11/02/2001 1:00AM

Role reversal in AFC Central


NEW YORK, N.Y. - At the start of the season, Baltimore, Tennessee, and maybe even Jacksonville were expected to battle for playoff position all season long in the AFC Central. However, the division has been turned upside down and backwards this season as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Cincinnati are all giving the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens a run for their money atop the division standings.

This weekend's big game has Baltimore traveling to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers who lead the division at 5-2. The Ravens (4-3) will need a win if they are to avoid dropping a half-game behind the idle Bengals in the AFC Central playoff hunt.

The other big match-up features a battle between two of the NFL's biggest disappointments, the Titans (2-4) and the Jaguars (2-4). This game is important, because the loser will drop to last-place in the division at 2-5, and will have almost no chance of making the playoffs this season.


Jacksonville (+3) at Tennessee

The Titans need wins to get back in the AFC playoff picture after a slow start has left the team with some catching up to do. Tennessee would like nothing more than to begin their charge up the AFC Central standings with a revenge win here against divisional rival Jacksonville, who beat them 13-6 earlier this year after Steve McNair got injured. However, this may not be the easiest spot for the Titans to come up with a big effort. Tennessee is coming off a Monday night game and has had a short week of preparation for this game. This also could be a look-ahead spot with another revenge situation coming up next week against the defending champion Ravens. Also, there is a reason that the Titans are 2-4 straight-up and 0-5-1 against the spread. Their offense is banged-up, and their defense allowed an average of 26 points per game as they continue to really miss departed defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (now head coach of Buffalo). The Jags have played some very low-scoring games this season, and they should keep this game close against a Titans team that is 0-1-1 against the spread at home this season. Also, Eddie George is listed as doubtful with an injured knee/ankle. Play: Jacksonville for 2 units.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh (-2)

Whether it's Elvis Grbac or Randall Cunningham quarterbacking Baltimore, the problems moving the ball and putting it into the end zone seem to be the same. The Ravens' lack of a running game has made it difficult for them to control the time of possession, and therefore keep the defense off the field. The defense, as a result, has not been nearly as effective as it was last year when it propelled Baltimore to the Super Bowl. When the Ravens have occasionally shown signs of a pulse this season it has been at home where they are 3-0 straight-up and 2-1 against the spread. On the road, Baltimore is just 1-3 straight-up and against the spread including losses at Cincinnati and Cleveland. Pittsburgh is coming off a short week after playing on Monday night, but that game was at home and this game is at home meaning the impact on the Steelers should be minimal. Pittsburgh is 2-0 straight-up and against the spread at home in their new stadium, and the Steelers have covered four straight games thanks to a defense which has allowed an average of only nine points a game. The Steelers beat Baltimore last season, and will again be up for this important division game. Play: Pittsburgh for 1 unit.

Carolina at Miami (-10)

Things have not all been golden for the Dolphins this season, but they have been a much better team at home where they are 2-0 straight-up and against the spread as opposed to 2-2 SU and ATS on the road. One thing that's a concern on the road that isn't a problem at home is artificial turf. On grass, Miami is 3-1 against the spread this season, and 11-4-1 ATS dating back to last year. Carolina has become perhaps the worst team in the NFL this season with six losses in a row including one against Washington two weeks ago. Since winning their opening game, the Panthers are only 2-4 against the spread including three straight no-cover losses on the road. Miami came back from its bye week to score a come-from-behind win on the road against a Seattle team that has been solid at home all season. This week, look for the Fish to make it two in a row by burying a team they're supposed to beat easily at home. Play: Miami for 1 unit.

Seattle at Washington (-2 1/2)

Don't look now, but Washington is getting better. The Redskins started the season with three no-cover losses, but have not suffered a pointspread setback in their last four games. The Skins are 3-0-1 against the spread since Tony Banks' second game as the starter back on Oct. 7. Three thousand miles to the northwest, Seattle has done some improving of its own with the help of a three game home stand. The Seahawks went 2-1 SU and ATS in those three home games, but now must go back out on the road where they have already failed to cover twice in two games so far this season. Grass is also not particularly the Seahawks' bag. They are 0-2 against the spread on grass this year, and 3-6 against the spread on this surface dating back to last season. Seattle has also been a terrible favorite with a record of 5-12 against the spread when giving points during the 2+ year tenure of head coach Mike Holmgren. Play: Washington for 1 unit.

N.Y. Jets (+6 1/2) at New Orleans

The Saints fell behind 24-6 in last week's rivalry game against St. Louis, but then saved their season with a come-from-behind 34-31 win with a little help from eight Rams turnovers. Coming off that game, New Orleans now finds itself in a major letdown situation against the Jets. Making matters worse, this is also a non-division sandwich game for the Saints, who may look ahead to next week's important NFC West showdown at San Francisco. New York is only 3-4 against the spread, but the Jets have played well on the road where they are 3-0 straight up and 2-1 against the spread including a 42-26 win over Buffalo on artificial turf. With good road form so far, it's not far-fetched to think the Jets will have success on this particular road trip. New Orleans lost its last home game by a touchdown against Atlanta, and has now lost and failed to cover in three of its last five regular-season home games dating back to last season. Play: N.Y. Jets for 1 unit.

Monday night

Denver (+5 1/2) at Oakland

Two weeks ago we saw Philadelphia end a nine game losing streak against the Giants, and this week it could be Oakland's turn as the Raiders look to end a seven-game losing streak to the Broncos. The question is, however, can they cover? John Gruden has never beaten Mike Shanahan, but the Raiders come into this game playing much better football than Denver, which has lost two straight road games to divisional rivals Seattle and San Diego by a combined score of 61-31. Brian Griese's sore shoulder has improved, however, and the Broncos offense responded for 31 points last week after struggling to average only 16 points in its four previous games. The Raiders can win this game, but it's difficult to get too excited about their betting prospects based on the Broncos record of 9-1 against the spread as road dogs the last two years. Oakland is 7-3 against the spread at home dating back to last year, and has won eight straight regular-season home games. However, the Raiders last home defeat was a 33-24 loss to these very same Broncos last season. Play: Denver for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-2 (plus 2 units)

Season record: 19-18-1 (plus 5 units)