11/23/2004 1:00AM

Playing games with point spreads


LAS VEGAS - Handicappers' records are not always as they appear, and that can be for better or worse.

I'll use my record last week - as documented in the pages of Daily Racing Form - as an example. I gave out four plays in college (Florida +7 vs. Florida St., Oregon +4 vs. Oregon St., Baylor +35 vs. Oklahoma, Air Force +1 1/2 vs. Colorado St.) and five in the NFL (Bengals +4 1/2 vs. the Steelers, Titans +3 1/2 vs. the Jaguars, Raiders +4 vs. the Chargers, Redskins +10 1/2 vs. the Eagles, and Texans +3 vs. the Packers).

The lines that are used were the ones most widely available when I filed my college picks on Thursday and my NFL picks on Friday. Based on those lines, I went 2-1-1 in the colleges and 1-3-1 in the pros for a combined 3-4-2 weekend.

But the reality of football betting is that the lines move during the week and sometimes you can get a better number. Last weekend, three of my games fell within a point of the above posted lines, and in all three cases most bettors would have had better results than I did.

The Oklahoma-Baylor was bet to at least 36 at every book in Las Vegas and as high as 38 at Caesars Palace, and Baylor bettors cashed as Oklahoma won only 35-0. The Steelers were bet to -5 vs. the Bengals and the game fell on the number at 19-14 for a push for many bettors. The Packers were bet to 3 1/2 late so some Texans' backers cashed instead of getting a refund with the Packers' 16-13 victory.

So, it's possible that bettors who backed my picks could have won both of my pushes and pushed on the Bengals' loss for a record of 5-3-1.

I'm not going to fudge my record - it is what it is (24-19-1 for a net profit of 3.1 units in college football and 25-28-2 for a net loss of 5.8 units in the NFL for a combined record of 49-47-3 for a net loss of 2.7 units). My real-money betting record is better because I do shop for the best possible lines, and I'm hoping everyone else does, too.

This is all a roundabout way of saying to beware of handicappers claiming high winning percentages. If they're not out-and-out lying (they wouldn't do that, would they?), there's a good chance that they're cooking the books.

The most common accusation I've heard about tout services is that they grade their plays based on the best line they can find, even if it was long gone when they give you the picks, or one found after the fact when giving out selections. They'll claim a winner even if very few people had access to a rogue line somewhere. So if a tout just says "lay the points" or "take the points" without giving an actual line, there's a chance that his results could differ significantly from yours.

NFL betting trends

As discussed in Wednesday's column, favorites dominated the action last weekend in the NFL. Favorites nearly wiped out the advantage that underdogs had built during the first 10 weeks of the season by 11-4-1 against the spread. Underdogs now lead by only 78-75-6.

Home-field advantage continued to be negligible as road teams went 9-6-1 and are ahead 82-72-6. That was especially true of road favorites, which won all eight of their games and went 6-1-1 against the spread and now lead 27-24-2 over the annually consistent-performing home underdogs. I really have to believe home dogs will bounce back this week. There are five: Lions +8 1/2 vs. Colts on Thanksgiving Day, Giants +7 vs. Eagles, Panthers +2 1/2 vs. Buccaneers, Texans +1 vs. Titans and Cardinals +3 vs. Jets.

In totals wagering, the under had gone only 13-28-1 the previous three weeks but bounced back with an 11-5 record to take a slim 79-78-3 lead on the season.

The Redskins failed as the only double-digit underdog last Sunday and that subset is now 3-3-1 on the year. The Skins are again 11-point dogs to the Steelers and the Raiders are +11 vs. the Broncos.

The AFC is clearly the dominant conference by going 5-0-1 against the spread last week and leading 27-14-1 on the year. There are six interconference games this week, highlighted by the Jaguars-Vikings and lowlighted by the Dolphins-49ers. The AFC is now a 3-point favorite over the NFC in Super Bowl XXIX.

Who's hot, who's not

The Chargers covered again to improve to a remarkable 8-1-1 record against the spread. This week, they're a 2 1/2-point road dog to the Chiefs. The Patriots have the second-best mark at 7-1-2, with their only loss to the Steelers, who have won and covered a league-high eight straight games and are 8-2 on the season along with the Ravens. The Eagles are 7-3.

The Dolphins covered in their loss to the Seahawks to improve to 3-7, but they still have the league's worst spread mark along with the Saints, Raiders, Chiefs, Redskins and Cowboys.

The Colts went over the total yet again, despite playing the Bears, and are 8-2 with the over. The Rams are the only team at 7-3 after the Saints, Steelers and Chargers were all under in their games.

The Redskins, with an offense that hasn't scored 20 points in any game this season, are the leaders in the under category at 8-2. The Broncos are 6-2-2 with the under, while the Jaguars, Eagles and Falcons are all 7-3.