11/19/2004 12:00AM

Turning to Cincy to stop Steeler run


LAS VEGAS - There are no more bye weeks in the NFL, and every team has now played nine games with seven weeks remaining.

This is when the real push for the playoffs begins as the top teams maneuver for home-field advantage and higher seeds while others battle for wild-card spots. But handicappers also have to keep an eye on teams seemingly out of the race that can get hot or play spoiler. All five of my NFL plays Sunday involve teams that could fall in that category.

Last week, I went away from my usual m.o. of picking five underdogs by playing three favorites. It served me right, as I went 1-2 with the chalk and 1-1 with my two underdog plays. Well, this week I'm back to playing five underdogs, including three live home dogs (Bengals, Raiders, and Texans) and two road dogs (Titans and Redskins) that hopefully are getting more than enough points.

Steelers at Bengals (+4 1/2)

It seemed the whole world was on the Browns last week vs. the red-hot Steelers and lost those bets after the Steelers won, 24-10. But it really wasn't a bad bet. In fact, the Browns should have made more of a game of it, as they had a great opening kickoff return and an early interception but only turned those plays into 3 points. As is often the case when an underdog lets the better team off the hook, the Steelers weathered the early storm, and talent won out. The Bengals showed in their Monday night upset of the Broncos four weeks ago that they can capitalize on early momentum at home and beat a better team. Since that win, the Bengals have been playing much better and appear primed for another upset. Rudi Johnson is running well and taking the pressure off Carson Palmer, who is getting more comfortable in his starting role. Cincinnati's defense is also playing better and should keep the Bengals in the game until the end.

PLAY: Bengals for 1 unit.

Titans (+3 1/2) at Jaguars

The Titans have been horrible at times, hitting rock bottom in last week's 19-17 overtime loss to the Bears, becoming only the second team in history to lose in overtime on a safety. But I still maintain that they are not as bad as their 3-6 record indicates. For one thing, the loss to the Bears came down to them allowing an interception return for a touchdown, a punt return for a touchdown, and then the safety. Other than that, the Titans held the Bears to one offensive field goal and outgained them, 390-176. They could do the same to the Jaguars, who are still missing starting quarterback Byron Leftwich. David Garrard filled in admirably last week vs. the Lions, but he's no Leftwich and the Titans' defense should pose more problems. If Steve McNair plays (he's been upgraded to questionable), this becomes my play of the day.

PLAY: Titans for 1 unit.

Chargers at Raiders (+4)

No team needed a bye less than the Chargers, who have won three straight and five of their last six games. I'm sure a lot of people are expecting the Chargers to come back to Earth in the second half of the season, and I think the slide could start here. The Raiders, also coming off a bye, have had two weeks to figure out how to slow down the Chargers offense. The Raiders also have the incentive after being embarrassed, 42-14, in San Diego just three weeks ago. Now the Raiders get them at home and have more healthy weapons. The return of running back Justin Fargas gives them an outside threat to complement Tyrone Wheatley, and quarterback Kerry Collins should be throwing deep with a now healthy Doug Gabriel as well as Jerry Porter and Ronald Curry. In addition, Charles Woodson returns at cornerback. The pieces are in place for what many might call a big upset.

PLAY: Raiders for 1 unit.

Redskins (+10 1/2) at Eagles

For three straight weeks before last week, I cashed bets by going against the Eagles, primarily because their run defense is like a sieve. They are 23rd in the league against the run, allowing 124 rushing yards per game, which is amazing when you consider they're usually out to big leads and have won most of their games by double digits, and are also allowing a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry. Clinton Portis should have a field day for the Redskins and take pressure off quarterback Patrick Ramsey. The Eagles' offense has been soaring (fifth in the NFL in points and eighth in yardage), but now it faces the league's No. 2 defense. The combination of a consistent running attack and solid defense should keep the score low and well within the number. I also wouldn't be surprised if the Skins pulled off the upset.

PLAY: Redskins for 1 unit.

Packers at Texans (+3)

A lot of people wrote off the Packers when they were 1-4, but I saw their potential to turn around the season - and I've backed them a few times as they notched four straight wins to tie the Vikings atop the NFC North. But I'm getting off the bandwagon here, and I see an upset in the making in the Sunday night prime-time matchup. The concern is the Texans defense, which has been torched by top offenses, but the Texans have the offense, which kept up with the Vikings in a 34-28 overtime shootout at home earlier this season, to make this another Texas shootout.

PLAY: Packers for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-3 for a net loss of 1.3 units. NFL season record: 24-25-1 for a net loss of 3.5 units.