01/09/2003 12:00AM

Vick to shine in prime time


LAS VEGAS - The NFL's decision to change the start times of its Saturday playoff games has been a rousing success.

In the past, the games started at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Pacific, but this year they moved the first game to 1:30 p.m. with the nightcap at 5 p.m., putting it squarely in prime time on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

ABC, which broadcast last Saturday's games, drew its highest wild-card ratings in four years. In fact, the Falcons-Packers game at night was the second-most-watched network show of the entire week, according to the Nielsen ratings. The top-ranked show was last Friday night's Fiesta Bowl, another game played in prime time.

But it's just not the networks that love the later starts. Bookmakers welcome them, too. In Las Vegas, a lot of tourists fly in on Friday nights. Many stay up late gambling and partying, making it hard to get to a sports book by 9:30 a.m.

"It certainly builds excitement, and that leads to higher handle," said Micah Roberts, race and sports book manager at the Palace Station. "Prime time games are always preferred. I would say last weekend the late starts helped increase handle by 2 to 3 percent. That doesn't sound like much until you consider the millions that are being bet [statewide]."

Roberts said it's the same with "Monday Night Football" during the season. People have all day to think about who they are going to play and tend to bet more.

Falcons (+7 1/2) at Eagles

My top play this Saturday will be on this prime time game between the upstart Falcons (playing their second straight Saturday night game) and the Eagles, the top seed in the NFC.

I had a winning pick on the Falcons last week. As I expected, the winter weather in Green Bay failed to slow down Falcons' QB Michael Vick, who ran around Packers' defenders like they were standing still. You usually don't see this in football, which is the ultimate "team sport," but Vick is more like a basketball player in the way he can take over a game. He can run and jump like Michael Jordan and make a big play himself, or he can stop and hit the open man like Magic Johnson. Those abilities will help him versus the Eagles' defense, one of the best in the league.

The Eagles' defensive backs are great at blanketing receivers, but that's because they're usually covering when a quarterback is taking a five-step drop. Vick will buy time with his scrambling, and no defensive back can cover someone forever. Vick's strong arm allows him to hit an open receiver on any part of the field. In that way, he's also like Jordan or Johnson: he makes his teammates better than they really are.

The Falcons' offense has also become more versatile with the return of bruising runner T.J. Duckett to offset the scat-back style of Warrick Dunn. When the Eagles have the ball, I have serious concerns about Donovan McNabb's ability to just step back into the line-up. If he's rusty at all, the Falcons' underrated defense will be able to keep them in the game. This is a dangerous spot for the top-seeded Eagles, and I love taking more than a touchdown with a live underdog like the Falcons.

PLAY: Falcons for 2 units.

Steelers at Titans (-4)

I always look to the underdog first, but there are just too many factors that put me on the favorite here. The Titans won their regular season meeting with the Steelers on Nov. 17 by a score of 31-23, but it wasn't even as close as the score indicated. Regardless, another 8-point victory would cover this Saturday. Teams have been picking on the Steelers' secondary all season, and Titans quarterback Steve McNair threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns as the Titans built a commanding 31-7 lead. That was the game that Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox got injured, and Kordell Stewart ended up leading two touchdown drives (capped by a pair of 2-point conversions) against a prevent defense to make the score respectable. But before that, the Titans shut down the Steelers' offense, intercepting Maddox three times and limiting the tandem of Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue to 22 yards on 13 carries. The Titans' defense has allowed only 15 points per game over the last 11 weeks of the season and gets defensive star Jevon Kearse back here. This should be a hard-fought battle between two former division rivals, so I see a low-scoring game with the Titans prevailing by a score of roughly 23-14, which puts me on the under.

PLAY: Titans for 1 unit, and under 44 points for 1 unit.

Postseason record: 3-2, including 3-0 on sides and 0-2 on totals, for a net profit of 0.7 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

Season record: 64-74-4 for net loss of 17.2 units.