01/06/2003 12:00AM

A wild, wild wild-card Sunday


After a regular season that was wild even by NFL standards, the playoffs got off to a fittingly wild start during last weekend's wild-card round.

Saturday's games were both laughers as the Jets, a 6-point favorite over the Colts, built a 24-0 halftime lead and coasted to a 41-0 victory. Similarly, the Falcons, a 7-point dog to the Packers, built a 24-0 halftime lead and were barely threatened as they won 27-7.

For bettors, about the only thing in doubt was if the two games would go over or under their respective totals. The Colts-Jets games opened with a total of 42 1/2 and was bet down to 41 by Saturday morning. Late money on Saturday drove the number back up and it closed at 42. Unfortunately I had to take the number that was available at press time Thursday for my bankroll play, even though I predicted it would drop. Anyone who bet the over on Saturday should have gotten 41 and a push, no thanks to the Colts.

Over bettors were also cheering for a late TD in the Falcons-Packers game. The total opened at 42 and was bet down to 41. With 24 points scored in the first half and Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre's reputation as a comeback king, the over look in good shape. However, even though the Packers scored a touchdown on their first second-half drive and the Falcons added a field goal midway through the third quarter, no one scored in the final 21 minutes to keep the game under. That was fine with me as I won a 1-unit play on the Falcons.

After Saturday's blowouts, television viewers couldn't have been blamed for turning off their sets during either of Sunday's games. But, if they did, they missed two of the best comebacks in NFL playoff history.

In the early game, the Browns, an 8-point underdog to the Steelers, led 17-7 at halftime and took a seemingly commanding 24-7 lead within the first three minutes of the third quarter. The Steelers started chipping away and pulled out a miraculous 36-33 victory. They fell short of covering the spread (which was fine with me as my bankroll had a 2-unit play on the Browns +7 1/2), but Steelers bettors who had them on the money line were ecstatic when they pulled ahead 34-33 with 54 seconds remaining. A lot of Steelers bettors had also teased them down to 1 1/2- or 2-point favorites, thinking it was a sure thing, and they got bailed out when the Steelers converted the 2-point conversion.

The Steelers' comeback (the fifth-largest in NFL playoff history), however, wasn't even the biggest comeback of the day. The Giants, a 3-point underdog to the 49ers, built a 28-14 halftime lead and extended it to 38-22 late in the third quarter. But the 49ers kept attacking and also grabbed a late lead, 39-38, with one minute to play. This time, the two-point conversion failed (which again was fine with me as my bankroll had a 1-unit play on the Giants +3 1/2) as late 49ers' bettors were looking for a push. Of course, 49ers money-line bettors still had to sweat out a Giants' drive that ended in a bad snap on the field-goal attempt and subsequent fire drill with a desperation pass downfield and a seemingly obvious defensive pass interference penalty that wasn't called. Instead, the officials called the Giants for having an ineligible receiver linemen downfield, ending the game.

Both Sunday games flew over their totals after Saturday's games both went under. In all, home teams won three of the four games (with the Packers, who had never lost a home playoff game previously, being the only loser). The road underdogs were 3-1 against the spread.

My bankroll completed the weekend 3-2 (3-0 on side, 0-2 on totals) for a net profit of 0.7 units.

Divisional playoff lines look solid

As the matchups were determined, Las Vegas sports books started posting odds on the divisional playoffs.

The first line to go up was Saturday night after the Falcons' victory. They were installed as a 7 1/2-point underdog against the Eagles with a total of 39.

All of the other lines had to wait until Sunday. After the Steelers' victory, it was determined they would play the Titans and the Stardust opened Tennessee as a 3 1/2-point favorite with a total of 44. In the other AFC matchup, the Raiders opened as a 5 1/2-point favorite over the Jets with a total of 47 at every book in town, expect for the Bourbon Street on Flamingo Road. There, the Raiders were a 6-point choice, but that's not surprising since the book is a satellite of the Club Cal Neva sports book in Reno, which gets a lot of its action from northern California.

After the 49ers' comeback, they were made a 4 1/2-point underdog for next Sunday's game at Tampa Bay. Station Casinos made the Bucs a 5 1/2-point choice.

At the Stardust, the Titans' point spread was the only one that had moved by the end of the day, with the Titans being bet up to a 4-point choice over the Steelers. NFL playoff lines are considered very solid and rarely move more than a point despite all the money being wagered.

Last look at the college bowls

As great as the games were Sunday, the most intense game of the weekend was the Fiesta Bowl on Friday night. Again, the underdog (Ohio State) was in control most of the game and the point spread (Miami -12) never came into play, but it had the added drama of overtime.

Bettors who took under 48 points suffered an incredibly tough beat as they looked like sure winners until Miami marched downfield to tie the game 17-17 on the last play of regulation. Miami scored a TD on its OT possession and when a fourth-down pass fell incomplete in the end zone, it looked like Miami had escaped with a 24-17 victory (and people who teased the Canes down to a 6-point favorite also looked like winners) . . . until the penalty flag was thrown. When Ohio State scored to tie the game 24-24 and force a second OT, under bettors were tearing up their tickets. The Buckeyes' 31-24 victory bailed out some bookmakers who had a lot of money on Miami in their future books.

After a 5-4 start, including wins on two 2-units plays, my college bankroll went in the tank in the late bowls just like last season, losing six straight games and finishing 5-10 for a net loss of 5.1 units.

Readers who followed the early-line moves from the Stardust lottery of Dec. 9 fared much better. The early bettors were 21-8 (72 percent) against the Stardust's opening numbers, including an amazing 14-2 (88 percent) on sides and a still-profitable 7-6 on totals. The only point spread losers were on Toledo (bet from +5 1/2 to +5 vs. Boston College, and losing 51-25 in the Motor City Bowl) and Kansas State (bet from -15 1/2 to -17 vs. Arizona State, and failing to cover in a 34-27 Holiday Bowl victory). After the K-State non-cover, the early bettors were on the right side in 11 straight games with Virginia, Minnesota, Wake Forest, Boise State, Purdue, TCU, Maryland, Michigan, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Ohio State.

Overall, 16 bowls went under and 12 went over and underdogs were 15-12-1 against the spread. The three games in which the public set the favorite (Maryland bet from +2 1/2 to -1 vs. Tennessee, Michigan bet from +2 1/2 to -1 1/2 vs. Florida, and NC State bet from pick-em to -1 vs. Notre Dame) were all winners.