04/16/2007 12:00AM

Vegas ready for some football

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LAS VEGAS – The NFL draft isn’t until next weekend and the regular season is nearly five months away. Meanwhile, the baseball season is in full swing, the NHL playoffs are under way, and the NBA playoffs start this upcoming weekend. So why am I even mentioning pro football?

Well, the Las Vegas Hilton posted point spreads for Week 1 of the NFL season at 2 p.m. last Sunday, plus it’s never too early to talk about pro football in the sports books here as it is the No. 1 betting sport in this country.

The season opens Thursday, Sept. 7, with the defending champion Colts hosting the Saints in prime time. The Hilton made the Colts a 6-point favorite. There are 13 games on the opening Sunday, Sept. 9, and then a doubleheader Monday night.

Ed Salmons, sports book manager at the Hilton, said it was a team of five oddsmakers, including Jeff Sherman, Matt Metcalfe, Chris Bennett and Austin Bhushan, that collaborated on the opening numbers.

“After the league released the schedule last Thursday, we all came up with our own numbers independently and then discussed all the games over Saturday and Sunday,” Salmons said. “We weighted it and adjusted until we came up with what we thought were the right numbers for each game.”

Salmons said they were all pretty close on most games, but there were some with wide ranges of disagreement. He said opinions on the Chiefs-Texans game ranged from Chiefs –3 to Texans –2, but they settled on Chiefs –1.

“We felt at this point that the bettors who are looking at these would take the Texans +3 right away, so we made the Chiefs a smaller favorite,” he said.

The Panthers-Rams game also had oddsmakers making each team a favorite, so they decided to put that game out at pick-em and let the public decide. The Falcons-Vikings game also was released at pick-em.

In addition to the Chiefs over the Titans, four other road teams were tabbed as favorites, with the Patriots –5 at the Jets, Eagles –3 1/2 at the Packers, Steelers –4 at the Browns, and the Broncos –3 1/2 at the Bills.

You’ll note that the lines all seem pretty competitive. In fact, no team is favored by as many as 7 points. The highest line is the Seahawks –6 1/2 against the Buccaneers.

Salmons said there was no hesitation to put up the lines before the draft.

“We usually go ahead with the Week 1 numbers as soon as they release the schedule,” he said. “It’s not like basketball where one player can make that big of a difference. Quarterback is the most important position, but even they don’t always play right away. We’ll adjust after the draft if we need to or if there’s a big trade.”

Salmons said the popular over/under NFL season win totals will be up by 3 p.m. Sunday with the Hilton’s “Games of the Years” – which include all Sunday and Monday night games as well as other marquee matchups each week – probably toward the end of May.

Sports book notes

Underdogs have been faring well in the early stages of the NHL playoffs as dogs won 10 of the first 19 games outright through Sunday. Playoff hockey is usually played closer to the vest than during the regular season, with goals at a premium. But three of the four games last Wednesday went over the total and five of the first seven overall. Unders ruled the rest of the opening weekend, going 8-2-2, including 4-0 on Sunday, to take a 10-7-2 advantage heading into Monday night’s action.

* While inclement weather was canceling a bunch of baseball games back East, the forecasted rainstorm held off Sunday in Las Vegas and the NHRA’s SummitRacing.com Nationals went off without a hitch. Brandon Bernstein, the 6-1 third choice, won the Top Fuel title with a 330.07 mph run in the finals over Bob Vandergriff. Las Vegas resident Rod Fuller lost in the semifinals to Vandergriff when an engine part broke on his dragster, but Fuller remains atop the season standings heading into the next race on the circuit in Atlanta in two weeks. Greg Anderson, the heavy 5-9 favorite in the Pro Stock category, won his fifth straight title in Vegas. The Funny Car division was expected to be more wide-open, and it was as Robert Hight won the title despite not being listed among the individual drivers at Station Casinos. He instead was only available in the field of “all others” at 4-1.

* A decade ago, Jeff Burton won the inaugural Winston Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway. A lot has changed since then, including the circuit changing sponsors to the Nextel Cup. There had been a different winner at the track each year until Sunday, when Burton became the first two-time winner in the Samsung 500. Burton was 15-1 at Station Casinos.

* Boo Weekley won the Verizon Heritage at Hilton Head Island, S.C., for his first PGA victory. The tournament concluded Monday after Sunday’s final round was rained out. Weekley, who beat Ernie Els by one stroke, was only available in the field of “all others” at the Las Vegas Hilton at 3-1.

* Manny Pacquiao easily retained his WBC super featherweight title Saturday night in San Antonio with an eighth-round TKO of the previously unbeaten Jorge Solis. Pacquiao, who was a 1-9 favorite, now becomes an underdog in the political arena as he tries to beat incumbent Darlene Antonino-Custodio for a congressional seat in his homeland of the Philippines.

Derby future book update

In the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, the national parimutuel pool run by Churchill Downs, Curlin closed as the 7-2 favorite in Pool 3. Here in Vegas, race and sports book director John Avello lowered Curlin to 7-1 after his victory in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby. He was steadily bet down to 4-1 as of Monday morning to take over favoritism in the fixed-odds future book. Also as of Monday, Nobiz Like Shobiz was 9-2 at Wynn (closed 10-1 in the KDFW), while Scat Daddy was 5-1 (11-1 in the KDFW) and Street Sense was holding steady at 7-1 despite his narrow loss to Dominican in the Blue Grass.