10/17/2003 12:00AM

Road underdogs are the hot picks


LAS VEGAS - This week's plays break down easily into four road underdogs that might be the better teams, anyway (though it's always nice to have the pointspread working for us), and a home favorite that is hitting its stride and shouldn't have any problems covering a 4-point spread.

Eagles (+3) at Giants

Oh, my, how things have changed. Before the season, this game looked liked one of the few hurdles for the Eagles in the NFC East race. Now, the loser of this game will be last in the division at 2-4 and really have its back against the wall chasing the Cowboys and the improved Redskins. Injuries have depleted the Eagles on both sides of the ball, especially on defense, and quarterback Donovan McNabb hasn't been himself after injuring the thumb on his throwing hand. But his legs are fine, and that should help him escape the Giants' pass rush (17 sacks already this season) and take advantage of the Giants' secondary. The Eagles' secondary welcomed the return of Troy Vincent last week and should have Bobby Taylor back this week. That, along with a solid run defense (allowing a league-low 68 yards per game), should keep the Giants' offense in check.

PLAY: Eagles for 1 unit.

Broncos (+3 1/2) at Vikings

The Vikings are the league's only undefeated team against the spread, and I've been happy to ride them a few times. But I'm looking for that streak to end. The Broncos have the better all-around team and won't be intimidated playing in Minnesota. Running back Clinton Portis should help take some of the pressure off Steve Beuerlein, who starts again for Denver in place of Jake Plummer. That may be part of the reason I'm getting more than a field goal, but another factor is the return of Vikings' QB Daunte Culpepper, who will start in place of backup Gus Frerotte. Culpepper is a great athlete, but you can argue that Frerotte fit the offense better and there could be a dropoff in production if Culpepper is rusty.

PLAY: Broncos for 1 unit.

Titans (+2) at Panthers

This certainly wasn't intentional, but I'm trying to beat both of the NFC's undefeated teams this week. There's no question the Panthers have earned their 5-0 record (but only 3-2 against the spread), with victories over the Buccaneers and Colts. But they're still not balanced enough on offense or particularly dominant on defense to be given too much respect, and I think we see that in the line since they're only a slight favorite at home. The Titans are the team the Panthers are aspiring to be: a balanced team that runs and passes well and plays stellar defense. The biggest difference is at quarterback. The Titans have Steve McNair, who can win games with his legs or his strong right arm. He is also a very accurate passer and deadly on third down. The Panthers are 26th in the league against the pass (though a lot of the yards they've allowed have been because they've been ahead by so much) and have a size disadvantage against the Titans' receivers. The Panthers have Jake Delhomme, who has performed admirably since taking over for Rodney Peete, but he's not exactly the QB you want with a big game on the line. His effectiveness will be further hindered if running back Stephen Davis is bothered at all by his bruised arm.

PLAY: Titans for 1 unit.

Patriots (+5 1/2) at Dolphins

Along with the Eagles-Giants clash, this is the most important divisional battle of the week (the Chiefs-Raiders game has lost a lot of its luster since the Raiders are 2-4). Miami is 4-1 and New England is 4-2. Both teams have rebounded from big losses in their respective season openers. Both have handled the Jets and Giants. But the Patriots' other wins, over the Eagles and Titans, have been more impressive than the Dolphins' victories over the Bills and Jaguars. The Pats lost to the Redskins three weeks ago, but that was when quarterback Tom Brady wasn't throwing well with injured right elbow. Since that loss Brady hasn't thrown an interception and the Patriots have also averaged 118 rushing yards per game. The Dolphins' Ricky Williams usually has good games vs. New England, but the Pats haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher this season and that could be the key to the upset. Even if the Patriots can't pull off the road win in Miami, this could easily come down to a field goal and I'll gladly take the points as my insurance policy.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Packers at Rams (-4)

Way back on May 8, I recommended a play on this game at the then-current price of Rams -3 (note: I also said a good value would be taking the Rams -3 vs. the Falcons in last Monday night's game, which proved to be a very nice line as the Rams went off as a 10-point favorite and won 36-0). Regardless, I'm still comfortable laying 4 points at this time. The Rams, under quarterback Marc Bulger, are playing like the "Greatest Show on Turf" that we've come to expect, even though the wins have come vs. the 49ers, Cardinals and Falcons. The Packers, who lost to those same Cardinals and are having an up-and-down season, are 6-16 in their last 22 games on artificial turf. They're even worse in domes, going 2-14 against the spread in their last 16 games indoors, and 0-6 the past two years. That's been a money-making trend and, for whatever reason, Brett Favre plays his worst in domes. I see no reason for this to change.

PLAY: Rams for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-3 for a net loss of 0.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

Season record: 15-12- 4 for net profit of 1.8 units.