01/03/2006 1:00AM

Victory as road dog gives Denver the (spread) title


LAS VEGAS - Going into their season finale at San Diego last Saturday, the Denver Broncos had already locked up a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs and coach Mike Shanahan said he would rest a lot of starters.

The line on the game opened Chargers -7 1/2 and with bettors figuring the Chargers would play all their starters and take their frustrations out on the Broncos' backups, the line got bet to -11 1/2. The Broncos, however, won 27-3, to clinch the honor of being the NFL's best betting team, with an 11-4-1 mark against the spread.

The Giants, needing the game to wrap up the NFC East title, beat the Raiders, 30-21, that same day to finish second in the league at 10-5-1. Other top spread teams did rest their starters, as the Bears, Patriots, and Seahawks ended the season on losing notes. The Bears still had the league's third-best spread record at 9-5-2, followed closely by the Steelers at 10-6. They were the only other teams to win more than 60 percent (not including ties) of their games against the spread.

The hottest spread teams down the stretch were the Broncos, Redskins, and 49ers (yes, the 49ers) with three straight covers.

* The Raiders failed to cover their last six games and finished 5-11 along with the Rams (winners over the Cowboys in the Sunday night finale, or else they would have been the worst) and Eagles. The Saints were right behind at 5-10-1 with the Jets and Titans at 6-10.

* In an interesting point-spread sidenote, the Packers pushed their last two games.

* The Jaguars were the best over team in the league at 10-5-1, just ahead of the Seahawks, Cardinals and 49ers (all teams from the defensively challenged NFC West) at 10-6.

* In their 20-16 win over the Ravens, the Browns pushed on their total of 36 to finish the year 11-4-1 with the under. The Chargers went under in their final six games to tie the Vikings for second at 11-5, with the Bears (who went over in their last two games) at 10-4-2, the Ravens at 9-5-2, and the Packers at 10-6 as the other teams to go under in at least 60 percent of their games.

NFL league-wide betting trends

The Year of the Favorite in the NFL ended with favorites going 8-7-1 against the spread to conclude the regular season at 143-103-9 (58 percent, after pushes are tossed out). The Chargers-Chiefs game of two weeks ago is the only game of the NFL's 256 regular-season contests not accounted for as it closed at pick-em and thus didn't have a favorite.

* Road favorites, traditionally a bad bet with the assumed parity in the NFL, were a big part of the trend toward winning favorites as they went 3-2 in the final week and were 47-29-4 (62 percent) overall.

* Home dogs did pitifully, but home favorites weren't much better, putting into question the idea of home-field advantage. After going 7-8-1 over the final weekend, home teams were barely over .500 at 124-122-9.

* Over/unders were also right around the .500 mark. Overs went 10-5-1 over the final weekend and 22-9-1 the last two weeks, but unders ended up with a slight edge at 125-123-8.

Analysis of wild-card matchups

But those are mostly general terms. Here's a closer look at this weekend's wild-card matchups with trends broken down for each team, including how they fare in their respective situations, whether on the road, at home, as dogs or as favorites.

Redskins at Buccaneers: The Bucs are favored by 2 1/2 points with a total of 37. The Redskins were 4-3-1 against the spread on the road and 4-4 with over/unders. They were 2-2 when they were road underdogs, but note that they were 1 1/2-point favorites when they lost, 36-35, at Tampa Bay on Nov. 13. The Bucs were 3-4 against the spread as home favorites (the only game they were dogs was vs. the Skins) and 5-3 with the over. Both teams nearly matched this total in their first meeting, and adding to the argument for the over is that the Skins went over in their final three games and the Bucs in their final two.

Jaguars at Patriots: The Patriots are favored by 8 points with a total of 37 1/2. The Jaguars are worth a look as they were 6-2 both straight up and against the spread on the road this year, and they were 2-1 straight up and 3-0 as a road underdog. The Patriots were 5-3 straight up at home this year but only 2-6 against the spread, though the last loss vs. the Dolphins shouldn't be held against them. As mentioned, the Jags had the league's best over record at 10-5-1; they were 6-2 with the over in the road. The Pats went 4-4 with totals at home.

Panthers at Giants: The Giants are favored by 2 1/2 points with a total of 43. Both teams have proven worthy of being backed in their given circumstances. The Panthers were an impressive 6-2 straight up on the road and 5-3 against the spread. Interestingly, they were a road underdog only once, Nov. 6 at Tampa Bay, and won that game, 34-14. The Giants, meanwhile, were 8-1 straight up at The Meadowlands and 7-2 against the spread. For what it's worth, the Panthers were 4-3-1 with the over on the road while the Giants were 5-4 with the under.

Steelers at Bengals: The Steelers are the lone road favorite on wild-card weekend as a 3-point choice with a total of 46. The Steelers went 6-2 both straight up and against the spread on the road this year, including 4-1 in both cases as road favorites. The Bengals were 5-3 straight up at home but a woeful 2-6 against the spread. Their only game as a road dog was their loss to the Colts. This is the highest total of the weekend, but the under is worth a look as the Steelers were 7-1 with the under on the road and the Bengals were 5-3 with the under at home.