The NFL Gambling Opus No. 2

Welcome to Gambling Opus II, the sequel to the wildly popular Gambling Opus I. I fully expect this to live up to the expectations of sequels past by being somewhat bloated, having better hair and the same conceits, only in exotically different locales (like higher or lower in the column).

The timing is right for this review/preview of the NFL betting season. Because, in case you haven't heard by now, the Denver Broncos opened as 28-point favorites over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Sunday's game. According to my friends at The Gold Sheet, which has been tracking point spreads since 1957, this ties for the highest spread in NFL history, matching the posted number in a Baltimore Colts-Atlanta Falcons game back in 1966, the year the Falcons joined the league.

As I wrote the other day, bookmakers had been planning for this event for a couple of weeks, tracking it the way Weather Channel storm geeks track monsoons. How big would this baby be? Well, that depended on the hot air circling around the Rockies and where it met the cold front that had been sweeping west from the Florida Panhandle. Turns out, they've caught themselves a perfect storm of diametrically opposed public perceptions, with the Broncos playing as well offensively as any team in history and the Jags doing their best to make people forget about the 0-16 Lions from 2008.

It's hard not to cover when you are a three-touchdown underdog, and yet the Jaguars did that against the Seahawks. It's hard not to cover as double-digit 'dogs against a Rams offense whose receivers have perfected the post-dropped-pass clap. And yet, the Jags did just that. They have been so bad that the Broncos' social team started a mini-Twitter tempest by lobbing this beauty:

The Jags' tweeters proved they are quicker and more adept than most of the players by firing back moments later with this:

Naturally, the Broncos responded:

And you know what? The Jags' comeback was re-tweeted more than 15,000 times, while the Broncos' witty retort only got 4,900. And that, my degenerates, may be as good a way to handicap what is going to happen in this game as anything else.

By Wednesday afternoon the opening line of Broncos minus-28 had been bet down, slightly, to minus-26.5 at many sports books. Those were professional bettors moving the number, and the expectation is that any bet of substance is going to be on Jacksonville. As Bob Scucci, the bookmaker at The Orleans in Vegas told me, "Think about laying the most points anyone has ever laid, no one is going to do that."

Historically speaking, they shouldn't. Bruce Marshall from The Gold Sheet sent me this roundup of the biggest spreads in NFL history:

1966: Baltimore (-28) vs. Atlanta (Final score: Baltimore 19, Atlanta 7)
1966: Green Bay (-27) vs. Atlanta (Final score: Green Bay 56, Atlanta 3)
1966: Oakland (-26.5) vs. Miami (Final score: Oakland 31, Miami 17)
1966: San Diego (-26) vs. Miami (Final score: San Diego 44, Miami 10)
1966: Cleveland (-26) vs. NY Giants (Final score: Cleveland 49, NYG 40)
1968: Oakland (-26) vs. Buffalo (Final score: Oakland 13, Buffalo 10)
1976: Pittsburgh (-27) vs. Tampa Bay (Final score: Pittsburgh 42, Tampa Bay 0)

For the record, that makes the 'dogs 4-3 ATS. And, wow, did 1966 have some really crappy football teams. If you're looking for more recent and relevant comparison, consider the 2007 New England Patriots. Sure, that group went undefeated in the regular season, but over the last 11 games of the season they were 2-9 against the spread, including three ATS losses when they were favorites of 20-plus points.

Another cool nugget Marshall sent along was his list of the greatest outright upsets in NFL history:

1968: Denver (+22) vs. NY Jets (Final score: Denver 21, NYJ 13)
1967: Minnesota (+20) vs. Green Bay (Final score: Minnesota 10, Green Bay 7)
1968: Buffalo (+20) vs. NY Jets (Final score: Buffalo 37, NYJ 35)
1974: San Diego (+20) vs. Cincinnati (Final score: San Diego 20, Cincinnati 17)

Boy, the Jets sure did go in the tank a couple of times in 1968. But I'm sure there is nothing fishy about it. Forget head injuries, we should put the Fainaru brothers on that, stat.

All kidding aside (seriously, I'm only kidding), the Broncos aren't going to lose this game. And serious bettors aren't going to put their hard-won money on them to cover. But the public will. They will be without fear of a late-game garbage touchdown or backup Broncos playing the entire second half. And that's good. Because it means the ratings for what may be the least interesting matchup on an NFL field this season will be higher in the fourth quarter than for any game that actually matters.

Now, onto the rest of the Opus II and who the wiseguys love, who they hate and plenty of other stuff to lose you money. I know it will be the best gambling column sequel you read all year!