09/28/2006 11:00PM

T.O.'s circus act too unreliable to support


LAS VEGAS - Two weeks ago, college football had its "Separation Saturday" - as dubbed by ESPN - when there were seven games involving ranked teams, plus several other matchups, that separated the contenders from pretenders.

Well, this Sunday could be called "Separation Sunday" in the NFL, though on a smaller scale. And I'm not talking about Terrell Owens separating his pain pills and supplements.

We have two games pitting undefeated teams against each other with the Chargers visiting the Ravens and the Seahawks visiting the Bears, plus other intriguing story lines:

* The Saints, coming off their emotional Monday night win vs. the Falcons in the Superdome, put their 3-0 record on the line vs. the Panthers, who are 1-2 and in need of a victory (especially in the division) after being among the preseason favorites to win the NFC.

* The Falcons try to rebound from that embarrassing loss, taking on a Cardinals team that blew a chance to beat the Rams last week.

* The Bengals, at 3-0, once again try to prove they're among the elite by going against the Patriots, who are 2-1 after losing Sunday night to the Broncos.

* The Jaguars try to bounce back from their first loss of the season to the Colts and travel to Washington, which got off the schneid last week and needs a win to get back in the playoff race.

* The Browns and Raiders . . . well, someone needs to take the lead in the race for the No. 1 draft pick.

Personally, it also feels like a crucial week for my NFL bankroll. Did last week's 3-1-1 record signal a return to respectability, or was it just an aberration? Oh, the drama is thick.

Cowboys at Titans (+9 1/2)

This game looked destined to be way down on the undercard this Sunday, and the line had reached 10 at some books and looked headed that way everywhere until the whole T.O. O.D. situation. Now, it could be one of the most watched games of the day. If Owens is cleared to play, this line could go back to 10, which is the preferred number if you can get it, but anything over a touchdown looks like value. The Cowboys weren't exactly playing like a cohesive team before this whole fiasco and it's hard to imagine them suddenly playing like a focused team now.

The Titans have their own issues with Billy Volek's departure and players calling for Vince Young to become the starting quarterback, but in the midst of that the Titans played their best game so far by nearly knocking off the Dolphins last week. The oddsmakers have this as a mismatch, but I just can't see the Cowboys coming out and putting together a dominant performance. number.

PLAY: Titans for 1 unit.

Cardinals (+7 1/2) at Atlanta

If any team can relate to the Cowboys' shell-shocked existence this past week, it's the Falcons. They looked like a totally dazed team after being run over by the Saints on Monday night. Most people are expecting them to bounce back at home, but I'm not sure they've recovered from their New Orleans hangover. The Cardinals have issues themselves with Dennis Green's flip-flop on whether Matt Leinart would replace Kurt Warner, who hasn't been clicking with his outstanding receiving corps as much as was expected and who fumbled away the chance at victory vs. the Rams last Sunday. Warner should be able to pick apart the Falcons' secondary at least as well as Drew Brees did.

PLAY: Cardinals for 1 unit.

Patriots (+6) at Bengals

The Patriots have not lost two straight games since 2002. Since then, they've lost 10 games and have followed it up with a win each time, including going 9-1 against the spread. Except for the first half vs. the Jets, the Patriots haven't been their old selves, but they have gotten up for big games better than anyone so far this century, and they should bounce back with a solid effort. Meanwhile, the Bengals are 3-0, but last week's 28-20 win over the Steelers was aided by a fumbled punt that led to two Cincy touchdowns within 54 seconds. The other 59 minutes of the game, the Bengals were outplayed, and Bill Belichick & Co. should be able to come up with a game plan to do the same.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Jaguars (-2 1/2) at Redskins

A lot has been made about the resurgence of the Washington offense last week with Clinton Portis sparking the running game with two touchdowns and Mark Brunell completing a record-tying 22 passes in a row, but one thing hasn't been mentioned enough - it was against the Texans! We see it all the time in college football, where a team is struggling, then it beats up on a Division I-AA team and put up gaudy stats, but then when they play a quality foe again they're back to their former selves. I expect that this week with the Redskins. The Jaguars have shut down the Cowboys (at least in the second half) and the Steelers and stood toe-to-toe with the Colts. I don't see them having any problem shutting down the Skins.

PLAY: Jaguars for 1 unit.

Seattle (+3 1/2) at Bears

This battle of NFC unbeatens, which was being billed as a potential battle for home-field advantage, has lost a little luster without Shaun Alexander. The line has climbed above a field goal, but I think that's too much of an adjustment. Maurice Morris is a capable running back who can run through the same holes the offensive line opened for Alexander. But that's not how you beat the Bears. Running at that front seven is like running against a brick wall. The best way to beat them is to throw over the top and, with the addition of Deion Branch, the Seahawks have a lot of weapons for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and might actually be better off with the shiftier Morris catching passes out of the backfield. Look how they put up 35 points in the first half vs. the Giants last week with minimal input from Alexander. Plus, the Seahawks have a tougher defense than Rex Grossman and the Bears' offense have faced so far. The Seahawks are still the No. 1 overall team in the NFC and should show it.

PLAY: Seahawks for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-1-1 for a net profit of 1.9 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 5-9-1 for a net loss of 4.9 units.