01/06/2005 12:00AM

St. Louis just has Seattle's number


LAS VEGAS - After weeks of trying to handicap NFL games while worrying about which teams would rest their players and which of the also-rans would put forth their best effort or just play out the string, the games we have been waiting for are finally here.

It's playoff time.

This is like Breeders' Cup Day in horse racing: There's no need to consider if someone is holding something back or looking forward to another goal. Sure, all NFL players are dreaming of the Super Bowl trophy, but unlike in horse racing, if they lose one of these "preps" they don't get to move on to the bigger events.

Everybody will be giving 100 percent effort. Well, except for maybe Vikings receiver Randy Moss - but that's a column for another day.

Saturday brings us two first-round matchups, with the NFC West champion Seahawks hosting the Rams, their divisional rival, at 1:30 p.m. Pacific, and the upstart Chargers hosting the Jets in the nightcap at 5 p.m. Pacific.

Rams (+4) at Seahawks

First things first. It should be pointed out that these two likely would be "go-against" teams if they were facing anyone else in the first round, but we don't have that luxury.

This is the third meeting between these two teams, with the Rams winning the first game in Seattle, 33-17, in overtime after rallying from a 17-point deficit, and then dominating in a 23-12 victory on Nov. 14. The old football adage goes, "It's hard to beat a team three times in a season," but the last 15 times divisional rivals have met in the playoffs after one team won both regular-season meetings, the sweep has been completed 10 times.

But that's not my main reason for picking the underdog Rams. It comes down to matchups, and the Rams have shown they can handle the Seahawks on both sides of the ball.

The Seahawks offense has its problems, Shaun Alexander's complaints about falling a yard short of the rushing title notwithstanding. The Rams should be able to devote more defenders to the run, because the Seahawks are likely to struggle in the passing game. Darrell Jackson is questionable physically (hamstring), Koren Robinson is questionable mentally (head), and Jerry Rice, while still having great hands, isn't able to separate himself from defenders the way he used to.

In their two previous wins, the Rams were able to pass at will on the Seattle secondary, and St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger is fully recovered from his injuries that sidelined him for a couple of weeks and nearly cost the Rams a playoff berth. He threw for 450 yards last week vs. the Jets and is spreading the ball around to all his weapons. In addition, the Rams have shown the willingness to use Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk in the running game, and that makes the Rams even more dangerous. Note that in the second meeting, Faulk ran for 139 yards vs. the Seahawks and Jackson added 47 on just 10 carries.

The common perception is that the Seahawks perform better at home, but they were only 5-3 this year and 1-7 against the spread. The Rams have already gone into Seattle and won, and the Seahawks have to be thinking that the Rams have their number. It will be hard to get rid of that albatross from around their choking necks.

PLAY: Rams for 1 unit.

Jets (+7) at Chargers

Anyone who has followed my picks closely the last few years will not be surprised that I often think the Jets are an overrated team. It just seems that the media, a lot of which is based in New York city, builds them up to be better than they are when they succeed and makes excuses for them when they fail. That leads to a lot of inflated point spreads, and I've gone against them far more times than I've backed them. I've had some memorable wins and some embarrassing losses.

So I would love nothing better than to take the Chargers in this game. After all, they're playing at home and were 13-1-2 against the spread this year, 6-1-1 at home. But every time I look back at their earlier meeting this season, I land on the Jets.

The Jets beat the Chargers, 34-28, on this same field in the second week of the season. That wasn't a shock, since the Jets were 3 1/2-point road favorites. Obviously, San Diego fans will argue that the Chargers were a different team back then and hadn't picked up the momentum that took them through the rest of the season, but I'm not so sure of that.

In that meeting, the Chargers were coming off an outright upset in Houston and were out to beat a quality team to prove the win wasn't a fluke. Plus, they had winnable games coming up against the Dolphins, Bills, and 49ers. They were poised for a good start to the season, yet the Jets jumped out to a 17-0 lead on two Curtis Martin touchdowns, and the only real first-half offense by the Chargers was an 87-yard kickoff return by Tim Dwight.

The Jets were able to contain LaDainian Tomlinson, and Drew Brees, the NFL's comeback player of the year, had his worst game of the season, completing only 8 of 19 pass attempts for 146 yards and two interceptions. What the box score doesn't tell you is that he was only 3 of 12 with two interceptions before suffering a concussion and was 5 of 7 with a TD after the concussion. The Jets were ahead, 27-7, before his concussion, though, and his better stats were against a prevent defense.

I remember the Jets controlling it from start to finish, with Martin rushing for 119 yards and Chad Pennington picking apart the San Diego defense with a 22-of-29 performance for 258 yards. And while I know the Chargers turned their season around and the Jets didn't finish as strongly as they would have liked, I certainly don't think these teams are that much different from four months ago, not enough to warrant more than a 10-point swing in the line.

Add in the Jets' edge in playoff experience and I'll take the touchdown head start.

PLAY: Jets for 1 unit.

Last week: 4-1 for a net profit of 2.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 41-42-3 for a net loss of 5.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).