01/02/2004 12:00AM

For playoff picks, hit the road


LAS VEGAS - During the final weeks of the NFL season, all you seem to hear about is teams playing for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs or trying to get at least one home game. Historically, that is pretty important, as home teams are 23-16-1 against the spread in first-round playoff games over the past 10 years, and you're likely to hear that stat mentioned this weekend.

But what you might not hear is that road teams covered three of the four first-round games last year. In one of those games the Falcons beat the Packers, 27-7, in a Saturday contest - the first time Green Bay had ever lost a home playoff game. Then on Sunday, the visiting Browns and Giants built big leads but saw the Steelers and 49ers make two of the greatest comebacks in playoff history to pull out the victories but fail to cover the spreads.

I'm going against the conventional wisdom and siding with all four road teams this weekend, not because of any trend, but because these particular road teams are just as capable of picking up a straight-up win in each contest.

In the Sugar Bowl on Sunday night, I'm also going with the road team: Oklahoma vs. Louisiana State in the Louisiana Superdome.

Seahawks (+7 1/2) at Packers

The Packers have been riding an emotional roller-coaster lately. Brett Favre's father died two weeks ago; the team scored an inspirational win the following night vs. the Raiders; then it looked like the Packers would be squeezed out of the playoffs last Sunday; and, finally, the miraculous Cardinals comeback vs. the Vikings put the Packers in. It's hard to root against them, but I just don't like the Packers in this spot.

The Seahawks have also been given new life, and getting more than a touchdown is too much value to pass. Seattle struggled most of the year on the road, but they have put that behind them with a spread-covering loss at St. Louis and an outright upset in San Francisco. Despite all the talk about the Packers' home-field advantage at Lambeau, they were only 5-3 both straight up and against the spread at home this season, and their playoff invincibility took a hit last year when they lost outright to the Falcons as a 7-point favorite.

Regardless of the weather - and there is a chance of snow - the offenses should dominate the game. Both running attacks are capable of picking up huge chunks of yards, with Shaun Alexander for Seattle and his former backup Ahman Green for the Packers, and both teams have big-play passing attacks, with Favre and his former backup, Matt Hasselbeck, of the Seahawks. It should come down to the team with the ball last, and that would ensure a cover for the underdog.

As of noon Friday, most books had moved the line to 7 1/2, with a few others staying at -7 but making Packer backers lay -120 instead of the standard -110. Here's hoping we don't need the points at all, but it's still best to shop around for the best price just in case.

PLAY: Seahawks for 1 unit.

Broncos (+3) at Colts

The Broncos' 31-17 rout of the Colts two weeks ago in Indianapolis wasn't a fluke. They dominated on the ground (without starting running back Clinton Portis) and held Peyton Manning and the Colts' offense in check. Now, Portis will be back in action and should have a big day. But that's not the main reason I like this game. Denver coach Mike Shanahan is a master game-planner. He knows everyone is talking about the return of Portis, and that the Colts will be determined to stop the run. If the Colts stack the box, don't be surprised to see some play-action passes, with Jake Plummer looking to throw deep against single coverage. It should be there for the taking. And then Portis can take over.

This is a coaching mismatch, with Shanahan having the edge over Indy's Tony Dungy - who was never able to get the Bucs over the top in his tenure at Tampa Bay, and lost 41-0 to the Jets last year in the first round. Also, Manning, the Colts' on-field coach, has yet to win a playoff game.

PLAY: Broncos for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-3 for a net loss of 0.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL regular-season record: 55-35 (61 percent) with five pushes for a net profit of 16.5 units.

Sugar Bowl
Oklahoma (-6 1/2) vs. LSU

As if having two NFL playoff games weren't enough on Sunday, the day concludes with the BCS title game between Oklahoma and LSU. Just like in the pros, I'm going with the road team as Oklahoma visits Cajun Country. If Oklahoma had beaten Kansas St. in the Big 12 title game, oddsmakers were prepared to make this line Oklahoma -11. That alone gives us value with laying less than a touchdown.

It's hard to imagine a team looking past a conference championship game, but I believe that's exactly what happened with Oklahoma. They knew they were heading to the Sugar Bowl win or lose, and they got ambushed by K-State. That won't happen here, and coach Bob Stoops has had a month to get his team prepared. LSU will put up a fight, but in the end Oklahoma has too much talent and speed on both sides of the ball and should pull away in the second half.

PLAY: Oklahoma for 1 unit.

Bowl record: 5-6 through Thursday for a net loss of 1.6 units. College season record: 37-37 for a net loss of 3.7 units.