12/16/2005 12:00AM

Yes, the Colts will play to win - but they won't


LAS VEGAS - At this time of the NFL season, a big part of the handicapping equation is interpreting the coach-speak.

There's a lot of talk about whether coaches will rest starters for the playoffs or whether those out of contention will play out the string. From a horseplayer's perspective, it's similar to listening to trainers before prep races for the Kentucky Derby or Breeders' Cup.

Take Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy, for instance. He says his Colts are trying to complete a perfect season, but everyone knows their ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl. If a horse trainer has an undefeated colt heading into the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, or any other major Derby prep, of course he's going to say he wants to win to stay undefeated. But the main goal is to keep his colt healthy and on course for the Derby.

Injury reports are important to both football and horse bettors. New England head coach Bill Belichick kept everyone on pins and needles earlier this week about whether quarterback Tom Brady was "questionable" or "probable" for the game Sunday. There are countless stories alleging coaches who have put players on the injury report even though the players were never in danger of missing a game, or of players left off the injury report who end up not playing.

In football, it's a little easier to gauge injuries, because we can get information straight from the player. That's not so with horse racing, as we have to rely on the trainers to speak for their charges. Some bemoan the aches and pains of their horses when they're just fine, while others keep mum even if they know their horse is hurting.

In racing or sports, handicappers have to decide whether to take the comments of trainers or coaches at face value.

Chargers (+7 1/2) at Colts

I believe Dungy and the Colts are going to play to win, but they will be missing a couple of players. Lineman Corey Simon and linebacker Cato June are sitting out the game. This should make it easier for San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson to find holes in the Indy defense. With Tomlinson having success, that should make Drew Brees's play-action fakes effective and allow him to find tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Keenan McCardell downfield. The Chargers' defense got lit up by the Dolphins last week, so it will be out to make up for that performance, and the Chargers' team speed can match the Colts. And, yes, I will call for the outright upset while also taking the points for backdoor insurance.

PLAY: Chargers for 2 units.

Eagles (+3 1/2) at Rams

This game was originally scheduled as a featured late game on Fox, but with both teams having disappointing seasons, it has been moved to an early time slot (10 a.m. Vegas time). The Eagles, despite all their injuries and off-the-field troubles, are still playing hard and nearly upset the Giants last week. They get an easier matchup here against a defense that can't stop anybody - so Ryan Moats should have another big game in place of Brian Westbrook - and an offense that is struggling since the league got a chance to watch tapes of Rams rookie quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. I like this play enough to make it a second 2-unit play this weekend.

PLAY: Eagles for 2 units.

Cardinals at Texans (+1 1/2)

The Texans are the anti-Colts this season, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that for the second straight week I have gone against the Colts and with the Texans. Last week, the Texans lost, 13-10, to the Titans but covered the spread. With the way they've played and the way Kris Brown missed two late field goals last week, including one that would have sent the game to overtime, some have questioned whether they're throwing games in order to get USC running back Reggie Bush with the No. 1 draft pick. No one likes to be accused of that, so I think the Texans will come with their best effort here at home against an inconsistent Cardinals squad. David Carr, Domanick Davis, and Andre Johnson have been playing well lately, and the defense usually plays better at home and should contain Kurt Warner and Co.

PLAY: Texans for 1 unit.

Jets (+8 1/2) at Dolphins

The Jets showed they haven't given up with their 26-10 upset of the Raiders and should bring the same effort vs. their divisional rivals. But this is really a play against the favorite. With the Dolphins laying this many points, it reminds me of the Titans -7 vs. the Texans and the Packers -7 vs. the Lions last week or the Ravens - 7 1/2 vs. the Texans and the Dolphins -5 vs. the Bills two weeks ago. It's one thing to ask the Colts or Seahawks to cover these kind of numbers and quite another to ask below average teams to do the same.

PLAY: Jets for 1 unit.

Packers (+3) at Ravens

We've had a lot of lame primetime matchups lately - Chargers 34-10 over the Raiders, Seahawks 42-0 over the Eagles, Packers 16-13 over the Lions, Falcons 36-17 over the Saints - and here's another one on Monday night. But at least this one should be competitive, and that's why I'm looking to the underdog. For all the Packers' failings, half of their 10 losses have come by 3 points or less, and against better competition than the Ravens. Even if the Baltimore defense steps up like it did in the 12-10 loss last week at Denver, Brett Favre should be able to generate enough offense to outscore the Ravens' non-existent attack.

PLAY: Packers for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-1-3, including a 3-unit loss on the Bears +6 vs. the Steelers, for a net loss of 0.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 27-41-6 for a net loss of 23.4 units.