08/10/2005 12:00AM

Preseason NFL provides hints


The NFL preseason schedule began last weekend, and a lot of bettors already have extra money in their pockets.

Both the Falcons-Colts American Bowl game in Japan last Saturday and the Bears-Dolphins Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, on Monday night saw huge line moves, with the vast majority of bettors on the right side.

The Colts opened as a 3-point favorite and the game was bet to pick-em with the Falcons getting the outright upset 27-21. Atlanta backup quarterback Matt Schaub picked up on his stellar play in last year's preseason - when he led the NFL in passing - with two touchdown drives to lead the Falcons to victory.

The Dolphins opened as a 2-point favorite, but after Miami coach Nick Saban came out and said his team was going with a vanilla game plan, the money poured in on the Bears, who closed as a 3-point choice. The Bears' 27-24 victory landed on the closing spread, but that just meant that late bettors got a push while all of the early Bears bets cashed. The Bears were led to the win by backup rookie quarterback Kyle Orton of Purdue, and then were saved by an interception in the end zone after the Dolphins drove into field goal range in the closing seconds.

So, what can be learned from these two games?

1. Preseason football betting is all about the information, and it can be lucrative to follow the money, but - even though both these moves got the job done - you have to act fast so you don't get stuck with a bad number, because the sports books will move the lines faster than they do in the regular season.

2. It also shows that as easy as these two wins made it look, there are no guarantees. The Falcons were behind 14-6 in the second quarter, and the Bears were behind 17-7 at one point and very easily could have lost the game at the end.

3. Both games went comfortably over the total, which - though it's just two games - could signal a trend, as preseason totals tend to be lower than the regular season and the defenses are generally assumed to be ahead of the offenses. Only this Friday's Chiefs-Vikings game, with a total of 43, and Saturday's Bills-Colts game, with a total of 41, have totals over 40.

There continue to be big line moves heading into this weekend's preseason action. In Thursday night's game, the Packers opened as a 2 1/2-point favorite at home over the Chargers, but the Chargers were a 3-point choice as of noon Wednesday.

On Friday, the Patriots opened as a 2 1/2-point favorite at Cincinnati, but the line has flip-flopped with the Bengals -2 1/2. The Rams opened -5 at home vs. the Bears, but now the line is down to -3.

On Saturday, the Browns opened -1 at home vs. the Giants, but the line has moved to the Giants being favored by 2 1/2, and the Colts were at -7 at home vs. the Bills when lines were first offered a few weeks ago, but as of Wednesday the line was 3. That move, especially the early movement when the line dropped from 7 to 5, can probably be attributed to legendary bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro going on local radio and pointing out that the Colts were playing in Japan and having to travel all the way back overseas and play on a short week.

Keep in mind, however, that teams that have played a preseason game historically do well against teams their first time out, so that might make the Colts -3 enticing even with the jet lag. I wanted to make a play on the Bears vs. the Rams, but I'll pass on the +3. The other teams with a preseason game under their belts are the Falcons -2 1/2 vs. the Ravens and the Dolphins +3 at Jacksonville. Both games are on Saturday.

Nextel Cup drivers hit the road

Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are vying for favoritism in Sunday's Sirius Radio at the Glen Nextel Cup race at Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen, N.Y. Las Vegas Sports Consultants has Gordon as the 4-1 favorite with Stewart at 6-1 and Robby Gordon and Mark Martin at 8-1.

At Station Casinos, Stewart is the 4-1 favorite based on being the hottest driver on the circuit, this race's defending champ and a winner of the road race at Sonoma last month, with Gordon offered at 9-2.