How to bet NFL divisional weekend 

January, 14, 2011

First off, an apology to The Sports Boss. Last week in my line moves column I referred to him as the "twerp" who keeps calling me. And that wasn't very nice. I feel bad for being so flip, especially since his analysis was spot on and he won both games he broke down. In fact, the guy had a great year and provided some fantastic insight for the column all season. So, no, he's not a twerp. Clearly, though, I am.

But don't let that stop you from reading on.

I'm going to get to the expert bookmaker/wiseguy analysis of this weekend's games below. But I have an announcement from the Insider home office, which will help you be sharper and smarter than ever. For months now the brains of our operation, Robbyn Footlick, and our lead designer, Dan DiCapite, have been cobbling together a resource they've dubbed Picks Central. The idea was to create a one-stop shop for those interested in some alternative analysis of the games. You can get anyone's offensive and defensive breakdowns, but Picks Central gives you all the most pertinent information you need if you want to know who is going to cover. How have teams done recently against the spread? How have teams as seven-point favorites done in similar scenarios in the past? By how many points is each team covering -- or not covering? What is the meaning of life and why are we here? (Umm, to make money betting on sports, duh.)

For example, going to Picks Central might help you make a decision about the one game I keep getting a lot of questions about: Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers. Seems people are perplexed by a few of the offerings out there. Some books, at various times this week, offered the Ravens plus-3.5 -- don't bookmakers know that, in the past two seasons, all the games between these two teams have come down to three-point decisions?

Of course, they do. Which means that if you happen to find the Ravens at plus-3.5, I urge you to take a peek a little bit to the right of the number. That is where you will find the juice, the vig, the commission, the price, the whatever you want to call it. Bottom line is, this is what it will cost you to make a bet. And, if you do look instead of blindly betting, you'll notice that the vig is a bit higher than the standard -110 (meaning you pay $11 to win $10). Most books offering that 3.5-point spread are doing so for a premium, perhaps charging bettors -120 or even -130 if they want to bet the Ravens. Essentially, you're buying that half point.

Jeff Sherman from the Hilton told me adjusted vigs are a trend that has been happening more and more in sports books the past couple of years, especially when the line is on or around three points. Three is a key number, meaning a disproportionate number of football games end on a field goal. The actual percentage is around 15 percent, higher than any other value. Books like to stay on key numbers for as long as possible because, if they move to one side or the other and the game lands on three, they are exposed to losses. But what do they do to keep from getting too much action on one side? How do they keep their books balanced?

What they've been doing lately is playing around with the juice on games in which the spread is around three. Some places opened the Ravens plus-3.5, but made it more expensive for people to play Baltimore. Other places decided to open the Steelers minus-3, but made the vig -120 or -130. Essentially, those are the same numbers, since it cost just as much to bet the Steelers at minus-3 as it does the Ravens at plus-3.5. But to bookmakers, adjusting the vig is a necessary tool. By doing so at Ravens plus-3.5, it allows them to keep the action balanced and not get beat by that half-point hook if the game lands on three. And by increasing the vig at Steelers minus-3, it makes people think twice before betting the Steelers. Either way, the goal is to move the spread as little as possible.

Another game wreaking havoc with bettor's psyche: New England Patriots-New York Jets. How do you handicap two teams who hate each other so much? How do you handicap a matchup that, a month ago, ended in a 45-3 blowout? Says Vegas vet Teddy Covers: "What's crazy is that a month ago the line was Pats 3.5 and 4; now it's five or six points higher? Is there that much of a difference? That is all public perception. On the other hand talk about the injuries that matter, Damien Woody is going on IR and he is New York's best run-blocker. Mark Sanchez cannot win the game. It's an injury that should be reflected in the point spread and is not."

All that said, here's what this week's panel of experts -- The Sports Club's Pete Korner, The Wynn's John Avello, Sherman from the Hilton, wiseguy Covers and handicapper Geoff Kulesa -- think about that game and the others: