09/11/2003 11:00PM

These opinions worth seeking out


LAS VEGAS - Nothing starts a discussion faster in a Las Vegas sports book - even among complete strangers - than the words, "Who do you like?"

That's especially true during football season, and some of the most sought-out opinions are by the participants who were willing and able to put up $1,500 apiece to play in the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest. Since it was first conducted in 1987, it has been the most prestigious football handicapping contest in town. The contest lines, all NFL games vs. the spread, are released each Tuesday, and contestants must put in their five selections by 1 p.m. Friday (or by kickoff of a Thursday game, when applicable).

After last year's record field of 281, hopes were high for another big field. Expectations were exceeded when a whopping 346 signed up.

"On this side of the counter, we're extremely ecstatic," said Cyrill Burger, Hilton race and sports book manager. "We had our fingers crossed. After last year's turnout, we set 300 as a goal because it's a nice round number. As the weeks went by before the season started, I kept monitoring the signups and we were 20 percent ahead of last year, and it never let up."

Part of the appeal for other handicappers is that all of the contestants' selections, as well as the number of handicappers on each team, are posted in the sports book by Friday afternoon and available on handouts. (Note: The plays are also available online at www.nss.net/Hilton.asp.)

A vast majority of the players use aliases (some to be cute, others to hide their picks if they sell selections for a living), but a hot handicapper is a hot handicapper.

Last week, eight contestants went5-0, with another three at 4-0-1 (pushes count for a half-point in the contest).

First prize, set at 40 percent of the entry fees, will be $207,600, with $83,040 for second, $41,520 for third, $25,950 for fourth, $18,165 apiece for fifth through 10th places, and $5,190 for 11th through 20th.

* Over at the Gambler's Challenge at Station Casinos, which has similar rules to the SuperContest but has a $1,000 entry fee, 131 people signed up. Their plays are also available to the public on Friday afternoons. Last week, two contestants went 5-0 to jump out to the early lead.

Here's hoping I can go 5-0 this week.

49ers at Rams (-3)

Those looking to bury the Rams after one game are making a huge mistake. Come on, they were playing with a quarterback (Kurt Warner) who suffered a concussion and couldn't even grip the ball (six fumbles - count 'em, six!). Even so, they were in a position to rally late but turned the ball over on downs twice in Giants territory in the final six minutes and lost, 23-13. This week, Marc Bulger (6-1 record last year as a starter) replaces Warner. The Rams haven't been a strong home favorite since their 1999 Super Bowl-winning season, but that's usually because they're laying a lot more than a field goal. The 49ers buried the Bears 49-7, but it's hard to give them too much credit considering how terribly the Bears played. Still, this line, which was Rams -5 1/2 at the Imperial Palace before the season openers, was knocked down to 3 after last Sunday's games. I think it's an overadjustment by the oddsmakers (and by bettors who have kept it at 3). I'll lay the short price and make it my first 2-unit play of the season.

PLAY: Rams for 2 units.

Bills (-2 1/2) at Jaguars

Last week vs. the Patriots, the Bills showed a vastly improved defense - no surprise with the addition of linebackers Takeo Spikes and James Posey and safety Lawyer Milloy - and the offense looked as good as advertised. They should continue to roll against the Jaguars, who overachieved last week against the Panthers but still lost (though they covered, 24-23, as a 4-point dog). The Jaguars will find it much harder to match up with the Bills on both sides of the ball. This line had climbed to -3 at some books as of Friday morning. I would still lay that.

PLAY: Bills for 1 unit.

Steelers (+3 1/2) at Chiefs

Both teams were impressive in their season debuts, with the Steelers routing the Ravens and the Chiefs defusing the Chargers. This could be a high-scoring affair (the total is 48 for those interested) as both offenses can score from anywhere on the field and the defenses are not up to the traditions of these franchises. That being said, the Steelers' D is more likely to step up. Getting more than a field goal is a bonus.

PLAY: Steelers for 1 unit.

Patriots (+5 1/2) at Eagles

Both teams come off subpar performances to good teams: The Pats were blown out by the Bills, and the Eagles were manhandled by the Buccaneers. I still expect both to make the playoffs (especially the Eagles, since they could sweep their divisional rivals), but this game will really hurt the loser's chance at a first-round playoff bye. The Patriots were blindsided by the release of Milloy and his subsequent signing with the Bills. Milloy's presence and knowledge of the game plan were the main reason I avoided playing the Pats last week. But I'm back on them this week. This will be a dogfight, but the edge goes to the Patriots after the injuries to Eagles defensive backs Bobby Taylor and Brian Dawkins.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Broncos (-3) at Chargers

In my season previews, I said I would ride the Broncos early and often until the value is gone from the line. That hasn't happened yet, and maybe we have Jake Plummer's three interceptions in the 30-10 win over the Bengals to thank for that. If they had really blown them out, this line might be more inflated. Plummer's problem was a case of trying too hard, which he doesn't need to do with Clinton Portis running through gaping holes. The Chiefs went through the Chargers' defense last week, and there's no reason to think the Broncos won't do the same. LaDainian Tomlinson was bottled up by a mediocre Chiefs defense, and receiver David Boston is a question mark for this game, so the Chargers' offense won't be able to keep up.

PLAY: Broncos for 1 unit.

Season record: 2-2 for net loss of 0.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).