10/07/2005 12:00AM

This week, just pick the winner

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LAS VEGAS - The saying goes that "three's a crowd," and it's certainly crowded around that number in NFL betting this Sunday and Monday.

Of the 14 games on this week's schedule, 11 of them are lined at 3 at most sports books, or at least within a half-point.

The line for the Panthers over the Cardinals has wavered between 2 1/2 and 3 most of the week, and the line for the Eagles over the Cowboys has wavered between 3 and 3 1/2.

The only exceptions are the Lions -1 1/2 vs. the Ravens, the Broncos -6 1/2 vs. the Redskins, and the Colts -14 1/2 vs. the 49ers.

I really like this week's card, probably since so many games have low spreads and I'm mostly looking to just pick the winner of the game. Although five of my games are around the key number of 3, my other two plays cover a couple of the exceptions.

Quick note: It's always important to get the best number available, and with so many lines this week around key numbers, don't lay 3 1/2 if you can find a 3, and don't take 2 1/2 if you can find a 3.

Ravens (+1 1/2) at Lions

This is really a case of just trying to pick the winner of the game. It has the lowest spread on the board - in fact, the line opened at

pick-em in most places, and the Stratosphere even had the Ravens -1 last Sunday night. After an 0-2 start and a bye week to regroup, the Ravens beat the Jets, 13-3, last week to get their first win. The offense didn't do much, but the defense was back to its dominant self. Sure, it was facing Brooks Bollinger, but Joey Harrington hasn't exactly set the league on fire, either. The Ravens' blitzing defense should shut down the Lions, who will also be without receiver Charles Rogers, who begins a four-game suspension this week.

PLAY: Ravens for 1 unit.

Colts at 49ers (+14 1/2)

This line opened with the Colts -10 1/2 before the 49ers' Sunday night debacle against the Cardinals in Mexico City. The line has been adjusted to more than two touchdowns. As bad as the 49ers played, that's too much of an adjustment. The 49ers have played much better at home this season, including an upset of the Rams outright on opening day, and they should have beaten the Cowboys two weeks ago before losing late. I probably sound like a broken record, but I'm still not sold on the Colts' defense, and I think the 49ers can match them score for score. I'm probably alone in that thinking, but I have no problem with that.

PLAY: 49ers for 1 unit.

Buccaneers (-3) at NY Jets

I usually jump all over home dogs, as I am with the 49ers this week, but the next three games find me on road favorites. The Jets' offense has been struggling all season, whether it's been Chad Pennington, Jay Fiedler, or Bollinger under center. This week, they turn to veteran Vinny Testaverde, and it's not likely to get any better against a very aggressive and physical Tampa Bay defense. The Bucs, who are undefeated, got a wake-up call last week before holding off the Lions, and I like teams that survive a scare like that. They won't be taking the Jets for granted and should come focused and roll to an easy win.

PLAY: Buccaneers for 1 unit.

Panthers (-2 1/2) at Cardinals

The Panthers come in after surviving a scare, dominating the Packers early Monday night and escaping with a 32-29- win. Last Sunday afternoon, I actually bet the Panthers -3 in their game with the Cardinals, thinking that the line would rise to 4 or higher if the Cardinals got blown out by the 49ers, as I expected. Oops. But the good news is that I have a better number to bet this week. Despite the Cardinals' prime-time heroics, the Panthers are clearly the better team on both offense and defense.

PLAY: Panthers for 1 unit.

Eagles (-3) at Cowboys

A lot of credit has to go to Bill Parcells, because the Cowboys could very easily be 0-4. They upset the Chargers on opening day - aided by the absence of San Diego tight end Antonio Gates - and barely rallied to win in San Francisco. The last three weeks, the Redskins, 49ers, and Raiders have scorched the Dallas secondary, and now Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens come to town. The Cowboys will be live dogs many times this year, but I just can't see their offense keeping pace this week.

PLAY: Eagles for 1 unit.

Patriots (+3) at Falcons

Over the last two-plus years, the Patriots are 5-0 straight up and against the spread the week after a loss. Yes, injuries are taking their toll and we might be seeing the end of their dynasty, but until they lose back-to-back games, I'm keeping the faith.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Bengals (+3) at Jaguars

In the Sunday night matchup, the Bengals put their undefeated recorded on the line at Jacksonville. The Bengals have problems, with their top two centers out with injuries, and if they were facing a more potent offensive team, there would be reason for concern. But the Cincy defense should hold the Jaguars in check, and the Bengals' offense should be able to adjust its game plan and won't need to score much more than 20 points.

PLAY: Bengals for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-4, including 0-2 on 2-unit plays, for a net loss of 4.6 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Season record: 8-13-1, including 1-3 on 2 unit plays, for a net loss of 8.6 units.