Oct 8, 2002 8:19 AM

   It’s hard to believe the NFL season is more than one quarter complete and the surprises continue.

   Defending NFC champion St Louis remains winless at 0-5 and is a solid underdog at home this week, hosting Oakland. After being favored in almost 60 straight contests dating back to their 1999 Super Bowl season, the Rams were underdogs last week in San Francisco and put forth another uninspired effort.

   Oakland is the only remaining unbeaten team after five weeks after San Diego fell at Denver. The AFC West, at this stage, is clearly the best division in the NFL at this point. Kansas City is in last place at 3-2 and the four teams have a combined record of 15-4.

   Contrast the AFC West with the AFC North. Following a 0-2 start and a bye week, Baltimore has won two in a row and holds the Division lead with a .500 record. There exists the possibility that one of the eight division winners could wind up with a .500 record or worse. Blame scheduling dynamics brought on by realignment.

   Divisional games in some sense are devalued because each team plays only six games against division foes and 10 against other teams. There are five divisional contests on this week’s schedule. Arizona, Chicago, the New York Jets and Philadelphia have byes.

   Sunday, Oct. 13:

   Saints (-1½) at Redskins (45½): Steve Spurrier may have finally found a capable NFL quarterback who did not attend the University of Florida. Patrick Ramsey relieved injured starter Danny Wuerffel and led the Redskins to an impressive victory at Tennessee. New Orleans held off a frantic Pittsburgh rally to improve to 4-1, but the Saints’ defense remains a concern. New Orleans has allowed at least 20 points in all five games. WASHINGTON.

   Steelers (-6½) at Bengals (40½): Pittsburgh continues to have major problems on defense but the offense finally perked up behind QB Tommy Maddox. Cincinnati finally showed some offensive consistency behind Jon Kitna. The Steelers are fundamentally better and at 1-3 a win becomes virtually essential. PITTSBURGH.

   Panthers (+ 2½) at Cowboys (35): Carolina continues to play solid defense. The offense remains a concern with a marginal running game. Aging QB Rodney Peete is capable for a few games but there have to be concerns over a full season. Dallas is showing signs of improvement but QB Quincy Carter is still early in the learning curve. Both teams rely on their defenses. UNDER.

   Bills (-7½) at Texans (43): The early money has come on the Texans, most likely a reaction to Buffalo’s poor defensive play. Keep in mind Buffalo has faced some of the top offenses in the league. Houston has the league’s worst offense, averaging below 200 yards per game. Houston’s defense has been respectable, but this is a top notch offense. BUFFALO.

   Ravens (+6½) at Colts (42½): Baltimore’s defense has not been as bad as expected, while the offense is improving behind QB Chris Redman. Indianapolis has yet to show the explosiveness on offense expected under Tony Dungy. The coach’s emphasis on defense and field position suggests a conservative attack. UNDER.

   Lions (+4½) at Vikings (49): Both teams are byes. Detroit seems to have found new spark behind rookie QB Joey Harrington. The extra week of practice should make him sharper. The defense will be tested by a Minnesota offense that has been more balanced, running for more than 150 yards per game. OVER.

   Packers at Patriots (NL): Green Bay played on Monday night and will probably be a small underdog heading to New England. The Patriots look to rebound from a pair of losses to solid defensive teams. Green Bay’s offense will be challenged by a defense that plays much better against pass-oriented teams. NEW ENGLAND.

   Falcons at Giants (NL): Atlanta QB Mike Vick was injured last week and his status is uncertain. The Giants were fortunate to escape with a win at Dallas.  Both teams have been able to move the ball between the 20s, but have been unable to finish off drives. UNDER.

   Jaguars (-1½) at Titans (44): Jacksonville is one of the early season surprises and at 3-1 are tied with the Colts atop the AFC South. When healthy the Jags have a potent and well-balanced offense and they are healthy. The defense has also played better than expected. Tennessee has been one of the biggest disappointments. Poor defense and an inability to run the ball, perhaps due to a lingering injury to EB Eddie George, have been the main reasons. JACKSONVILLE.

   Raiders (-7) at Rams (46): My how the mighty have fallen! The Rams are a TD underdog at home. Oakland has exploded out of the gate, averaging over 40 points per game. The Rams are listless and playing with no confidence or sense of urgency. At some point players’ pride has to kick in. ST LOUIS.

   Chiefs (+3) at San Diego (46½): This might be the week’s most intriguing matchup. Kansas City’s aggressive offensive philosophy faces San Diego’s more conservative approach. It’s often said that when a good offense meets a good defense it’s best to back the better defense. We sort of agree. UNDER.

   Browns at Bucs (NL): Cleveland coach Butch Davis has a tough call to make. Backup QB Kelly Holcomb relieved ineffective starter Tim Couch and almost rallied the Browns to a win over Baltimore after trailing 23-0 through three quarters. Both QBs were banged up in that game so his decision might be determined by health. Tampa Bay has shown marked improvement on offense under new coach Jon Gruden, but defense remains the key to success. The Bucs lead the NFL in fewest points allowed. TAMPA BAY.

   Dolphins (+3½) at Broncos (41): Two of the AFC’s elite teams meet and each is coming off of a key divisional win. Both can run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense. This is statistically the most difficult game on the board to handicap. It would not be a surprise if the pointspread came down to the final few minutes. Miami has won the last two in the series and getting more than a FG is worth the look. MIAMI.

   Monday, Oct. 14

   49ers (-3) at Seahawks (43): For the fifth time in six weeks we have a Monday night home underdog. The home pup has won three of the four previous games this season. Early money has gone towards Seattle. San Francisco is clearly better and is now a divisional rival. Seattle is off of a bye, which followed its most impressive effort of the season against Minnesota. This should be an entertaining game with both offenses likely to star. OVER.

   Last week: 9-3-1.

   Season: 47-24-2.