12/18/2001 12:00AM

Weekenders not so savvy to spread

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LAS VEGAS - You would think that, with the existence of illegal bookies across America and with the explosion of offshore betting, tourists coming to Las Vegas would be sharper football handicappers.

But today, as in year's past, the tourists by and large still come in on the weekends and bet the favorites - especially if they're media darlings - regardless of the point spread. They also like to bet against the perceived weak teams, again with no regard for the line.

The Rams are the public's favorite team at this time, and it makes sense because they have an NFC-best record of 11-2. But because of public perception and the bookmakers' need to inflate the lines on their games, the Rams were only 5-5-1 against the spread before winning and covering their last two games.

The Steelers, the top team in the AFC and not a popular betting team early in the season, have a 9-3-1 spread record mostly because they haven't had to lay many points and were even an underdog as recently as Sunday night against the Ravens. The public is now on the bandwagon, and you can expect the Steelers to have problems covering the spread from here on. For instance, they're laying 10 against the Lions this Sunday.

That makes for a nice segue to teams that are undervalued by the so-called "squares." The Lions lost their first dozen games and have been the butt of Jay Leno jokes. Everyone makes fun of them, and the public continually bets against them. Well, after beating the Vikings Sunday they're a respectable 7-5-1 against the spread this season (same as the beloved Rams).

The Panthers are similar. They won their first game of the year and have lost 12 straight. They're 6-6-1 against the spread, however, and usually hang tough even if they lose. They're getting 12 1/2 points at home Sunday against the Rams.

The best teams are not necessarily the best bets, and the worst teams are not the worst wagers. The point spread is the great equalizer.

NFL trends

* The under hit on nine of the 13 games through Sunday afternoon before the over came in both Sunday and Monday night. The 9-6 mark made the under 106-95-2 on the season.

* The Colts, owing to a potent offense and a sieve-like defense, have gone over the total in 11 of their 13 games this season. The Titans' defense was No. 1 in total yardage last season so they have had low totals to exceed; they have gone over 10 of 13. The perception of the Rams as a stone-cold over team is false, as their over is 6-7 on the season.

* Four teams are 10-3 on the under: the Jets, Giants, Bears, and Redskins.

Season-long contest updates

Mike Orkin, professor/author/ statistician and creator of the Optimizer handicapping software, just missed being the first handicapper to post a 7-0 record in the Stardust Invitational. He was undefeated going into Monday night's game, but lost with the Cowboys +5 1/2 against the Seahawks.

Regardless, he was an impressive 6-1 (winning with Chiefs, Colts, Eagles, 49ers, Steelers, and Rams) to defeat author Patrick Forsythe (2-5) easily and advance to the championship round of the $10,000 winner-take-all event. The other semifinal match is this Friday at 9 p.m. in the Stardust sports book (and on KDWN AM-720) as defending champion Dave Cokin takes on Coast Resorts sports book director Bert Osborne.

* The semifinals are set for the Sunset Station All-Star Handicappers Invitational. Bob Donahue, who won the regular-season portion of the contest and a $2,500 bonus for having the top best-bet record at 10-3-1, will be joined in the semis by Brent Crow, Rob Veno and Bryan Leonard. All four are contributors on Tim Trushel's local "Vegas Sportswire" radio show, though Trushel didn't advance. The semifinals will take place Friday at 6 p.m. in the Sunset Station sports book and will be aired live on KDWN.

* Of the six handicappers atop the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest leaderboard, five of them were 2-3 against the spread last weekend to lose valuable ground with three weeks (and 15 plays) remaining in the season. James Pronovich went 3-2 to take over sole possession with 44.5 points, based on a 43-25-3 record (pushes count for a half-point). A contestant using the alias Juss Teen went 4-1 to jump past the other five leaders to take over sole possession of second place with 44 points. Falling into third place were former co-leaders Tony Salinas and The Bud Man with 43.5 points. First prize in the $1,500 buy-in contest is $135,600.

New strategy boosts bankroll

So far so good. My new strategy is to use all the games I like in my bankroll instead of narrowing down to my best bets.

With no college football last weekend, I went with nine 11-unit plays in the NFL and came out with a 6-3 record for a net profit of 27 units (for the record, my best bets at www.drf.com/nfl_selectors.html were only 2-3, so I was 4-0 on games I previously would have passed).

The NFL bankroll, which began the season at 1,000 units and was at 932 entering last weekend, now stands at 959 units.

Tangerine Bowl, Dec. 20

Pittsburgh (PK) vs. NC State

Thursday's Tangerine Bowl features two teams that have rallied down the stretch to make this game, and that's appropriate, since the Tangerine is also making a comeback after 19 years.

Pittsburgh opened the season 1-5 and has won five straight. After giving up a combined 87 points in losses to Syracuse and Boston College, Pitt is allowing only 7.4 points a game in its winning streak, including an impressive 38-7 victory over previously unbeaten Virginia Tech. While the defense has been dominant, the offense has also come around, with QB David Priestly throwing 13 TD passes in those five games. Hopefully WR Antonio Bryant will be able to play despite an injured ankle.

NC State also finished strong with wins in four of its last five games. The Wolfpack beat Florida State 34-28 and nearly knocked off eventual ACC champ Maryland the following week. NC State is on a par with Pittsburgh offensively - the Wolfpack is ranked 75th in the country, the Panthers 82nd - but the difference is on the defensive side of the ball, as Pitt is ranked seventh while NC State is 47th.

Play: Pittsburgh for 11 units.

Starting bankroll: 1,000 units.

Bankroll entering bowl season: 963 units.