By Ron Jumper
If there was ever a weekend to showcase as a textbook example of how the betting public loses and the casinos rake in cash, this was it. No, it isn’t because of a bunch of crazy upsets or wild finishes (though the Ravens-Steelers game qualifies). Simply put, every game had a line that was calculated perfectly in terms of forecasting what amount of money would come in on each side and where the line would close. Here is quick breakdown of what transpired.
At the conclusion of the wildcard weekend, the Seattle Seahawks were the big story. No one, and I repeat…NO ONE, thought they would whip the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in that fashion. Well, that may be true, but Vegas was banking on them to cover the 11.5-point spread. To the recreational gambler, the Saints were going to win and win easy. However, “sharp” bettors and sports books had a different view. To them, the Saints had underachieved all year and, because of turnovers and injuries in the backfield, had let teams hang around in games they should have won easily (i.e. not covering spreads). They also respected the Seahawks at home, where they have been strong over the years. It also goes back to the age old adage that big spreads in the NFL are dangerous, particularly on the road.
At the time, I was on the air doing a radio broadcast for UALR basketball but an exchange I had with a co-worker summed up best what this article is trying to articulate. I was minutes from doing the pre-game show and not aware of the score of the game at the time when the co-worker walked up and this discussion took place:
Co-worker: The Saints are going to kill them, no reason they should be in the playoffs at 7-9.
Me: The game should be closer than you think, the Saints haven’t been near as good this season as last year.
Co-worker: The Saints are already up 10-0… (followed by condescending laughter)
Me: (With a grin) It’s the NFL, it’s early…
The rest, of course, was history. The Seahawks capped off the upset with a demoralizing touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch. The game’s outcome created a buzz among fans and the media which, in turn, was more than enough to get the betting public focused in on the NFC West champion that had been all but left for dead going into that matchup.
Now, because Seattle had become a public darling and the Bears were not a team perceived to be as elite as fellow heavyweights like the Patriots or Steelers, the money came in on the Seahawks to cover the double-digit spread against Chicago. However, yet again, the sharps and bookmakers had a different view. To them, Seattle had just played their “Super Bowl” because everyone said they didn’t deserve to make the playoffs due to their poor 7-9 record. They also had ridden the roller-coaster all season long with that bunch, as no team was more up and down then Seattle. This game had a clear divide between the public and the sharps, as the public was taking the darling underdog while the sharps saw the game as an obvious blowout situation. In this instance, since there is typically more public money than sharp money on the average game, the bookmakers were also cheering for the Bears. They got their wish, despite Seattle’s best attempt to sneak in for the backdoor cover, as the Bears survived 35-24.
Not all games went in favor of the books.
The Steelers are ALWAYS a public favorite, as they have the next biggest fan base in the league to the Dallas Cowboys, so it was expected when there was heavy public money on Pittsburgh to cover vs. the Ravens. This was the one game of the weekend that the public cashed in on and even that one took a little luck. It appeared the Ravens were going to win straight up with a 21-7 halftime lead. However, turnovers got the Steelers back in the game during the third quarter. Late in the game it was tied at 24, the Steelers had the ball looking to go down and win the game. On 3rd and 19 from their own 38, the Steelers completed a miracle hail mary down the sideline to Antonio Brown for 58 yards to the Ravens 4. Until that possession, you assumed that they either wouldn’t convert the third down or they would just get close enough to try a potentially game-winning field goal. The Steelers punched it in and covered the 3.5-point spread, much to the chagrin of sharps and bookmakers alike.
When the Falcons were favored by less than a field goal at home, I knew immediately that Vegas liked Green Bay. Despite Atlanta being so good at home since drafting Matt Ryan and with the Falcons being the higher seed, the trap was set by bookmakers to entice public bettors to take the home team. The key, in my opinion, was that Matt Ryan and this bunch hadn’t ever been in this spot before. Sure, Ryan had led the Falcons to the playoffs as a rookie where they lost at Arizona but they were the top seed in the NFC this season. Could they handle the hype? Meanwhile, Rodgers has been a man on a mission and the supposed lack of a running game seemed to be getting figured out thanks to James Starks. Sure enough, the Packers won going away and the game turned on a crucial interception by Ryan just before the half.
(It reminded me of the Arkansas Razorbacks going into their Sugar Bowl matchup with Ohio State. Sure, the SEC was supposed to kill the Big Ten but this was Ohio State going against Arkansas not Alabama. The Hogs were a great team but they weren’t accustomed to being in that spot, while the Buckeyes played in big games every year. It took Arkansas the first half to settle down and play their game.)
The Patriots have been a machine all year long and Tom Brady’s club is always going to be a fan favorite. They had pounded the Jets 45-3 earlier in the year, what was supposed to be different this time? With the line set at -9.5, bookmakers were hoping the money would pour in on New England and they got their wish. My thinking was, with all the hatred between these two teams, how could the Jets not show up and stay within single digits? That is a lot of points for fierce rivals in a playoff game. I didn’t like the Jets to win but I thought it would be a competitive game. Once again, we had a situation with a clear divide between public and sharp money on each side. The Patriots never seemed to get in sync and the Jets defense made play after play in route to winning the game straight up. My only concern now is whether or not the Jets have anything left in the tank, as beating New England was their “Super Bowl” similar to how the Seahawks beating the Saints was theirs.
Taking a quick peak, the Packers laying 3.5 on the road against Chicago was a surprise. The Bears have to feel disrespected, as they are both at home and the higher seed. The Steelers, yet again, are also a 3.5 point favorite. Both games put bettors in a similar predicament, as these type of lines are what we call a “hook” where it offers an additional half point above a key number which in this case would be 3. The Steelers are the better team but will they win by more than a field goal? It took a miracle against the Ravens to accomplish that feat. As for the Packers, have they now become this week’s public darling to be leery of? Aaron Rodgers is playing at a high level but now you have a disrespected division rival as a home dog. Not usually a great spot for bettors to lay the points.