09/15/2005 11:00PM

Vikings +3 a strong play vs. Bengals

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LAS VEGAS - This might sound contradictory, but handicappers sometimes pay too much attention to the point spread.

Novice bettors make the mistake of looking at the better team and laying whatever points are available. That's a recipe for disaster, but the reverse is also true. I'm an underdog bettor, and it's very easy for me to make a case for an underdog getting the points. But just like playing chalk, it can be just as costly.

Take last week, for instance. After weeks of studying the lines, I pretty much talked myself into mostly dogs in the NFL's opening week. I'm in just about every contest here in Las Vegas, including all the ones in which you merely have to pick the games straight up. With multiple entries in each contest, most of my tickets went 6-10, ranging from 4-10 to 8-8. You're not going to do very well against the spread if you don't even hit .500 straight up.

The thing is, most of the time the team that wins the game also covers the spread. Last week, the Redskins, 9-7 victors over the Bears as 6-point favorites, were the lone exception.

So this week I decided to first look at the matchups and determine who would win the game regardless of the spread and then look at the spreads to see if I thought there was value. As it turned out, most of the games I've landed on are right around pick-em and no higher than 3-point spreads, so clearly I'm just looking for my teams to just win.

But still, it's easier said than done.

One other note: football fans tend to make a lot of knee-jerk reactions to what they see in the first week of the season, so I'm also looking for some reversals of form.

Vikings (+3) at Bengals

This is the earliest in the year I've made a two-unit play, but this spot warrants it. The Bengals dominated the Browns last week and the Vikings had a disappointing loss vs. the Buccaneers, which has led to an inflated line, in my opinion. The Vikings defense, which has been their Achilles' heel for years, played well enough to win, scoring a defensive touchdown and pretty much containing the Bucs' ground game until Carnell Williams's 71-yard run at the end of the game. Before that, the Bucs had only 70 yards all afternoon. Daunte Culpepper is unlikely to have a game as bad as he had last week, and the Bengals are still soft against the run (the Browns just weren't able to take advantage), so Michael Bennett or Mewelde Moore should help set up the passing game. The Bengals have a lot of nice offensive weapons, but if the Minny defense plays as well as it did last week, the Vikes will win easily.

PLAY: Vikings for 2 units.

Lions at Bears (+1 1/2)

Here's another two teams that most think are heading in opposite directions, but I'm going the other way. The Lions were helped by the Packers' ineptness in their opener and will have a lot of problems with the Bears' defense, which held the Redskins to three field goals and didn't get any help from the offense. The Bears' offense should fare better here and help get a win in Chicago's home opener. This number has been 2 most of the week and as high as 3 at the MGM Mirage books, but I think the money is on the right side.

PLAY: Bears for 1 unit.

Patriots (-3) at Panthers

The Panthers are a popular underdog pick this week, but I just can't pass up laying only a field goal with the two-time defending champ Pats no matter who they're playing or where. The loss of Kris Jenkins in the middle of the Carolina defensive line should allow Corey Dillon to pile up the yards, and quarterback Tom Brady should be his usual steady self. And, yes, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme lit up the Patriots in the Super Bowl two seasons ago, but Patriots' coach Bill Belichick is the best at making adjustments - plus he has had three extra days to prepare for this matchup. This could mirror the opener with the Raiders, with the Patriots toying with the Panthers, but in the end I expect a double-digit win.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Rams at Cardinals (pick-em)

Both teams are coming off embarrassing losses. The Cardinals were in their game early vs. the Giants before getting blown out 42-19, while the Rams were blown out early before coming up just short to the 49ers, 28-25. The Rams' offensive line, especially right tackle Rex Tucker, wasn't able to protect quarterback Marc Bulger last week, and now the Arizona pass rush should be in his face all afternoon. Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner faces his former team and should be flinging the ball all over. While I often get frustrated when teams abandon the run too early when behind, the Cards are one team I wish would forget the run and just go with a spread formation. With similar talent, I'll also take Dennis Green over Mike Martz in the coaching battle.

PLAY: Cardinals for 1 unit.

Chargers at Broncos (-3)

These two are also 0-1 and in need of a win in their AFC West opener. The Broncos have had the Chargers' number in recent years (though both games were pushes last year with Denver winning by 10 at home and the Chargers winning by 3 at home). Many people are optimistically pointing to the return of tight end Antonio Gates for the Chargers, but the fact is that last year the Broncos were one of the few teams that defended him well. In the two meetings, he had a combined seven catches for 61 yards and no touchdowns. If quarterback Drew Brees tries forcing it to his favorite receiver, it could lead to turnovers. Meanwhile, the Broncos' offense should rebound at home after a pathetic performance at Miami.

PLAY: Broncos for 1 unit.

Chiefs at Raiders (+1 1/2)

Staying in the AFC West, this battle should be explosive. Both teams can put points on the board as evidenced by the total of 54. The Chiefs throttled the Jets 27-7 last week, but I'm not buying that their defense is improved that much. The Jets grounded themselves with Chad Pennington's fumbles. And with K.C. defensive tackle Ryan Sims out, it should give more running room for Lamont Jordan and open things up for Kerry Collins to look deep to his receiving corps. Throw in a raucous home crowd in a nationally televised game, and the edge goes to the Raiders.

PLAY: Raiders for 1 unit.

Last week: 1-4 for a net loss of 3.4 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).