet both, you're getting at least 5-1 (since you will eventually lose one bet) odds that the game is tied at the half. I can easily see a 10-10 or 13-13 halftime score with this matchup.

* Steve Smith vs. Givens (passes caught): I like Givens at +110 for two reasons. Givens has really stepped forward this postseason, and because Law will be blanketing Smith.

* Player to complete more passes: Delhomme is +4 vs. Brady and even-money. With my expectation that the Panthers will be behind throughout, I'm thinking Delhomme will win this outright.

* Last team to score: The Panthers are +120. This can be a partial hedge in case there's a threat of them getting a backdoor cover. If they do, hopefully it puts the game over the total.