09/08/2006 12:00AM

Season opener sets table for Sunday


Las Vegas was rocking Thursday night with the start of the NFL season. The sports books and bars saw good crowds as the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers played the Dolphins.

The Steelers closed as a 1 1/2-point favorite at the Coast Casinos with a total of 34. The Steelers' 28-17 victory was the favorite/over parlay that bookmakers usually dread, but it wasn't a bad result for Las Vegas books.

It would have been worse if it ended 21-17.

The books took a lot of money on the Dolphins at +6, +5, +5 1/2, +5, and +4 1/2 before Ben Roethlisberger's emergency appendectomy last Sunday. When he was announced out and Charlie Batch was declared the starter, the game went back up at pick-em and Pittsburgh -1. That saw more balanced action, but the books still had liability on the Dolphins on the money line, plus the exposure of being middled. With the score at 21-17, teaser bets with any combination of side and total were looking like winners, but when the Steelers' Joey Porter picked off Daunte Culpepper's pass and ran it back for a touchdown to make it 28-17, that killed all under bets and all but the earliest bets on the Dolphins plus the points.

But as wild and crazy as the crowds and the action were Thursday night, it'll be nothing compared to the scene Sunday with nine games kicking off at 10 a.m. local time, including three intriguing matchups (T.O. Dallas debut vs. Jacksonville, the Bears-Packers rivalry, and the Cardinals breaking their stadium's maiden vs. the 49ers), and the Manning Brothers Bowl on Sunday night with the Colts vs. Giants.

Everyone is advised to get their bets in early, and that includes horseplayers, too, as even more windows than usual will be devoted to the football crowd.

The Las Vegas Hilton is doing its part to address overcrowding with a free viewing party in its 1,100-seat Hilton Theater in a non-smoking environment. The marquee game will be on a 15-by-20-foot high-definition screen with theater sound, with the rest of the games shown on 10 more 7 1/2-by-10-foot screens. There will be $1 hot dogs and draft beer, plus appearances by the Miller Girls, who will be giving away prizes that include "Beer for a Year," Pro Bowl tickets with airfare to Hawaii, and Master Card gift cards. Betting windows will be set up outside the theater.

In addition to the Miller-sponsored drawings, the Hilton will also be giving away $10,000 in weekly drawings at 5 p.m. To enter, you have to earn game cards by playing slots, table games, poker, parimutuel racing, or parlay cards (must be made before 9 a.m. Sunday to help cut down on lines). You then fill out the contest cards by 10 a.m. and put them in the drum for the drawing at the end of the day.

As in the past, the Imperial Palace (where, not so coincidentally, Hilton race and sports book director Jay Kornegay used to work) will also be opening its 800-seat showroom for wall-to-wall football viewing on the Strip.

Either place is great for taking in the following games and the rest of the NFL action.

Ravens (+3) at Buccaneers

The Ravens are one of the teams I'll be looking to back a lot this season. The defense will be strong as usual, and should be able to contain Cadillac Williams and pressure Chris Simms into mistakes, but the real difference is on offense. Steve McNair fills the void at quarterback and is reunited with favorite receiver Derrick Mason. This should be a low-scoring battle with the Ravens coming out on top in the end.

PLAY: Ravens for 1 unit.

Falcons (+5 1/2) at Panthers

The Panthers might very well have the best team in the NFC, but I like the Falcons to stay in this game the whole way and possibly pull the upset. I took +6 when it was available, but I still like it at +5 1/2. The reason for the dip in the line is the injury to Carolina star receiver Steve Smith. That certainly helps the Falcons' cause as they try to slow down the Panthers. On offense, Atlanta's addition of Ashley Lelie helps the Falcons stretch the defense and create lanes for Alge Crumpler to get open and Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn to run wild.

PLAY: Falcons for 1 unit.

Saints at Browns (-3)

The Browns are another team I'm high on this year. They might not win more than eight games, but I see them being competitive and pulling a few upsets along the way and covering the spread in the majority of their games. Head coach Romeo Crenell, the former defensive coordinator with the Patriots, has the defense on the improve and will have a solid gameplan vs. Drew Brees, Deuce McAllister, and Reggie Bush. On offense, Charlie Frye is coming along nicely and will only get better with more playing time with Kellen Winslow Jr. and Braylon Edwards. The running game will also be improved with Reuben Droughns the power back and James Harrison the change-of-pace scat back. I don't see the Saints keeping up.

PLAY: Browns for 1 unit.

Colts at Giants (+3 1/2)

Manning vs. Manning. My lack of faith in Peyton Manning in big games - when he folds under pressure vs. good teams and makes far too many mistakes - is well documented, and the situation sets up here. The Colts have a good offensive line, but without running back Edgerrin James to slow down the Giants' vaunted pass rush, primarily Michael Strahan and Osi Omenyiora, they will be in Manning's face often. Eli Manning and the Giants' offense can take it to the Colts' defense and take control of the game.

PLAY: Giants for 1 unit.

Chargers at Raiders (+3)

The Chargers have had a nice run in recent years, but they take a step back with Philip Rivers moving into the starting role. And going to Oakland on a Monday night isn't the easiest place to make your starting debut. The Raiders' defense, though not the best in the league, should be able to load up to contain LaDainian Tomlison. The Chargers' defense will miss linebacker Steve Foley and will be tested by Aaron Brooks throwing deep to Randy Moss & Co. Rivers might be fine down the road, but I have to go against him in this spot.

PLAY: Raiders for 1 unit.