09/05/2006 12:00AM

Roethlisberger saga has pushed line way down


The NFL season kicks off Thursday night with the defending champion Steelers hosting the Dolphins. A lot of hard work has led up to this since the Super Bowl. Oddsmakers, as well as bettors, have spent hours analyzing matchups, going over game films, and crunching the numbers.

Lines for Week 1 have been up five months, since early April, and the one that everyone is gearing up for Thursday night is the one that's had the most interesting history.

The Las Vegas Hilton opened the Steelers as a 6-point favorite in April (Pinnacle, the offshore giant, opened it at 6 1/2). Early wagering dropped the line to 5 1/2 at most books, and that's where it sat on June 12, when Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had his motorcycle accident. The game was immediately taken off the board, and it stayed off at most sports book even well after it was announced that Roethlisberger wouldn't miss any games.

Some books posted the line back at 5 1/2, and when Roethlisberger reported to training camp on time, the rest of the books followed suit. During the preseason, the line got bet to 5 and then 4 and then even 3 1/2 at some books. Bettors seemed to like the Dolphins more and more as the season approached.

Then the latest twist came Sunday, when it was learned Roethlisberger had undergone an emergency appendectomy. The game came off the board again. When it was announced that Big Ben would definitely miss the opener and be replaced by Charlie Batch, the line was adjusted to Pittsburgh -1 at half the books in Vegas, with the other half going with pick-em. By noon Tuesday, the consensus line around town was Pittsburgh -1, with a total of 34 1/ 2, down from a high of 38 1/2.

I have a small bet on the Dolphins +5, but I'm not going to make that an official bankroll selection, for a couple of reasons. For one, that juicy price is long gone, and I'm not going to go on record with Dolphins +1. Plus, we often see teams rally around their backup QB, and the Steelers were 2-0 last year in games that Batch started.

Although the opening lines for all Week 1 games are five months old (see chart), they're so close to the current numbers that if you didn't know better, you might think they were from a current sports book.

Besides the ongoing soap opera in Pittsburgh, the teams that have had their lines change the most are the defending NFC champion Seahawks, whose line vs. the Lions went from -4 to -6; and the Redskins, whose line vs. the Vikings went from from -6 to -4 at the Hilton, Palms, and El Cortez and to -5 at Leroy's and Golden Nugget by noon Tuesday.

Another line that is off by more than a point is the Cardinals vs. 49ers, which opened at Cards -9 at the Hilton and quickly got bet down to 7 1/2 pretty much all over town. That's where the line has stood for the past month, though the Hilton was the first to raise it to -8 again Sunday.

Finally, the Chiefs opened -4 vs. the Bengals and were mostly available at -4 1/2 for most of the summer, since it wasn't certain if Carson Palmer, recovering from offseason knee surgery, would be starting the season for Cincinnati. But when Palmer put in a strong performance in the Bengals' third preseason game on Aug. 28 on national TV, the line plummeted to -3. By noon Tuesday, the Hilton and Wynn had moved the line to 2 1/2, as the public continues to back the Bengals.

Colleges head into second week

The marquee college game this weekend is undoubtedly Ohio St. at Texas, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the AP and USA Today polls. The oddsmakers made Texas a 2 1/2-point favorite on Sunday night when the lines came out.

I'm not going to make an official play on this game, either, but I will predict that no matter what team wins, you're going to hear the result described as an upset. If Texas wins, you'll hear TV talking heads calling it an upset, since No. 2 beat No. 1. And if Ohio St. wins, you'll hear people familiar with the betting lines calling it an upset since the underdog prevailed.

* When the Palms and Leroy's put up opening college numbers on Sunday night, the two biggest moves involved a change of favorites. Colorado opened as a 1-point favorite over rival Colorado St., but the Rams were quickly bet to favoritism and were -2 1/ 2 by Monday afternoon at books all over town. Boston College opened as a 1-point favorite vs. Clemson at Leroy's and -1 1/ 2 at the Palms, and now Clemson is between a 2- and 3-point favorite around town.

* Keep in mind the smart money hasn't necessarily been the right money so far in college football. Big line moves that went down in flames last weekend included Arkansas getting bet from +10 to +7 1/2 vs. USC before losing, 50-14, and California getting bet from a 2 1/2-point underdog to a 3-point favorite at Tennessee before losing, 35-18.

April's week 1 opening lines

TITANS -2.5Jets