08/29/2002 12:00AM

Spot NFL trends before the crowd does

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Most publications try to predict the straight-up win-loss records of each NFL team and which teams will make it to the Super Bowl. But what I am going to try to do is anticipate which teams will provide value when taking the pointspread into consideration on a weekly basis, and which teams will be overpriced and good teams to bet against.

The key is to jump on these trends before the rest of the betting public, and especially before the oddsmakers adjust. The pointspread is called the great equalizer because it levels the playing field for two teams in any given game, but it's also a great equalizer because most NFL teams finish the season around the 8-8 mark against the spread.

Last year, for instance, only the Steelers, Patriots, Bears, Eagles, and Dolphins were better than 10-6 against the spread during the regular season, while only the Chargers and Seahawks were worse than 6-10. The other 24 teams in the league fell in the middle, so if you wait too long to recognize which teams are hot and which are not, the oddsmakers and other bettors will adjust and you'll be behind the learning curve.

Today we'll look at the NFC and then focus on the AFC on Sunday.

NFC East

Eagles: They were one game away from the Super Bowl last year, so they won't be getting points from too many teams. But I'd be wary betting against them as the Eagles were 13-6 against the spread last season.

Redskins: Because of their preseason success and coach Steve Spurrier's tendency to run up scores on weaker opponents, oddsmakers will have no choice but to inflate totals. But the Skins' strength is the defense, so the under could hold the most value early in the season.

Giants: The offense has shown increased firepower this preseason, so if the oddsmakers keep totals low on this team, which traditionally has a conservative offense and a strong defense, I'd look to the over.

Cowboys: Dallas has slowly put together a solid defense that will keep it in a lot of games, making the Cowboys a live dog, especially on the road. An emphasis on the ground game as Emmitt Smith chases Walter Payton's career rushing record and slow development of QB Quincy Carter also makes the under attractive.

NFC North

Packers: Green Bay is a very public team, so value often is on the other side. The Packers open at home and then play two games in domes (New Orleans and Detroit), where they usually struggle. They are a go-against team early in the season, especially with Brett Favre still adjusting to an overhauled receiving corps.

Bears: Every bounce went the Bears' way last year, so they have to be considered a go-against team also, especially in week 2 at Atlanta. Chicago was a league-best 11-5 with the under last season. With the Bears' solid defense, that has to be the way to look again. However, if the oddsmakers (and betting public) over-adjust like they did in making the over/under 31 1/2 in the playoff game to the Eagles, it'll be time to bet the over.

Vikings: When everybody counts this team out, that's usually when they play their best (like their Minnesota brethren, the Twins). The combo of Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss can strike from anywhere, so they're always a live dog even with their porous defense.

Lions: The Lions lost their first 12 games last year, but toward the end of that streak they had four straight covers as the public was betting blindly against them and driving up the lines. They'll often be home dogs (especially vs. Packers, Bears and Patriots) and should be able to cash some tickets.

NFC South

Buccaneers: Tampa Bay was 11-5 with the under last season, and if oddsmakers shade their totals lower based on past results, this is the time to jump on the over. New coach Jon Gruden should help open up the offense, and the defense might not be as effective with Tony Dungy gone.

Falcons: If QB Michael Vick can avoid injury, this team could shock a lot of people this year. The defense might take a while to adjust to the 3-4 scheme of Wade Phillips, so the over is again the way to look.

Saints: This team crashed and burned last season and the offense is in disarray with eight new starters. I would definitely look to play against them and also to the under.

Panthers: A lot of people are saying the Panthers will be the worst team in the league (even worse than the expansion Texans). But that doesn't mean they're an automatic go-against. They were 1-15 last year but 7-8-1 against the spread. I wouldn't call them live dogs, but with parity the way it is, they deserve a look when the line is inflated.

NFC West

Rams: If you ever bet the Rams, you have to do it early in the week before the public bets the number up even higher. But you might not want to do that anyway, because the more teams see how certain teams (the Bucs the past few years, and the Patriots in the Super Bowl) have defensed the Rams, the less effective they're likely to become. For that reason, the under should be an attractive bet in any game involving the Rams, especially with their defense getting better and better. Rams could also be a go-against when traveling to outdoor grass fields now that dome teams Falcons and Saints are out of their division.

49ers: San Fran will challenge the Rams for the division title this year, but their lines will be inflated also. I won't often bet against them, but it'll be hard to lay lots of points, too. The 49ers should be a better over bet than the Rams since their totals will be lower than those on St. Louis games.

Seahawks: Seattle plays four games against their old division rivals in the AFC West, but they are the only team to switch leagues and I'm not so sure they'll adjust right away. I'd look to bet against them, especially with Trent Dilfer out.

Cardinals: The Cards don't know how to win, but they usually stay close (and break their fans' hearts in the end). But that can make them a profitable team to bet on. They were 9-6-1 against the spread last year, and they'll be getting a lot of points when playing their new division-mates.

(This is the first in a two-part series previewing the NFL season.)