01/25/2002 12:00AM

Take dog Patriots and favored Rams


LAS VEGAS - The NFL playoffs are down to the Final Four. The Rams were certainly expected to be here, but the other three teams have had surprising seasons.

The oddsmakers opened the Steelers as an 8-point favorite over the Patriots and the Rams as an 11-point choice over the Eagles. The betting public, which backed both favorites last week and pounded bookmakers as both teams rolled, jumped all over the two favorites early in the week. By noon Friday, the Steelers were a solid 9 1/2-point favorite over the Patriots. The Rams - after being as high as 12 1/2 but then bet back down to 11 after news of QB Kurt Warner's nagging ailments - have settled at 11 1/2.

Generally, we see much more competitive games in this round than in the Super Bowl, so it stands to reason that at least one of the underdogs will keep the game close. The Eagles were getting more support from the betting public during the week, but I think it's the Patriots who have a better shot at pulling an upset or at least keeping the game close and covering the spread.

Patriots (+9 1/2) at Steelers

These teams are both Cinderella stories, but oddsmakers and bettors see more than a touchdown difference between them.

The Patriots will be able to use the fact that many people say they don't belong here as extra motivation. The Titans faced a similar situation two years ago when they beat the Bills with the Music City Miracle. They rode that momentum to road wins at Indianapolis and Jacksonville to win the AFC title and came up just short of sending the Rams into overtime in the Super Bowl. The Patriots have a chance to pull off a similar feat.

Even though they have an 11-5-1 spread record and have shown the ability to cover spreads of more than a touchdown, the Steelers don't blow out teams the way the Rams do. It's more of a methodical thrashing, so the Patriots should be able to stick around and have a chance to win or at least cover at the end.

Whether he tucked the ball in or did not tuck the ball in during the single most crucial NFL play last week, Pats QB Tom Brady showed he is for real in the second half against the Raiders. He got the job done with his arm and legs (scrambling for a TD) in less-than-ideal conditions. The Steelers' defense is great, but the Pats have a short, controlled passing game that will allow Brady to get rid of the ball before feeling too much pressure. It's a nice fit.

The Patriots' defense plays in the bend-but-don't-break mode. They'll be tough inside the 20-yard line, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick is sure to have some wrinkles for Steelers QB Kordell Stewart.

Another factor is that they're expecting wind gusts of 15-18 mph in Pittsburgh on Sunday. Steelers kicker Kris Brown has had problems all season, especially at Heinz Field, and I'd much rather have the Patriots' placekicker Adam Viniateri, who tied last Saturday's game with a 45-yard field goal in the snow and then won it in overtime.

The odds on the Patriots to win the game straight up is between +320 and +360 around Las Vegas with +350 the most common number. That's certainly worth a look with this live dog.

Play: Patriots +9 1/2 for 22 units, and 10 units on money line at +350.

Eagles at Rams (-11 1/2)

Two injuries have been the key to how people are looking at this game. Warner had problems with his ribs Thursday. He practiced Friday morning and is expected to be fine. The other injury is Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent's groin. I think that is more significant.

Vincent is a great cover guy and the Eagles need all their defensive backs healthy if they expect to slow down the Rams, which isn't possible for any team if the Rams are on their game. If Vincent at less than 100 percent, he will be replaced by Al Harris. Harris is capable, but the thing that would hurt the Eagles is that they would have to go deeper on their depth chart.

The thing that keeps me solidly on the Rams is my feeling that even if Warner gets knocked out, I feel much better with Jamie Martin coming off the bench instead of former backup Joe Germaine. It wouldn't be ideal, but I wouldn't be tearing up my ticket. After all, the Rams' offensive system is superb. How do you think Warner was able to step right in for Trent Green two years ago?

These two teams met in the first week of the season, with the Rams pulling out a 20-17 overtime win in Philadelphia. But what most people forget is that the Rams, even though the offense wasn't clicking yet, was winning that game 17-3 and nearly went up 24-3 in third quarter before Warner was intercepted (by Vincent of all people) at the Eagles' 2-yard-line. QB Donovan McNabb, after being shut down all day, led the Eagles back.

Rams coach Mike Martz has shown no mercy in running up the score, and he is sure to remember that close call. With the Rams' peaking on defense in recent weeks, and with them having shown they can contain McNabb, the Rams should roll by three touchdowns.

Play: Rams for 11 units.

Starting bankroll: 1,000 units.

Bankroll entering last week: 807 units.

Last week: 2-1-1 for net win of 8 units.

Current bankroll: 815 units.