12/12/2005 1:00AM

Underdog bettors finally have reason to rejoice

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It was hard to tell what was louder Sunday: the NFL dogs barking or the sighs of relief from bookmakers here and everywhere.

NFL underdogs went 8-4-3 against the spread on Sunday after going 8-24 the previous two weekends. Those records are based on the closing lines at the Stardust in Las Vegas and count the Colts' 26-18 win over the Jaguars as a push with the closing line of 8 even though most bettors were either laying or getting 8 1/2 points on straight bets and parlays most of the weekend.

The Jaguars' backdoor cover (or push) from a 26-3 deficit was rare for underdogs this season, but actually a return to the way NFL Sundays used to be.

"Today was more of what we've come to expect from the NFL over the years," said Jay Kornegay, director of race and sports book operations at the Las Vegas Hilton. "We had some games where the favorites won easily and the bettors fared well - like the Patriots over the Bills and the Seahawks over the 49ers - but then we had some big upsets like the Buccaneers over the Panthers, the Jets over the Raiders, and the Dolphins over the Chargers, and some games where you said 'Wow, they gave them a hard time,' like the Browns nearly knocking off the Bengals, the Texans covering versus the Titans, the Eagles staying with the Giants, and the Ravens covering versus the Broncos. It was a good mix."

Kornegay made his assessment before the Lions covered on Sunday night in a 16-13 loss at Green Bay. Sunday nights have been especially bad for bookmakers this season as favorites had been 9-2-1 against the spread in the ESPN games. In addition to losing a lot of side bets, that has usually meant a lot of parlay liability from the favorites covering earlier in the day.

But with oddsmakers inflating some point spreads and the public continuing to bet them higher, it was due time for the dogs to start barking.

Every half-point counts

Winning at sports betting isn't just about picking winners. Bettors also need to be particularly adept at deciding when to make their plays. The three point-spread pushes last weekend certainly illustrate that, but there were also two pushes on totals and two more games that fell within a point and your results all depending on when the wagers were made:

First, the point-spread pushes:

* As mentioned, the Colts-Jaguars game landed on the number, but in addition to those who took the +8 1/2 or +9 on the Jaguars over the weekend, early bettors who liked the Colts a week ago Sunday were able to bet them at -7 at the Imperial Palace and at -7 1/2 at the Stratosphere and Stardust when the lines first went up.

* The Redskins opened -2 over the Cardinals, -3 at the Hilton and Stratosphere, and -3 1/2 at the Stardust last week, so early bettors could have cashed on the Skins even though the final score landed on the closing number. Cardinals' bettors who took the 3 1/2 instead of shopping for the widely available +4's were stuck with a loss when the Redskins prevailed, 17-13.

* The Cowboys beat the Chiefs, 31-28, to get most bettors a push on the closing number of 3, but there were some early bettors 10 days prior who took the Chiefs +3 1/2 at the Las Vegas Hilton on their early lines, plus for Cowboy backers, the Imperial Palace, Stratosphere, and Stardust all had the game at -2 1/2 last Sunday night.

And now the close calls on totals:

* The Steelers' 21-9 win over the Bears landed on the closing total of 30 (thanks to Chicago's Robbie Gould missing an extra point that would have put it over). Bettors who went under the opening number of 31 cashed their tickets, as did some late bettors who went over 29 1/2 when some books lowered the number further with the impending snowstorm in Pittsburgh.

* The Jets' 26-10 win over the Raiders landed on the closing total of 36. It had opened at 38 1/2, so all but the late under bettors got the money.

* The Bengals' 23-20 win over the Browns goes into the record books as an under since the closing total at the Stardust was 43 1/2, but the total opened at 41 1/2 and it was only those over bettors who waited and bet over 43 1/2 that lost.

* The Seahawks' rout of the 49ers was a foregone conclusion early, but totals bettors stayed tuned in as the total opened at 45 and closed at 43. When the Seahawks won, 41-3, it was the early under bettors and the late over bettors who cashed.

Underdogs attract early action

Professional bettors were out Sunday night taking their early shots at this weekend's games. The bad news was they had fewer choices than normal. The Stardust, with no college games to post, has opted to wait until Monday mornings to put up its opening NFL lines, and the Imperial Palace discontinued its posting of early lines as part of an overall cutback in betting options for wise guys.

The Las Vegas Hilton and the Stratosphere continued to carry the torch, however.

In the three games for Saturday, the Hilton received early action on all three underdogs, opening the Patriots -5 1/2 over the Bucs and having it bet to -5, opening the Giants -4 over the Chiefs and having it bet to 3, and opening the Broncos -9 at the Bills and having it bet to 8. The Stratosphere opened the Patriots at -6 and predictably got early Buccaneer money, moving it to 4 1/2. With Tom Brady listed as questionable, the game was off the boards at all books on Monday morning.

The Giants-Chiefs line was 3 everywhere on Monday morning, though Chiefs' bettors were being required to lay -120 (risk $1.20 for every $1 you want to profit) as opposed to the standard -110. It's assumed most books will be reluctant to move off the key number of 3 and risk getting flooded with Giants money if the line moves to 2 1/2. If it does, don't be surprised to see the -120 attached to the Giants -2 1/2.

The Stratosphere opened the Broncos -6 1/2 and saw that number steam to 8. As of noon Monday, most books were at the Hilton's opening number of 9.

There was less volatility in Sunday's lines, with the most obvious value being in both the Hilton and Strat opening the Steelers -2 over the Vikings and seeing it quickly get bet to 3 and the Stratosphere opening the Texans -1 vs. the Cardinals and seeing a change of favorites as the Cardinals were -1 or 1 1/2 at most outlets on Monday morning.