11/15/2002 12:00AM

Stay loyal to those underdogs


LAS VEGAS - NFL underdogs have been hitting at a 60 percent clip all season long, and a popular discussion in Las Vegas sports books is if that trend can continue.

It most definitely can.

As the season goes on, the public jumps on the bandwagon with winning teams and bets blindly against losing teams. We all see the same games and it's hard not to jump to extremes like "they're great" or "they're terrible." The oddsmakers have to adjust for this, driving up the lines on favorites and making it harder for them to cover.

Take last week, for instance. The Patriots were playing the Bears, a team most bettors have abandoned. The Patriots were favored by 3 1/2 (the dreaded hook) on the road. The Bears should have won the game, but still ended up losing by 3 and covering as a home dog.

Earlier in the season, we saw very few teams win straight-up but fail to cover. But last week the Rams, 49ers, and Titans - all home favorites - did just that. All three were examples of lines being shaded higher because the oddsmakers know the bettors will lay the points with the Rams and 49ers (and against the Texans in the case of the Titans).

So I find myself on four more dogs this week. Forgive me for taking one favorite (the 49ers), though note that they're laying less than a field goal.

Packers at Vikings (+7)

This game reminds me of my only previous 3-unit play in the NFL this season, the Raiders at the Rams in week 6. The Raiders had the best record in the league at 5-0 and the Rams were in the dumps. Oddsmakers installed the Raiders as a 7 1/2-point favorite and the public bet it up to 8. In case you forgot, the Rams won the game outright, 28-13. Now, you have the Packers with the league's top record at 8-1 and visiting the Vikings, who at 2-7 are only better than the Bengals in a lot of people's eyes. However, the Vikings showed life last week, rallying to take a 20-19 lead on the Giants before losing, 27-20. Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper has retained the starting job and should hook up with Randy Moss against a Packers' defense that has overachieved. The Vikings might not be able to stop Brett Favre and the Packers' offense, but they should be able to match them score for score. In addition, in their last 21 games on artificial turf, the Packers are 6-15 against the spread. They're even worse indoors, going 2-13 against the spread in their last 15 games in domes, including 0-3 last year at Minnesota, Detroit, and St. Louis (in the playoffs) and 0-2 this year at New Orleans and Detroit. Despite all this, oddsmakers installed the Packers as 6 1/2-point favorites and the public has bet it up to 7. The value is clearly on the Vikings in this divisional rivalry.

PLAY: Vikings for 3 units.

Jaguars at Texans (+6)

Just two weeks ago, the Texans upset the Jaguars, 21-19, in Jacksonville, so we know they can play with them. Now, the Texans play them at home and are getting 6 points. The Texans got a late TD to cover against the Titans last week, and - even if they don't knock off the Jags again - they should be within striking distance late to get in the backdoor. Don't get shut out. Note that this game has been moved up to 10 a.m Pacific while the Ravens-Dolphins game has been moved to the afternoon.

PLAY: Texans for 1 unit.

Bills (+3 1/2) at Chiefs

Every half point counts when betting the NFL, so even though the Chiefs are 7-1-1 against the spread this year, it's hard to pass up getting 3 and a hook on the visiting Bills. This game should see a lot of offense as both teams have been putting up a lot of points this season (the Chiefs are No. 2 in the league in scoring, the Bills are No. 4) while not showing the ability to stop their opponents (the Chiefs are tied for 29th in the league in points allowed, the Bills are 32nd and last). I'm looking at a final in the range of 33-30, which also puts me on the over.

PLAY: Bills for 1 unit, and over 51 for 1 unit.

49ers (-2 1/2) at Chargers

My one chalk play is basically because the 49ers are so balanced. They can hit you with big plays down the field, or pound you into submission with the running game. They control the game and the clock. The Chargers are coming back to the pack after a strong start (just like last year).

PLAY: 49ers for 1 unit.

Panthers (+9) at Buccaneers

The Panthers, despite falling to 3-6 in the standings, are still 6-3 against the spread and would have covered last week against the Saints except for a fumble return for a TD as time ran out. So, the Panthers remain competitive (even on the road where they are 3-1 against the spread) and are getting 9 points from the Buccaneers. When these two teams met three weeks ago in Carolina, the Bucs escaped with a 12-9 victory in a battle of field goals. I see a similar style of game, though I will avoid the total, which is set low at 34. The Bucs are coming off a bye week following their best offensive showing of the year, a 38-24 win over the Vikings, but the fact they had the bye could hurt them as they lose any momentum gained from that performance.

PLAY: Panthers for 1 unit.

Season record: 39-45-3 for a net loss of 10.1 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).