08/29/2003 11:00PM

Ride Dolphins early, Bengals late


LAS VEGAS - Here is a preview the NFL's AFC teams, focusing on factors for bettors to consider when looking to play on or against a given team (the NFC teams were reviewed in Sunday's editions).

As mentioned in the NFC preview, I would have fared better with my selections last year if I had followed my first impressions heading into the season instead of being influenced by how teams played week to week.

I recommended playing the Chiefs "right out of the gate," and they started the season 7-1-1 against the spread. I also thought the Titans would "reemerge as a playoff contender and should be considered a play as a dog or a short-priced favorite." They were 6-2 as a dog or favorite of 2 1/2 points or fewer. And I thought the Steelers would be a go-against team, and they started the season 0-3 vs. the spread and went 5-9-2 for the season.

My only clearly inaccurate assessments were that the Bengals would be a good under team - they were 10-5-1 with the over - and that the Chargers were "definitely a go-against team" - they started the season 4-0 vs. the spread, though they did finish only 8-7-1.

AFC East

Dolphins: The Dolphins were 11-5 with the under last year and should be an under team again. They likely will roll through the early part of their schedule, but if oddsmakers start inflating their lines after another strong start, the Dolphins could be a go-against teams in the second half.

Patriots: The Patriots should return to the playoffs after narrowly missing last season. I'll be looking to back them right out of the box. They'll also be an under team.

Bills: Off-season acquisitions could make the Bills' defense, a weakness last year, into a strength. With Drew Bledsoe winging the ball around, it's hard to think of the Bills as a good under bet, but the loss of receiver Peerless Price limits Bledsoe's options.

Jets: Let's make it four under teams. With more emphasis on Curtis Martin to take the pressure off Vinny Testaverde, plus an improved defensive unit, look for some low-scoring games. The Jets should also be a live dog.

AFC North

Steelers: The Pittsburgh defense was uncharacteristically soft last year, allowing 30-plus points on eight different occasions, including both playoff games. With the Steelers having a lot of weapons on offense, the over is the way to go in most of their games.

Ravens: Like the Patriots, this former Super Bowl champion is on the rise again. The big question mark is at quarterback, but, of course, that was the question with Tony Banks/Trent Dilfer in their Super Bowl season. The defense sets the tone, so the under is always the preferred play with the Ravens, but they should also show a nice profit against the spread.

Browns: Kelly Holcomb beat out Tim Couch for the starting quarterback job during training camp, but I sense that isn't the end of the story and will be a distraction all season long. I'm looking to play against the Brownies until I'm convinced they have a clear No. 1 quarterback who isn't looking over his shoulder.

Bengals: This could be a real sleeper team, but they have a brutal opening schedule (home vs. Broncos, at the Raiders, home vs. Steelers, and then Browns and Bills on the road) that doesn't allow them to get any early momentum. A 3-2 start would be impressive, though 1-4 or 2-3 is much more likely. For our purposes, they could be a huge overlay in the middle of the season vs. some mediocre teams.

AFC South

Titans: They came on strong late last season and I have every reason to believe they should have made a return trip to the Super Bowl, except for a second-quarter collapse vs. the Raiders. They have a great revenge spot vs. the Raiders in the opener and should be a solid play all season. However, be wary of laying more than a touchdown because coach Jeff Fisher plays games close to the vest.

Colts: The Titans and Colts are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the division. The Colts will probably again be a good bet against weak teams, but avoid them vs. decent competition. Last year, if you take away wins over the Texans and Cowboys, the Colts were only 3-11 against the spread.

Jaguars: Bet against Jacksonville from the start. The Jags have had a tough camp and are left with a lame duck at quarterback, Mark Brunell, who they shopped to other teams. Brunell also won't have his favorite target, Jimmy Smith, to start the season because of a drug suspension. When Byron Leftwich takes over, he's sure to experience rookie growing pains.

Texans: The Texans were 8-8 against the spread last season and might improve on that this year, but the better bet is that they improve on last year's 9-7 record with the under. The offense is coming along slowly, while the defense should remain solid under coach Dom Capers.

AFC West

Raiders: Do the aging Raiders have one final championship run in them? It will be tough, as they face a formidable road schedule. I'll look to play against them as road favorites.

Broncos: Defense will be the key to returning the Broncos to the league's elite. We know the offense will be explosive with Clinton Portis running wild and setting up Jake Plummer's passing game. Plummer should excel with a better supporting cast here than he ever had in Arizona, and look for the fans to fully back him after his first John Elway-like comeback. Ride the Broncos until they're an underlay later in the season.

Chiefs: The Chiefs were 11-5 with the over last year, and I look for that to continue unless the defense does a complete turnaround. With their explosive offense, they're always a live dog.

Chargers: The addition of receiver David Boston makes the offense more potent, but not enough has been done to upgrade the defense, which lost Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison. The over is the way to go.