10/04/2001 11:00PM

Spread or no spread, the idea is to win


The point spread can sometimes confuse matters. Handicappers try to look at a game from every possible angle to decide if a favorite should be bet to cover the spread, or if the underdog should be taken with the points.

Some publications even list handicappers' picks with an asterisk if they think an underdog will cover the spread but lose the game. But when it comes down to it, a lot of times the point spread is irrelevant: Either underdogs win outright or favorites win and cover the spread.

Take the last two weeks of the NFL, for example. Of the 29 games played since the NFL resumed after a one-week hiatus, there has been only one game in which a favorite won a game outright but failed to cover the spread. That was the Rams' 30-26 victory over the 49ers on Sept. 23. And in that case, the Rams were marching right down the field and could have easily kicked a field goal or gone into the end zone with another play or two, but Kurt Warner took two knees after getting first-and-goal on the 49ers' 5 with a minute and a half remaining.

The other 28 games have been won by the team that covered the spread. I'm in every straight-up football contest in Vegas and went 11-3 on several cards last week. I wish that was my against-the-spread record. In my picks on the NFL selectors box that appears on the drf.com football page, I was 7-7, mostly because I was taking the points with some teams I really didn't think would win their games outright.

Of course, if you just bet the team you think will win, you're going to lose some bets when they don't cover, but in the long run it's best to go with the team you think will win and let the points fall where they may.

Vikings (+3 1/2) at Saints

After struggling to an 0-2 start, the Vikings got a huge lift when Duante Culpepper lifted them to a 20-16 win over Tampa Bay. That momentum should carry over to this week, especially with a defense that stepped up in the clutch and said, "The Bucs stop here." The Saints are 1-1 after a hard-fought loss to the Giants in which their offense didn't do anything until the final quarter. A slow start this week will find them buried. Last week, I was right in predicting Chiefs QB Trent Green would break out of his early-season slump against the Redskins, and this week is Vikings WR Randy Moss's coming-out party.

Play: Vikings for 22 units.

Bengals at Steelers (-5)

After not playing for three weeks, the Steelers were a little rusty against the Bills last Sunday before finally coasting to a 20-3 victory. Now they (finally) get to play their first regular-season game at Heinz Field. The Bengals are coming off a 28-14 loss to the Chargers, and you can expect Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher to attack the Bengals the same way.

Play: Steelers for 11 units. (Note: this line has been dropping all week, and some books had moved to 4 1/2 by Friday).

Panthers at 49ers (-6 1/2)

The 49ers return home after a win over the Jets Monday night in which they showcased the running game. They will be able to mix the run and the pass against a Panthers team that has dropped two straight since their opening-day win over the Vikings.

Play: 49ers for 11 units.

Jets at Bills (+4 1/2)

You wouldn't know it from the 20-3 loss to the Steelers, but the Bills showed signs of life last week. The 49ers exposed some weaknesses in the Jets' run defense on Monday night. The Bills were able to run on the Steelers last week before they were forced to pretty much pass on every play. The Bills will also benefit from the Jets coming off a Monday night loss to the 49ers and a short practice week.

Play: Bills for 11 units.

Rams (-13) at Lions

I'm bucking a few trends here. You're not supposed to lay double-digits on the road in the NFL (see Colts-Patriots result from last week), especially on Monday night football. But there's just too wide of a talent gap here. Playing on artificial turf on the road is just like another home game for the Rams' high-powered offense. Dennis Miller will have plenty of opportunity to do his stand-up bit in the second half of this rout. This line opened at 10 1/2 and the money is on the right side.

Play: Rams for 11 units.

Over/under plays

I had some success with over/ unders in the XFL last spring. The public loves to bet the over, and I tend to focus on finding unders where there is exceptional line value. Two games qualify this week. If you average out the total points scored in the five games played by the Bears and Falcons, you come up with 29.4, yet the line is at 39 1/ 2. The Falcons will be without RB Jamal Anderson and WR Tony Martin, and you can't expect Maurice Smith to run through the Bears as much as he did against the Cardinals. The Vikings and Saints combine to only score 32.8 points per game, yet their total is 44 1/2. If this game does go over, it will be because the Vikings win in a rout, in which case I would still win my best bet above.

Plays: Bears-Falcons under 39 1/2 for 11 units and Vikings-Saints under 44 1/2 for 11 units.

Starting bankroll: 1,000 units.

Bankroll entering last week: 1,005 units.

Last week: 3-2 (including double play loss on Panthers) for net loss of 3 units.

Current bankroll: 1,002 units.