It's NFL team over/unders time!
For the uninitiated, this is the yearly column where I back up my assorted feelings about various teams with bets on their win totals at assorted sportsbooks around Las Vegas. It is simultaneously my favorite column to write all year and the column for which I receive the most hate mail,1 two facts which are only slightly correlated. I love writing it because it's an honest place for me to get down some very concrete opinions on teams before the season starts. By the time Week 14 rolls around, it's easy to forget what the public perception was surrounding teams before the season. Did you know that the 2-14 Rams (+160) were favored to win the NFC West over the 13-3 49ers (+200) before last season? It's too easy for people to sit back with hindsight and snicker in December about how they just knew that the 49ers were primed for a big season in August. For better or worse, this is the place where I can take some stances on the record heading into the NFL season.
Last year, that actually turned out to mostly fit in the "better" category. I placed 13 preseason bets, and while I didn't hit on any of my individual player or divisional props, I went 7-for-8 on my team over/under bets. As a result, my picks turned a profit of 146.6 percent. Now, before you worry about me turning into a tout and starting a huge advertising campaign in the margins of blogs around the Internet, chill. I was pretty lucky to win my bet against the Bears, for one, and whatever profit I made on my over/under bets was washed away amid a truly dismal season of week-to-week bets. (More on those on Friday.)
The player props will be in a separate piece on the site later this week, so today's column exclusively focuses on the various team bets that I've made at various books over the past few months. The odds I make my bets at have, in many cases, changed from those that were posted at the time when I made them. I'll try to mention how they've changed as warranted. If you want to see what the odds were like back when they initially hit the market, I wrote about them in May.
If you're unfamiliar with how these bets work, here's a quick initiation. As an example, we'll use the current Texans line from the MGM sportsbooks.
Based off that 10.5-win figure, I can choose to make one of two different bets. I'd bet the "over" if I thought that the Texans were going to win 11 or more games; in other words, more than the 10.5 figure. The +120 figure means that I would receive $120 in profit for every $100 I bet on the over. If I bet the "under," I'd win if the Texans won 10 games or fewer and lose if they won 11 or more. That bet's -140 odds mean that I have to bet $140 to return a profit of $100. In the case of a tied win total on a line that doesn't have a half-win attached to it (like the Packers, who are posted at the MGM books at 12 wins flat), I would be given back the money I initially bet without profit or loss.
OK. The following predictions are ordered by team nickname so that I can start with the strongest opinion I have, one that appears to be diametrically opposed to the betting public at my home sportsbook:
San Francisco 49ers
Under 10.0 wins (-135)
$150 to win $111.11
Under 10.0 wins (+120)
$198.10 to win $237.32
I made my first bet against the Niners at -135 on the first day that Cantor posted over/unders; I was so adamant that the Niners will not win more than 10 games that I actually went and made a second, bigger bet once people started betting heavy on them at the MGM sportsbooks a couple of weeks ago. I would have been smart to wait on placing the first bet, because the odds have drastically improved for my bet, but I honestly didn't think that the market would swing this far toward the Niners' over. It's begun correcting itself, as the MGM books now have the Niners under — which started at 9.5 wins and -110 — at 10 wins with a line of -110.
Honestly, I can't fathom why people think the Niners will win more than 10 games, so much so that there's going to be a big piece talking about why the Niners won't actually win 10 or more games on the site next Monday. So you have to hold off on my full explanation for this one for a little bit. One tease, though: The Niners improved by a full seven wins last year, going from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3 during their huge season last year. Ten other teams have made a seven-win leap since the advent of the 16-game season in 1978. They each declined during the subsequent season, winning an average of 4.7 games less than they had during the previous year. Gulp.
Under 8.5 wins (+105)
$100 to win $105.00
Ah, old friends. Last year, the public was with me when I bet on the Bears under, as the line moved from 8.5 wins to 8.0 wins during the offseason, indicating plenty of action on the under. This year? Not so much. The Bears are now up to nine full wins at the Aria, and the under on that bet is up at +130. They're also the most popular bet to win the Super Bowl at the Cantor sportsbooks in Vegas.
So, if I doubled down on my Niners bet, why didn't I do the same on my Bears one? Well, because I'm nowhere near as confident about this one. I'm counting on an improved Vikings team and continued solid play from the Lions and Packers to make this an extremely tough division, but the Bears do get to play the AFC South and NFC West. I have enough questions about the offensive line and the secondary to feel like I have a shot, but with the market going so heavily against me, this is probably the ticket I'm least comfortable holding right now.
Under 9.5 wins (-180)
$150 to win $83.33
My biggest regret on the opening day, when these lines were posted, was failing to get to the sportsbook until 6 p.m. or so. That cost me an opportunity to get this line — one I was looking forward to betting under all offseason — at its proper value. I had to pay a premium to get the bet at under 9.5 wins as opposed to going under nine wins flat, but being able to win this bet with a 9-7 record from the Broncos makes me much happier about my chances.
I'm short on the Broncos because they were an 8-8 team that played well over their heads last season. They had the point differential of a 5.8-win team and went 7-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Teams that outplay their score differential at a rate between two and 2.5 wins lose an average of 2.4 games more in the subsequent season. This line requires them to improve by two games to hit their over. Sure, swapping in Peyton Manning is going to overcome a lot of otherwise likely regression, but I don't think he's going to be able to drag a team that's below-average at virtually every position any higher than 9-7.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Over 5.0 wins (-150)
$150 to win $100.00
Tampa Bay was my heaviest favorite to go under their win total of eight last year, something they accomplished comfortably by quitting on head coach Raheem Morris halfway through the season. I didn't know that the team would quit on their young coach, but I did see a team that had improved by seven wins from the previous season against an extremely easy schedule and doubted that they would be able to maintain their gains. Oh, um, you should probably clean that vomit off the floor, Niners fans.
I'm not mentioning this to brag, but instead to point out how public perception and a team's total can turn an easy under bet into an easy over one. This year, the Buccaneers are a team that declined from the previous season's win total by six games. Teams who experienced that sort of drop-off improved by an average of 2.9 wins during the subsequent season, a shift that would put the Buccaneers right around 7-9 this year. Furthermore, they've got a new head coach that the team isn't going to immediately quit on, and they finally went out and spent money in free agency for the first time in years, signing Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson. Oh, and they regularly started 11 guys who were 25-and-under last year, so they should be getting better. This feels way easier than it should be. The line has actually moved up to six wins at the MGM books, with the over at -110. I'd still bet the over there.
Under 7.0 wins (-140)
$250 to win $178.57
The Cardinals' largest margin of victory last year was seven points. Their average margin of victory was just over four points. That occurred despite the fact that they played two games against the Rams and contests against the Redskins, Vikings, and Browns. They were bailed out by four Patrick Peterson punt returns for touchdowns, two of which served as game-winners. Teams will avoid punting at Peterson in 2012. They're not that stupid.
So, you're left with a team that was 8-5 in games decided by one touchdown or less who has to choose between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton at quarterback. The Cardinals ignored major holes on their offensive line and at linebacker to take a wide receiver in the first round, the third first- or second-round pick they've used on a skill position player in three years, at the suggestion of Larry Fitzgerald. Arizona has to play the AFC East and NFC North this year, and their out-of-schedule games are against the Falcons and Eagles. How are they going to go 7-9?
Kansas City Chiefs
Under 8.0 wins (-130)
$100 to win $76.92
More fun with the Pythagorean theorem and point differentials: The Chiefs went 7-9 despite being outscored by 126 points, the typical differential of a 4-12 team. That gap — a full three wins — is one of the largest differences between a team's actual record and their point differential in league history. Only seven teams have posted win totals that were more inflated relative to their point differential since the 16-game schedule came into effect, and in that year after they defied Pythagoras, they declined by an average of 2.7 wins. A small sample, sure, but even if we expand that group to include those teams who exceeded their projection by two full games, the decline (across 44 teams) is an average of 2.5 wins.
I'm certainly amenable to the idea that the Chiefs who actually take the field in 2012 will be much better than the units who managed to make it through the season without blowing up their knees. Getting Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles back for full seasons is of huge value, as is the absence of any possibility that Tyler Palko might come back into play. Again, though, those guys have to shape up a team that looked pretty awful for most of the year and improve on their win total from last season to hit the over.
Over 9.0 wins (+105)
$50 to win $52.50
New Orleans Saints
Under 10.0 wins (-120)
$75 to win $62.50
These two bets are pretty closely related; as you might suspect, it's a bet that the Saints will struggle thanks to their new coach and an extremely tough offseason. The Bountygate scandal overshadowed the fact that New Orleans had a rough time in free agency and weren't able to replace their departed talent in the draft; they traded away their first-round pick in the inane Mark Ingram trade last season and then lost their second-round pick as part of the scandal. And if the Saints go under 10 games, it's difficult to envision a scenario in which the Falcons don't go over nine.
New England Patriots
Under 12.5 wins (-135)
$200 to win $148.15
I was making a quick stop at the LVH one day to cash a bet, saw that total, and did a double take: 12.5 wins?! Sure, it's the Patriots, but fading four losses is tough for any team to do, let alone one with a propensity for starting street free agents and inexperienced wide receivers in their secondary. The New England schedule isn't very tough, but remember — you basically can't have anything go wrong if you want to win 13 games. If Tom Brady gets hurt for any stretch of time, it's an automatic win for me. If Rob Gronkowski goes down, it's going to look pretty good. And even if everyone stays healthy and the Patriots play at their typically high level, they're probably going to have to fade all of their classic late-season we're-not-really-trying games to hit the total.
Over 10.5 wins (+130)
$75 to win $97.50
Isn't it reasonable to expect the Steelers to be better than the Patriots this season? They were famously bad at forcing turnovers last year, combining a ridiculously soft interception rate with terrible luck at recovering fumbles. That should all change in 2012. Pittsburgh also had a great draft, upgrading their porous offensive line by adding two possible new starters up front, and they should get a healthier season from Ben Roethlisberger. They're also going to benefit from a diminished Ravens team that's already lost their only notable pass rusher, Terrell Suggs, for the season.
The Title-Winning Bets
This second set of bets are on teams to achieve some particular level of accomplishment by the end of the season. These are simple to understand; if the team wins the prescribed title, I win; if not, I don't. Keep in mind that these bets aren't predictions as to who I think is most likely to actually win these titles, but instead my opinions as to which betting opportunities represented good value versus those teams' actual shots at claiming glory. That should be obvious once you see that I'm spreading bets on certain titles across multiple teams.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Win the NFC South (+1200)
$25 to win $300.00
These odds seem crazy high in a division where year-to-year upheaval has been par for the course. Then again, the Panthers were +3000 before last season. Sure, they're in a division with three teams who have the potential to be very good, but there's no complete team like the Packers or Steelers waiting at the top to be dethroned. Tampa's got a legitimate shot at this one.
San Diego Chargers
Win the AFC West (+140)
$100 to win $140.00
Did you know that the Chargers were the only team in the AFC West to post a positive point differential last year? Their +29 figure was 103 points better than the second-best figure in the division, which belonged to the since-gutted Raiders. That's happened 14 times since the move to the current eight-division setup in 2002, and every other time, the lone team with the positive point differential won the division. I also don't buy that there's something seriously wrong with Philip Rivers after an occasionally sloppy season saw him throw a career-high 20 picks last year; remember, Eli Manning led the league in interceptions in 2010 with 25. He had an OK year in 2011.
Win the AFC Championship (+2300)
$25 to win $575.00
Win the Super Bowl (+5000)
$20 to win $1000.00
These were, shall we say, speculative bets based upon the possibility that Miami might end up with Peyton Manning under center for the 2012 season. Once they Stephen Ross-ed their way out of that opportunity, these two bets basically came to represent the equivalent of lighting $45 on fire. Without the satisfaction of actually lighting money on fire.
Win the NFC South (+140)
$75 to win $105.00
As I mentioned earlier, it seems like the Falcons should be the favorites to win this division, and probably at something closer to -140 than +140. Admittedly, my wallet will be rooting for the Buccaneers to beat them to the NFC South crown, but Atlanta has superior talent and coaching to anyone else in the division until Sean Payton gets back.
Win the NFC Championship (+1000)
$20 to win $200.00
I have absolutely no recollection of why I made this bet or what my thought process was while making it. That's not a good sign. I don't think the Lions are going to win the NFC, nor do I think that 10-1 represents good value on the possibility that they might prove me wrong. So, um ...
St. Louis Rams
Win the NFC Championship (+5000)
$10 to win $500.00
This one was far more intentional. Obviously, if I'm projecting a decline in San Francisco, someone should step up and either compete for the NFC West title or win it outright. If that team's going to be the Rams, the win would push them into the playoffs with a home game. Dumber things have happened. I promise.
Win the AFC North (+120)
$100 to win $120.00
Again, this is the logical successor to my thinking about the Steelers going over their 10.5-win total. With the injury to Suggs, a likely decline coming in Cincinnati, and the Browns continuing to be the Browns, I can't imagine anyone else in that division winning 11 games. Of course, even if the Steelers fail to pull off the 11-win season, they could still go 10-6 or even 9-7 and win this bet if everyone else in the division has disappointing seasons.
Here are all the bets in one convenient table:
Again, check back later this week for the bets on individual player props.