01/17/2003 12:00AM

Take dogs in championship games


LAS VEGAS - There are many reasons to back both underdogs in Sunday's NFC and AFC championship games.

* This has been the year of underdogs; they went 141-107 (57 percent) with six pushes during the regular season.

* Underdogs are 4-4 against the spread in the postseason. That doesn't seem like an endorsement, but when you figure how dominant home teams have been in the wild-card and divisional playoff rounds in recent years, it shows that when you get to the postseason in this age of parity, not much separates the top teams.

* Recent history definitely says take the underdogs. In the past three years, the dogs are 6-0 against the spread. Four of those games were outright upsets (Titans over Jaguars, Ravens over Raiders, Giants over Vikings, and Patriots over Steelers last year) and twice the favored team won but failed to cover (Rams squeaking by the Bucs in 2000 and the Rams barely beating the Eagles last year).

* The Buccaneers lost 20-10 at the Eagles on Oct. 20, and the Titans lost 52-25 at the Raiders on Sept. 29, so both are out for revenge.

* The homestanding Eagles and Raiders have been seen as the best in their respective conferences for several weeks now, so the public has been all over both of these teams. The Eagles have been bet up from 3 1/2 to 4. This line seemed to be shaded a little high by oddsmakers in anticipation of the public jumping on the favorite, and the public cooperated to inflate this number even higher. The same goes for the Raiders, who have been bet up from -7 at the Stardust to 7 1/2. By Friday morning, the line was 8 at the Park Place Entertainment properties and likely to increase at other bet shops with California bettors making the trip here (and in Reno) for the weekend.

All of the above are esoteric reasons for backing the dogs. Many times in this space I have discussed how trends are helpful and fun, but you can't base plays on them, just as you wouldn't back a lame horse just because it's lifetime record at a given track or distance is 3 for 3. You have to evaluate current form. As for the revenge factor, I try not to put too much stock in that, either. Despite the revenge motive, a team that wins the first meeting between two teams just as often will win the second meeting simply because they are the superior team.

However, when I dismiss all of the above and look at the games objectively, the value still landed clearly on the underdogs.

Buccaneers (+4) at Eagles

Eagles backers point to the fact the Bucs have been eliminated the last two years in Philadelphia, but this is a different team. Those games were under coach Tony Dungy's guidance, and we saw two weeks ago in the Colts' 41-0 loss to the Jets how Dungy continues to come up short in the postseason. With Jon Gruden, the Bucs also ended their losing streak in cold-weather games with a 15-0 win over the Bears in the season finale, so that monkey is off their back, too. Both teams are 13-4 straight up and 11-6 against the spread. The Eagles have home field because of the head-to-head tiebreaker, but I think sometimes that criterion is misused. Discarding that game, the Bucs are 13-3 against the rest of the league and 11-5 against the spread while the Eagles are 12-4 straight up and 10-6, so how does that make the Eagles a better team? In that earlier meeting, the Bucs trailed only 13-10 in the fourth quarter and had a chance to pull the game out, but Brad Johnson (who injured his ribs earlier in the game) was intercepted in Tampa Bay territory to set up the Eagles' clinching touchdown. Johnson and the Bucs' offense are playing much better than they were at that time of year and are better prepared to attack the Eagles' defense. Both defenses are playing at their best. One tempting proposition wager I saw was +300 (or 3-1) on a defensive or special teams touchdown in this game. In fact, the defenses may outscore the offenses. Regardless, this should be a tight game that is decided by a field goal, so I'll be taking the points.

PLAY: Buccaneers for 1 unit.

Titans (+7 1/2) at Raiders

For the AFC title game, people are pointing to the Raiders' 52-25 previous rout of the Titans. In that game, the Raiders returned two punts for touchdowns in the first quarter and later added a defensive score. Save those points, the Raiders' offense only outscored the Titans' offense 31-25. The game was also the third of four straight losses (after a season-opening win over the Eagles) for the Titans. Since that losing streak, the Titans have won 11 of 12 games, including all four as underdogs (and another win at pick-em). This Titans team is playing as good as any, and they have a roster and coaching staff that knows what it takes to get to the Super Bowl. Last week, the Jets were 5 1/2-point underdogs at Oakland. Are we to believe from the oddsmakers that the Titans, with their current form and big game experience, are two points worse than the Jets? I don't buy that. This line should be in the 4-point range. Just like the Patriots last year, this is a team that plays like a team, and the players are still motivated by the fact none of them were voted to the Pro Bowl. If you take the Titans, you have a team that won't quit. Quarterback Steve McNair keeps doing what needs to be done with his arm and legs and the defense should keep them in the game, at least within the spread, with a timely turnover giving them the chance at an outright upset. Remember the Titans.

PLAY: Titans for 1 unit.

Playoff record: 6-5, including 5-2 on sides and 1-3 on totals, for a net profit of 1.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Season record: 67-77-4 for a net loss of 16.6 units.