11/05/2002 1:00AM

Trends worth watching in second half


LAS VEGAS - We've reached the halfway point of the NFL regular season. Except for the four teams that have played nine games and have a bye this weekend, every team has played eight games. It's as good a time as any to review what we've seen and try to learn from the past while trying to predict the future.

The biggest betting story of the first half of the season has been the success of underdogs, and they're performing virtually the same both at home and away.

In the 130 games that have been played, dogs are 77-49 (61 percent) with four pushes against the spread after going 10-4 this past weekend. (They were 10-2 before the Jaguars and Dolphins failed to come through on Sunday and Monday night, respectively.) Home dogs, after going 2-1 against the spread in week 9 despite losing all three games outright, are now 25-16 (61 percent) with two pushes while road dogs are 52-33 (61 percent) with two pushes.

The Packers have the league's best record at 7-1 (though they are only 4-4 against the spread). Even though the Packers' schedule is pretty soft the rest of the way - the only times they will likely be an underdog is at Tampa Bay and at San Francisco - I wouldn't jump on the bandwagon too fast. Parity has a way of evening these things out.

Case in point: The Patriots and Raiders - linked by Patriot QB Tom Brady's "non-fumble" in the playoffs - got off to great starts but have come back to the pack. The Patriots started the season 3-0 but lost four straight before bouncing back with a convincing win over the Bills last Sunday. They're 4-4 in the standings, but only 3-5 against the spread, confirming the trend that you should bet against the defending Super Bowl champ.

The Raiders broke from the gate fastest of all, winning and covering their first four games. As the league's last unbeaten team, they were upset by the Rams and haven't won or covered since. It doesn't get any easier as they play the Broncos and Patriots the next two weeks.

The Rams, the preseason Super Bowl favorites, lost their first five games, but have won three straight (behind third-string QB Marc Bulger, no less) and are struggling to get back in the wild-card chase because it's not likely they will catch the 49ers (6-2 straight up) in the NFC West. But wild cards will be hard to come by after this year's divisional realignment. With four divisions each, there are only two wild-card berths available in each conference.

If the playoffs were to begin today, the NFC division winners would be the Eagles, Packers, Buccaneers (all 7-2 while the Saints are 6-2), and 49ers. The Saints are looking good for one wild-card spot and the Falcons would hold the second one at 5-3, though they're followed closely by the Giants, Redskins, and Cardinals at 4-4. That's a lot of teams for the Rams to climb over.

In the AFC, the division winners would be the Dolphins, Titans (based on a tiebreaker because they beat the Colts last Sunday), Steelers, and Broncos (also a head-to-head winner, over the Chargers). The Chargers would get one wild card berth and a whole slew of other teams - that at one time or another have all seemed deserving of a playoff berth - would be fighting for the last spot, including the Bills (5-4), and the Patriots, Colts, Raiders, and Chiefs (all at 4-4).

The Chiefs may be 4-4 to the rest of the world, but bettors see them as 6-1-1 against the spread, the best record in the league. The Panthers, despite slipping to 3-5 in the standings, are still 6-2 against the spread after covering in losses to the Packers, Cowboys, and Buccaneers. Despite that non-cover in week 8, the Bucs are 6-3 against the spread. The Saints have also been a good bet at 5-2-1.

Conversely, the Colts are 1-7 against the spread. Other underperforming teams have been the Bears and the Bengals, both 2-6 vs. the spread.

The Saints are the only team to go over the total in all eight of their games. Their games average more than 58 points. The Chiefs (6-2) and the Bills (6-3) have also been solid over plays, though the Bills have seen a form reversal as their last three games have gone under.

If you're looking to bet the under, the Panthers are 7-1, the Cowboys are 7-2, and the Cardinals and Falcons - despite the fact most people focus on the spectacular play of QB Michael Vick - are 6-2 under their posted totals.

The AFC dominated early play against the NFC, winning five of six games the first week. The AFC was 12-7-1 against the spread through week 5. But the NFC has won and covered eight of the 10 interconference games since then, including winning all four games last Sunday and covering three against the spread. The NFC is now 18-12 straight up vs. the AFC, though the point spread battle is basically a wash at 15-14-1.

A sweep of college picks

My college bankroll plays went 3-0 last week, winning with 2-unit wagers on Central Michigan (a 47-21 winner over Eastern Michigan as a 10-point favorite) and Florida (a 20-13 outright winner over previously undefeated Georgia as a 2 1/2-point dog), plus a 1-unit play on Tennessee (an 18-10 winner over South Carolina as a 1 1/2-point favorite).

The win of 5 units brings the college bankroll to a record of 19-17 for a net profit of 3.5 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

Mixed bag among NFL bets

I correctly advised bettors to look at dogs in week 9 of the NFL. Unfortunately, when narrowing down to my bankroll selections, I landed on two of the rare underdog losers: the Vikings and Jags. I also lost a 2-unit play on the Rams-Cardinals over 43.

My winners were on the Ravens (a 20-17 loser to the Falcons as a 7 1/2-point dog) and the 49ers (a 23-20 overtime winner over the Raiders as a 3-point dog).

My best bet of the day, the Browns +3 vs. the Steelers, was a gut-wrenching push. The Browns trailed 23-14 late in the game and scored a touchdown. All I needed was the extra point to get the cover, but Phil Dawson shanked the point after to keep the score 23-20 and I had to settle for a push in the bankroll (hopefully you got one of the 3 1/2's when they were available).

For the week, the NFL bankroll went 2-3-1 for a net loss of 2.4 units. For the season, the bankroll is 35-43-2 for a net loss of 11.9 units. In the second half of the season, hopefully I can turn things around like I did in the colleges.