10/25/2002 12:00AM

Think dog day afternoon on Sunday


LAS VEGAS - Three of the top teams in the NFL are off this week: the Packers (6-1), Chargers (6-1), and Dolphins (5-2). The Rams (2-5) are off, too. They were supposed to be the best team in the league, and they are still capable of turning their season around.

This week, I'm on four live dogs that shouldn't shock anyone if they win outright - well, maybe the Giants over the Eagles Monday night would be a surprise - an undervalued favorite, and three unders.

Browns (+3) at Jets

All week I've been trying to figure out why the Jets are favored (home field is the only reason). The Browns could very easily be 5-2. They lost the opener to the Chiefs after Dwayne Rudd infamously removed his helmet. Then, after two victories, they had the Steelers on the ropes before Tommy Maddox mounted a rally and forced overtime. Even then, the Browns blocked a field goal in overtime only to see the Steelers get a second chance when the ball was recovered behind the line.

The Jets, meanwhile, only won their second game last week against a Vikings team that is a shell of its former self. Jamel White and William Green should be able to run through the Jets' defense and set up QB Tim Couch and his underrated corps of receivers against a weak secondary.

The Browns' run defense has been soft, too, so Jets RB Curtis Martin could break the century mark. The emphasis on running games should keep the clock moving and lead to a low-scoring game.

PLAY: Browns for 2 units, and under 42 points for 1 unit.

Falcons (+4) at Saints

The focal point for the Falcons is QB Michael Vick. He has shown marked improvement this year, having not thrown an interception in 21 quarters of play, and his scrambles are always electrifying. But the Falcons' defense may actually be the team's strength. They are allowing only 14 points a game, but if you throw out the 37 points the Packers scored against them in the season opener, that average plummets to 8.4. They took great pride in completing the shutout last week against the Panthers, and even though the Saints are much better on offense, that momentum will help them here.

The Saints have been involved in shootout after shootout (the over is tempting at 46 points), but they will be stopped often enough here to allow the Falcons to pull the upset.

PLAY: Falcons for 1 unit.

Steelers at Ravens (+2 1/2)

This is a battle for first place in the AFC North, as both teams are 3-3. The Ravens have stepped up in big games this year, and this shouldn't be any different, even without LB Ray Lewis (questionable with an injured left shoulder).

The Ravens' offense is still subpar, but QB Chris Redman has kept them in games and made occasional big plays (a la Trent Dilfer in their Super Bowl season). I'm also going against the Steelers, who are traveling on a short week after their Monday night win over the Colts. This should be a dogfight and a low-scoring affair.

PLAY: Ravens for 1 unit, and under 37 1/2 points for 1 unit.

Cardinals at 49ers (-8 1/2)

Here's another first-place battle, but this time one team is grossly overmatched. I'm a former Cardinals season-ticket holder, but as much as I wish them well, they're not as good as their 4-2 record. You just have to look at their wins - over the Seahawks, Giants, Panthers, and Cowboys - to know they have been the beneficiary of a soft early schedule. They will be back to .500 after this week's game at San Francisco and next week at home against the Rams.

The 49ers gave away their game last week at the Saints, but they're averaging more than 30 points a game since their bye in Week 4 and will score plenty to win by at least two touchdowns.

PLAY: 49ers for 1 unit.

Giants (+7) at Eagles

The Giants are 9-2 vs. the Eagles against the spread under coach Jim Fassel, and 5-0 in games at Philly. The Giants have had an extra week to prepare for this game, while the Eagles had a hard-fought win over the Bucs. Giants QB Kerry Collins steps up when you least expect it.

The Eagles defense is tough, but TE Jeremy Shockey will pose matchups problems (do you think safety Blaine Bishop can cover him one on one?) and could be the X-factor for the G-men. On defense, the Giants should be able to control Duce Staley, but the key will be containing Donovan McNabb. With the Giants trailing the Eagles by a game in the NFC East, this is another pivotal divisional game and the Giants should stick around to the end.

PLAY: Giants for 1 unit, and under 38 points for 1 unit.

Season record: 29-36-1 and a net loss of 10.1 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).