05/31/2001 12:00AM

Why wait? Bet NFL over-under win totals now


It doesn't take much to get local sports bettors talking football.

And when a sports book, such as the Imperial Palace, posts NFL odds of any kind, even during the spring, the conversation escalates. Bettors scramble to get a look at the numbers and call sports radio shows to put in their two cents worth. And the professionals head to the Imperial Palace and put up considerably more than two cents . . . though the IP limits bets to a nickel - that's $500, for the uninitiated.

This week the Imperial Palace became the first Las Vegas sports book to post over/under win totals for all 31 NFL teams, and it might be the only book to do so this year. Other books have tried this prop but usually lose to the wise guys, who pick their spots and fire away with educated opinions. Like most props these days, the over/under has a 30-cent straddle between the price on the favorite and the takeback on the underdog. So a pick 'em is -115 each side, meaning you have to wager $1.15 to win $1.

But that didn't keep the pros away from the IP.

The Packers, who opened at 9 wins (over -150/under +120), took some of the earliest hits in the wagering. The players took the under until the IP moved it all the way to -120 with the over -110. Over money has now moved the over back to a -140 favorite with the under at +110. As you can see, these odds are subject to change (quickly).

The Packers are one of the "public" teams that attracts money every year just from the loyalty of their rabid fans. Two others are the Bears (opened at 7 wins, over -150/under +120, and now -135/+105) and the 49ers (opened at 7.5 wins, over +130/under -160 and now even/-130).

The Rams, Ravens, and Titans have the highest posted totals. But surprisingly, that the number is only 11. Normally, a team or two is at 12, as were the 49ers and Packers in recent years and the overhyped Redskins of a year ago. Chalk this up to another effect of parity. On the low end of the totem pole, the Browns' number is 4.5, with the over at -130.

Last year's worst team, the 1-15 Chargers are expected to get a whopping 7 wins by the IP oddsmakers. Last year's surprising Eastern Division champions, the Dolphins and the Giants, have the biggest expected decline. The Dolphins, who won 11 games last year, are at 8 and the Giants, who won 12, are at 9.

Only four teams have the same posted total as the number of wins they had last year: Colts (10), Bills (8), Buccaneers (10), and Packers (9).

The 31 teams' win totals add up to 252. This is relevant because there are only 248 NFL games on the schedule. As has been stated in this space many times before, bettors are more prone to bet the over and bookmakers know this, so they tend to shade their numbers slightly higher. Adding to this is the fact that most tourists will be buying tickets on their home team and will be cheering for them to win.

In addition, 14 teams are projected to finish above .500 (more than eight wins) and only 12 to be below .500, with five sitting on eight wins. So the first place to look for value is on the under.

Another imbalance to take note of is that the AFC wins add up to 133 with only 119 in the NFC. Now, if you believe the AFC is that much superior to the NFC, you might discount that, but it's a significant gap if you think the two leagues will split the interconference games.

Many handicappers focus on good teams to exceed their win total and bad teams to go under, but the real value lies in the middle of the pack.

Bills (under 8, even): The Bills won eight games last year, but they lose Doug Flutie. Now, some people will say that's a plus since it ends the quarterback controversy, but who will they turn to if Rob Johnson struggles or gets hurt? Add this to the fact that they play in a strong division and I can't see them going 9-7 (which is what it would take to lose the bet); 7-9 is much more likely.

Chargers (under 7, -125): This might seem contradictory, but I don't think Flutie will make this much of a difference for a team that won one game last year. They have many more problems, and with strong divisional rivals, I can't see the Bolts getting anywhere near eight victories.

Colts (over 10, even): Indy struggled early last year and still won 10 games, which would get a push this year. Edgerrin James, despite skipping voluntary practices this week, will be ready to go. The Colts do have a tough schedule, but that's when they play their best and avoid letdowns. Getting even-money is a bonus.

Other leans: The Seahawks under 9 looks like a sure thing, but -180 is too steep a price. The Titans at over 11 is tempting at +130, but 10-6 isn't out of the question if the Jaguars rebound from a subpar year and the Ravens remain dominant. Steelers over 7.5 looks promising with a potential four wins coming against the Bengals and Browns - but the danger is in facing the Ravens, Titans, and Jaguars twice each.