Monday Night Chaser: Colts-Bucs 

October, 3, 2011

Every Monday of the NFL season, ESPN Insider will present the Monday Night Chaser, a comprehensive gambling preview of the "Monday Night Football" game, along with a recap of the weekend's games. Chad Millman will look back at the weekend's action, while Jay Kornegay of the Las Vegas Hilton and a veteran Vegas handicapper will provide analysis of the MNF game.

I was trading emails with Jeff Sherman from the Las Vegas Hilton on Sunday night and I asked him, "Who is the hardest team to make lines for right now?"

Without hesitating he replied, "The Rams. Each week there have been decent-sized moves against them and they continue to not show up. We haven't found a point yet where there is support for them in the market, even after the line moves."

I wasn't surprised. As I took out the garbage Sunday night and I replayed the day in my head -- sweating the Seahawks cover, sweating the Niners cover, cursing the refs for costing me a Cardinals cover -- the Rams were the team that befuddled me most. Steve Spagnuolo had this team playing with so much heart and passion last season. He had his rookie QB defying expectations and, except for that pesky meltdown that cost them a playoff spot in the final game last season, keeping them in every game. This year, nada. They get into backdoor situations, the kind you could count on them covering last season when they had one of the league's best ATS records, and they have all the confidence of Tim Pawlenty's campaign manager. In their last two drives against the Redskins on Sunday, when a touchdown would have tied the game, the Rams were sacked three times. Literally and figuratively, this team is going backward.

Meanwhile, the role of Sam Bradford this season is being played by Cam Newton. In fact, let's just go ahead and rename the back door the Cam Door. Because this guy is just kicking it open and snatching covers the way kids steal pennies from the counter. Of course, the pennies happen to belong to bettors who keep betting against the Cam Door Panthers.

I get the feeling it will be like this all season. And it's completely unexpected.

Let me take you back to Week 1: The Cardinals, emboldened with Kevin Kolb at quarterback, were a hot team coming into the season, given how weak the NFC West is. Meanwhile, the Panthers were going with a rookie QB who had one year as a full-time starter in college.

The expectations for a team coming off of a 2-14 season playing a newbie under center are generally so low as to not be visible to the naked eye. In fact, for the past few years there have been two tried-and-true metrics for measuring a college quarterback's success in the NFL: completion percentage and total number of games started.

As my pal Peter Keating wrote in the Magazine last year:

    "David Lewin, formerly an analyst for Football Outsiders and now with the NBA's Cavaliers, has found that games started and NCAA completion percentage accurately predict NFL performance for QBs drafted in the first two rounds. To be more specific, the Day 1 QBs who go on to have the best pro careers complete at least 60 percent of their passes and start at least 37 games in college."

So here comes Newton. He did complete 66 percent of his passes during his college career at Florida and Auburn. But he played in just 20 games. Fourteen of them were his senior season at Auburn and six were spread out over the 2007 and 2008 seasons at Florida. He shouldn't be as poised as he has been his first four weeks in the pros, especially after an offseason spent learning the offense on his own. He shouldn't be third in the league in passing yards, behind Tom Brady and Drew Brees but ahead of guys like Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers. Twice he's thrown for more than 400 yards in a game. Then this past week against the Bears, he threw for 374.

What's happening is a perfect storm of circumstances: The Panthers are not quite good enough to beat decent-to-good teams (their one win is against the Jags, with three losses to the Cards, Pack and Bears), but Newton is ballsy enough -- and talented enough -- to think he can win. And late in the game, when the W is out of reach, he's going to turn every play into a lesson. Opponents are leaving pennies on the counter because they truly don't care what happens. But Cam never stops caring. It won't get the Panthers into the playoffs, but it does mean the Cam Door is never closed.

The Green Zone

We have the red zone. Well, last week I introduced the "Green Zone." This is when a game enters the fourth quarter and is within a score of either covering or losing a cover. I called it the green zone because it's when you may, or may not, make some dough. You can also call it that because it's the color your face becomes as you watch the game unfold. With the help of researcher extraordinaire Jeff Gold, I broke it down into four time frames: the start of the fourth quarter, nine minutes left in the game, six minutes left in the game and three minutes left in the game. There is no handicapping utility in this; it is simply a metric that shows how good bookmakers are at their job and how much pain and nausea you can expect to endure on Sundays. For example, of the 14 day games yesterday, 10 of them were within a score of covering with three minutes left in the game. Here's a breakdown, by time and total games in the green zone:

Now on to the Chaser, because I know you can't wait to get sick again tonight.

Matchup: Indianapolis Colts at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Spread: Opened at Bucs minus-9.5, now Bucs minus-10
Over/Under: Opened at 42, now 40.5