10/31/2003 12:00AM

Saints have favored Bucs' number

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LAS VEGAS - This weekend's NFL selections break down neatly into three underdogs (Saints, Texans, and Patriots) and three favorites (Bengals, Rams, and Vikings). Hopefully, it doesn't break down into three wins and three losses.

Saints (+8 1/2) at Buccaneers

Just like this year, the Saints were inconsistent last year as they finished with a 9-7 record and missed the playoffs. While they were 7-7 against the rest of the league in 2002, they swept their two games against the eventual world champion Buc-caneers. Such is life in the NFL, but it's clear that some teams just match up better against others (and get motivated to play certain teams.) The Saints were battling a multitude of injuries early this season and got off to a 1-4 start. As they got healthier, however, they won two straight games before rallying nearly to beat the Panthers last week. Granted, the Saints' three victories this season are against the Texans, Bears, and Falcons, but they pose many problems again for the Bucs. Quarterback Aaron Brooks is mobile enough to buy time against the pass rush, and he has a stellar supporting cast with running back Deuce McCallister (four straight 100-yard games, plus he averaged 104 yards in the two wins over the Bucs last year) and receivers Joe Horn, Jerome Pathon, and Donte Stallworth (back from a thigh injury). Now the injury bug has bitten the Bucs, especially the secondary, and that could seriously cost them this week.

PLAY: Saints for 1 unit.

Panthers at Texans (+7)

Houston quarterback David Carr went down with a high ankle sprain, and Tony Banks filled in admirably, with a lot of help from rookie running back Domanick Davis (two straight 100-yard games) as the Texans covered vs. the Colts in a 30-21 loss. Banks starts again Sunday and his experience should come in handy versus the defense of Carolina coach John Fox. The Panthers' offense rarely puts up a lot of points and relies on the defense to get them the victories. The formula has worked, as evidenced by their 6-1 record, but only one of the victories has been by more than a touchdown. The Texans play with more confidence at home and have a decent shot at the outright upset (but I will still gladly take the points).

PLAY: Texans for 1 unit.

Bengals (-3) at Cardinals

Last week, one of my most satisfying picks was tabbing the Cardinals +7 over the 49ers. I predicted it would be around the same score as last year's game in Arizona (a 49ers' 17-14 victory) and was pretty close as it ended 16-13, though the Cards won this one. But another statement I made was "The Cardinals are one of the worst teams in the league, which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for this selection." And despite that win, I still feel that way. One thing we see all the time in the NFL is that bad teams often play well against quality competition (see Saints vs. Bucs and Texans vs. Panthers above) but then when they face teams that they and their fans think they should beat, they come up flat. That's likely to happen here, especially since the Bengals are better than a lot of people think, having upset the Ravens and Seahawks the past two weeks. I'm fully aware the Bengals could suffer the same "play-down-to-the-competition syndrome" mentioned earlier, but I'm not worried about it, laying only 3 points with the superior team. Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna is on the same wave length with receiver Chad Johnson, and the running game has picked up and should have success with either Corey Dillon or Rudi Johnson carrying the load. But the key is that Cincinnati's defense is coming around under coach Marvin Lewis and should do more than enough to ensure a comfortable win.

PLAY: Bengals for 1 unit

Rams (-4 1/2) at 49ers

I liked this game when the line opened Rams -2 1/2 last week. We can't get that line anymore as it has been raised to 4 1/2 with the announcement that 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia will not play. I'm never crazy about laying more than a field goal when I could have laid less, but in this case the loss of Garcia is a fair trade-off. The Rams have won four straight games and the offense is clicking even with the starting running back changing just about every week (Marshall Faulk is expected to play, which could make the Rams even more potent). The 49ers have hit the skids and the loss of Garcia doesn't help. Nor does the replacement of kicker Owen Pochman with Todd Peterson. The 49ers have a lot more problems than those, and the Rams should be able to take advantage, especially after proving they can win on the road last week at Pittsburgh.

PLAY: Rams for 1 unit.

Packers at Vikings (-4 1/2)

I try not to have a trend be the primary reason for taking a game, but I will admit it in this case. I circled this game at the start of the year because I've won a lot of bets against the Packers (and quarterback Brett Favre) when they play in domes. The Pack is 2-15 against the spread in their last 16 indoor games, including 0-7 the past two years (the most recent loss was 34-24 two weeks ago at St. Louis). But putting aside all the voodoo handicapping, as I like to call it, there are more logical reasons for liking the Vikings in this game. The Packers are not the same team they were last year, and even Favre is getting banged up trying to carry the team. The Vikings went into hallowed Green Bay in the season opener and came out with a win and should certainly have an easier time at home. After a 6-0 start, the Vikes got brought back to earth in a loss to the Giants last week, and that should keep them more focused on this divisional battle. The Vikings' offense is still clicking and now gets back the services of running back Michael Bennett, who ran for 120 yards the last time he faced the Pack. There doesn't appear to be any reason for the Packers' woes to end indoors.

PLAY: Vikings for 1 unit.

Patriots (+2 1/2) at Broncos

The Patriots have won four straight games and are unbeaten against the spread since their season-opening loss to the Bills. Meanwhile, the Broncos have lost three of four since their 4-0 start, and have also lost four of their last five against the spread. Clearly, we have two teams heading in opposite directions. Last week, the Broncos were held without a touchdown in a 26-6 loss at Baltimore, and third-string QB-turned-starter Danny Kanell won't get any breaks this week vs. the defensive game plans of New England coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots' offense has also exhibited good balance and should do enough against the Denver D to get the outright win.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Last week: 5-1 for a net profit of 3.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

Season record: 24-14-4 for net profit of 8.6 units.