11/21/2003 1:00AM

Some dogs won't need points


LAS VEGAS - When I initially went over this week's NFL card, I landed on a lot of favorites. That's typical of a lot of bettors. The more we see these teams play, the more inclined we are to go with the teams that are playing well, and those tend to be favored.

When this happens, I like to go around town and put in my picks for all of the football pools, the vast majority of which are to win straight-up with no point spreads involved. I'm a firm believer that you need to pick some upsets in these contests if you want to make any money. If you play all the favorites, on the rare occasion when all the favorites come in you're going to be splitting the prize money with hundreds of other chalk-players.

As I start to fill out my cards, I really focus in on which underdogs I think can win outright and separate me from the crowd. In the process, I'm able to make a case for taking the underdogs with the points.

That's what I did this week, and ended up with three underdogs among my five point spread plays. Hopefully the points won't even come into play, but it certainly increases the likelihood of cashing the tickets if they lose a close game.

Lions (+10 1/2) at Vikings

Based on the fact I think they can win outright, the Lions have to be considered my upset special of the day. The stat you have probably already heard is that the Lions have lost 21 straight on the road. What isn't getting mentioned is that the Lions covered twice on the road this year at Denver and San Francisco when they were getting more than a touchdown each time. In this spot, the Lions are getting more than a touchdown plus a field goal. The Lions lost to Vikings by that amount back in the third week of the season, 23-13, when they were 3 1/2-point home dogs. The Lions should have covered, as they had a first-and-goal at the Vikings' 1 in the closing minutes but were unable to get in the end zone. In addition, Joey Harrington had two passes picked off in the end zone in the final five minutes, so the Lions certainly had their opportunities to cover the spread. And keep in mind that the Vikings were playing very well at that time. Now, they have lost four straight, and the defense is showing a lot of holes. The Lions haven't been an offensive machine themselves, but they should do enough to at least stay within single digits.

PLAY: Lions for 1 unit.

Jaguars (+4) at Jets

Despite only two wins on the season, the Jaguars have been playing well the past month, with only a win over the Colts to show for it because of a very tough schedule. Last week, they had a first-and-goal against the Titans with a chance to force overtime, only to come up short in the closing seconds. The offense, improving slowly with rookie Byron Leftwich, should have an easier time against the Jets. Even if running back Fred Taylor isn't 100 percent, the Jaguars should be able to rack up yards on the ground against the Jets' 32nd-ranked rush defense (154 yards per game). That should help Leftwich win the battle against his former Marshall teammate and mentor Chad Pennington.

PLAY: Jaguars for 1 unit.

Saints (+5 1/2) at Eagles

The Eagles have won five straight games to overcome a slow start, and Donovan McNabb is a winning quarterback again. The big reason for this is that the Eagles' defense has held their opponents under 20 points in each of those games. The Eagles' offense is still ranked only 26th in the league and won't have much more success against a Saints' defense that is ranked 13th and has only allowed one team to score more than 20 points in its last six games. Meanwhile, the Eagles' defense, which allowed 111 rushing yards to the Giants' Tiki Barber last week, will be severely tested by the running of Deuce McAllister (seven straight 100-yard games) and the spread passing attack of Aaron Brooks. A quick Saints start should bring the Philly boo birds out early and negate any home-field advantage, which the Eagles haven't really had in their new stadium anyway.

PLAY: Saints for 1 unit.

Colts (-3) at Bills

If I can't find a compelling reason to bet the dog, then I feel confident enough to lay the points with the chalk, especially when they are short-priced favorites, as with my final two selections. The Colts are better at covering small point spreads (3-0 when favored by 3 points or fewer this season) than when they're laying a bunch (2-3 when favored by more than 3). The offense continues to click, even with star receiver Marvin Harrison's hamstring injury, and Peyton Manning should have no problem finding receivers against a weak Bills' secondary. But the Bills' real problems have been on offense, as the 10 points they put up against the Texans last week was their most points in the last three games, and that score was inflated by a pair of safeties, one of which was intentional. With running back Travis Henry and receiver Eric Moulds hobbled by injuries, the Bills' offensive prospects don't look to be improving any time soon. The Colts should run away with this.

PLAY: Colts for 1 unit.

Steelers at Browns (-3)

The Browns beat the Steelers 33-13 seven weeks ago in Pittsburgh, and there's no reason to think they won't do it again. In fact, the Browns are 3-0-1 in the last four meetings with this rival and could have easily won the game that was a push (remember the overtime game last year when the Browns blocked a field goal on third down, but the Steelers recovered it behind the line and got a second chance?). James Jackson has filled in just fine for William Green with three TD's in the last two games, and Kelly Holcomb has been efficient at quarterback after getting his job back from Tim Couch. I also like the fact the Steelers, who have pretty much seen their playoff hopes go up in smoke, are coming off a short practice week following their blowout loss last Monday in San Francisco.

PLAY: Browns 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: 31-24-4 for net profit of 4.6 units.