10/03/2002 11:00PM

Starting QB changes yield NFL plays

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LAS VEGAS - Horseplayers are used to taking "changes" into account in their handicapping, whether it's a change of jockeys, a change of track, a change of racing surface, Lasix, blinkers on, blinkers off, or first-time gelding (the ultimate equipment change).

Similarly, football handicappers have a lot of changes to take into consideration on a week-to-week basis, with injuries being the most obvious. A few banged-up linemen on either side of the ball can change a team's fortunes in a hurry, as can a depleted secondary or receiving corps.

But the most visible change is when a team switches quarterbacks. In this week's plays, I'm going to go against one QB who has been thrust into the starting lineup (Chad Pennington of the Jets) while backing another (Jamie Martin of the Rams).

Chiefs (-3) at Jets

The Chiefs are merely 2-2, but they have put up 40 points on the Browns, 38 on the Patriots, and 48 on the Dolphins - all decent opposing defenses. The Jets haven't been able to shut down anyone, giving up 31 points to the Bills, 44 to the Patriots, 30 to the Dolphins, and 28 to the Jaguars. There's no reason why the Chiefs won't put up more than 30 points on the Jets. Even though the Chiefs haven't offered much resistance to passing teams, they should be able to contain the Jets receivers and spoil Chad Pennington's starting debut, especially since Curtis Martin is still hobbled with an ankle injury.

PLAY: Chiefs for 2 units.

Redskins at Titans (-5 1/2)

The Titans are a hard team to figure. They rallied to beat a strong Eagles team in week 1, then inexplicably lost to the Cowboys, then should have beaten the Browns only to lose late, and then got dominated by the Raiders. The Titans are the best 1-3 team in the league, and this game should help get them back on the winning track. Their inconsistency is the only reason they're being asked to lay less than a touchdown at home to the Redskins, who are coming off a bye week. Titans WR Derrick Mason is out, but QB Steve McNair has a deep receiving corps and should be able to do some of the same things Donovan McNabb did to the Redskins defense, when he led the Eagles to an easy 37-7 win on Monday night three weeks ago. Regardless if Danny Wuerffel or Patrick Ramsey is named the Redskins starting QB, their offense will continue to struggle.

PLAY: Titans for 2 units.

Rams (+7) at 49ers

Kurt Warner's replacement at QB, Jamie Martin, was 24-for-37 for 262 yards off the bench last week and will benefit hugely from a full week of practice with the first-team offense, just like he did when he had to fill in for Mark Brunell in Jacksonville. Warner is great (when healthy), but there won't be too much of a dropoff, and we're getting a full touchdown with the team that not too long ago was considered the best in football. The 49ers haven't exactly been lighting up the scoreboard (scoring only 50 points in their three games before their bye), so I don't see them being able to rout the Rams at this time. You also might want to consider a money-line play on the Rams in the +250 range - it might be the last time you see them at that price for a long time.

PLAY: Rams for 2 units.

Cardinals (+3 1/2) at Panthers

The Panthers are 4-0 against the spread, but they're in a vulnerable spot here, laying a field goal (plus a half-point) at home. As surprising as their 3-1 start is, it's really not that shocking. They have beaten the Ravens, Lions, and Vikings (who have a combined record of 2-9). Sure, they hung tough with the Packers at Lambeau Field - and should have at least forced overtime except for a short missed field goal. But if they're believing their press clippings, they could be in for a humbling loss to the Cardinals. The 2-2 Cards are coming off a solid though unspectacular 21-7 win over the Giants. But that's the kind of game you have to play against the Panthers, and the Cards' win over the Giants was the perfect prep race. They also have the incentive of knowing that if they win and the Rams beat the 49ers, the Cardinals will be in first place in the NFC West.

PLAY: Cardinals for 1 unit.

Ravens (+7) at Browns

The Ravens were considered a doormat, but they showed they still have some fight left in them with a convincing 34-23 victory over the Broncos Monday night. Now they get another chance to shine in the primetime spotlight on Sunday night's ESPN game versus the Browns. If the Ravens win, they will have at least a share of first place (and sole possession if the Steelers fall to the Saints). The Browns could very well be 4-0 if not for some flukey plays (Dwayne Rudd's helmet toss and the blocked field goal in OT last week against Pittsburgh that stayed behind the line of scrimmage and gave the Steelers another chance to win it). But sometimes you have to factor in the fact a team is snakebit.

PLAY: Ravens for 1 unit.

Over/under plays

After making a little profit the past few weeks on some unders (I was 8-5 before going 2-3 last week), the opportunities seemed to have dried up as totals have dropped, but not far enough to consider a bunch of overs. I will go with just two unders this week: Patriots-Dolphins under 43 1/2 and the Eagles-Jaguars under 41 1/2.

Season record: 21-22, including a 2-2 record on best bets, for a net loss of 3.4 units.