Who's going to lead the NFL in rushing? Receiving? Who's going to win the Super Bowl? Make the playoffs? These are some of the many questions I asked myself as I perused the different sports books in Vegas over the MLB All Star Break and again on August 7. That might seem like a long time ago, particularly for gambling purposes (when lots can change over such a long period of time), but let's be honest ... almost nothing changed, either for fantasy purposes or real-life NFL, during this torturously long NFL preseason. I know we say that every year, but this one seemed particularly long, didn't it?
Anyway, I want to show you how I've invested my money on the NFL so far this year. As a life-long fantasy fan, I've always thought there was something to that - knowing the writer isn't just sharing his opinions, but putting his money where his mouth is.
Oh, and yes ... I call it "investing," not "gambling." "Gambling" is for those who fear they aren't going to win. Liss, for instance ... he gambles. For me, this is "investing," as Vegas is simply holding my money until I get a chance to pick it up later this winter.
Here are my bets:
Jamaal Charles, rushing title, 10:1, $200 wins $2,200: Quick, without looking at any lists, how many running backs do you think have a legitimate chance to lead the NFL in rushing yards in 2014? Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, and Jamaal Charles, sure. But who else is there, really? Eddie Lacy might lead the NFL in rushing touchdowns, but he probably lacks the breakaway speed needed to get the long runs necessary to win a rushing title. Too much of Matt Forte's production comes through the air. Alfred Morris doesn't see the field enough, particularly when the Redskins are behind. DeMarco Murray won't play 16 games. Sure, you can make a case for all of these guys, I suppose, as well as a handful of others. But Charles has to be one of the three odds-on favorites, so a 10:1 return seems really good here.
CJ Spiller, rushing title, 40:1, $200 wins $8,200: I was thrilled to get Spiller on this same prop last year at 25:1, and yes, I realize Spiller's 2013 was a disaster. But a bet like this isn't about what can go wrong, it's about what can go right. in 2012, Spiller was a dynamo, averaging an astounding 6.0 yards per carry on his 207 totes. The Bills are going to be among the league leaders in rushing attempts again in 2014, and Fred Jackson is 33 and had leg problems in 2011 and 2012. If Jackson gets hurt again and Spiller can get to 250 carries, I'm going to enjoy this bet all year long. This line should have been more like 25:1, and that's exactly what the line moved to after I made my bet (after the cheap bastards at Palazzo limited me to $200 when I wanted to bet $500 - as if my little bet was going to break Vegas).
For comparison's sake, here were some of the bets I didn't make: Adrian Peterson, 4:1; Alfred Morris, 12:1; Matt Forte, 14:1; Arian Foster, 20:1, Andre Ellington, 40:1; Chris Johnson, 50:1
AJ Green, most receiving yards, 15:1, $200 wins $3,200: Green had 1,350 and 1,426 receiving yards the last two seasons and has to be on the short list of receivers after Calvin Johnson most likely to lead the NFL in receiving yards. For comparison's sake, Dez Bryant is 5:1, Demaryius Thomas is 8:1, and Julio Jones, even coming off a significant foot injury, is 10:1. While I can see the arguments for any of these guys, Green's value at 15:1 makes him a no-brainer.
Victor Cruz, most receiving yards, 50:1, $200 wins $10,400: Eli Manning? Ugh. The Giants passing game? Double-ugh. But that's why this line is 50:1. Yes, lots of receivers have big potential returns, but I like Cruz here because, unlike most of the others, he had 1,536 receiving yards in 2011 - an amount that, if duplicated, could easily lead the NFL in 2014. Count me among the analysts who believe an athlete who has done it once "owns" the skill and could do it again.
Some of the receivers I did not bet: Calvin Johnson, 3:1, Brandon Marshall, 17:1, Antonio Brown, 18:1, Alshon Jeffery, 20:1, Vincent Jackson, 25:1, Keenan Allen, 25:1 (thought about this one, but he was listed at 50:1 on the flyer, which I loved, so when he was only 25:1 at the window, it was just depressing), Andre Johnson, 27:1, Jordy Nelson, 30:1
Panthers to win the Super Bowl, 47:1, $100 wins $4,800: Rarely do we see a team with a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl at a line of better than 20:1. It just doesn't happen. Yet here is Carolina, fresh off a 2013 playoff run and returning its dominant defense, at 47:1. Sure, I get the question marks on offense, particularly at receiver, but Steve Smith wasn't very good last year, so these same problems existed then, too - and they still made a run. I had to take this one out of principle, as the line was just too high, particularly since I wanted to pair it with ...
Falcons to win the Super Bowl, 50:1, $100 wins $5,100: Before its 2013 dumpster fire, the Falcons were a perennial playoff team under Matt Ryan. How much has really changed after one down year? Yes, I'm worried about the defense, but predicting team defense is friggin' hard - so much can change so quickly from month to month, much less year to year. I like having both the Panthers and Falcons at a good return, both out of the same division, and seeing if one of them can emerge and make a run.
49ers to miss the playoffs, +200, $500 wins $1,500: The NFL is the ultimate re-shuffle league. Every season, roughly half of the playoff teams from the prior year don't make it. The 49ers seem like that team this year. We always think "dominant defense" when we think of the Niners, but you tell me - how is that going to happen this year? Aldon Smith is suspended for nine games. Navarro Bowman tore up his knee in last year's playoffs. Glenn Dorsey tore his biceps and is out for the year. Donte Whitner is on the Browns. Ray McDonald just got arrested on domestic violence charges. Justin Smith is now 35. As I play out the 2014 season in my head, I can easily see the Niners defense falling to league-average or worse. Considering they play in a tough division with no easy games and the defending Super Bowl champs remain the favorites to win the NFC West, a 2:1 return on the Niners missing the playoffs was as good of a bet as I saw on the board. The problems for the Niners on defense is also why I like Colin Kaepernick in fantasy more than just about anyone else in the industry - he has top five upside among QBs, and I'd say his chances of posting better fantasy stats than Peyton Manning are as high as 40%.
Chiefs to make the playoffs, +250, $200 wins $700 and Chargers to make the playoffs, +270, $200 wins $740: The reason I'm lumping these two bets together should be obvious. The Chiefs and Chargers both play in the AFC West, along with the Broncos and Raiders. We all know the Raiders aren't winning that division, so that leaves three teams for (at least) one playoff spot. Sure, Denver is the favorite, but one Peyton Manning neck tweak would make them the third-best team in the AFC West. And even if Peyton stays healthy, it's eminently reasonable to think KC or SD can make a wildcard, just as both did last year, or even beat Denver outright. And even if only one (KC or SD) makes it, I'm still getting a positive return. Plus, it's rare to see teams which actually made the playoffs last year with this type of return on your money, particularly in a watered-down AFC that lacks the number of top-shelf quarterbacks we see in the AFC. Think of it this way - if you don't like the Chiefs and Chargers as Wild Card contenders in the AFC, who do you like? The Jets? Bills? Dolphins? Titans? Jaguars? Raiders? Texans? That's a lot of crummy teams. One way or another, I'm comfortable I'll make money here.
You've probably noticed by now that over/under bets bore me. Anything around an even-money return is fine if you're able to cash your ticket the same day you place the bet. But if Vegas is holding my money for six months, I want the return to have been worth waiting for. That's why I like the seemingly unusual bets that Caesars Palace was offering. Instead of setting an over/under at 8.5 or 7.5, they eliminate the halves - setting the lines at exactly 7, exactly 8, or what have you, letting the gambler choose among three options - over, under, or "exactly" that win total.
For most teams, betting an "exact" win total is foolish. So much changes so quickly in the NFL, how am I supposed to know if a team like the Rams or Cardinals is going to be surprisingly good or surprisingly bad? Even if I have a gut instinct, betting an "exact" total just isn't worth it. For some teams, however, we have a much better idea what to expect. Take, for instance, the Patriots. Starting in 2001, when Tom Brady entered the fray, here is the Patriots win total, year by year: 11, 9, 14, 14, 10, 12, 16, 11, 10, 14, 13, 12, 12. That consistency, plus the other three teams in their division (Bills, Dolphins and Jets, ugh), make it pretty darn likely the Patriots are going to have a winning record and probably be right around 11 or 12 wins again this year. So do I want to bet "over" or "under" the Patriots at 11 wins? No. But I'll bet:
Patriots exactly 11 wins, +380, $200 wins $960: If the Pats finish with 10 or 12 wins, I'll shrug my shoulders and move on. But a return of +380 seems awfully good to me for a team that I'm pretty darn confident is going to be right around 11 wins again this year.
Packers exactly 10 wins, +400, $100 wins $500: It's the same rational here as for the Patriots. Since 2009, with Aaron Rodgers under center, Green Bay has won 11, 10, 15, 11, and 8 games (the 8 coming last year when Rodgers got hurt). In a mediocre NFC North, the Packers seem like a good bet to be right around 10 or 11 wins yet again. +400 is just too good to pass up.
Broncos exactly 11 wins, +400, $200 wins $1,000: My instinct is that Denver is going to fall off just a bit from their 13-win 2013. The schedule is tougher, as Denver gets the NFC West this year instead of the NFC East, and some regression to the mean can be expected, even with possible improvements on defense. But with Peyton Manning at the helm, a 10, 11, or 12-win season seems pretty likely. Again, I'll gladly take the +400 return.
Seahawks exactly 11 wins, +350, $100 wins $450: I don't expect to win all of these "exactly" bets. Just one or two of them, though, will make it worthwhile. Even if they suffer a bit of a Super Bowl hangover, Seattle has too much talent not to be a playoff type of team. I'll watch them win 10, 11, or 12 and hope it's exactly 11.
Raiders exactly 5 wins, +400, $100 wins $500: My theory with the league's top teams with elite quarterbacks being good bets to finish with 10 or 11 wins can work the same way in reverse. We know the Raiders are going to be bad, it's just a question of how bad. I'll risk $100 that they finish with exactly five wins instead of four or six.
I'll be back each week this year to talk about much more than gambling. We'll talk NFL game theory, fantasy football, waiver choices, survivor ... basically, whatever I think will be fun. As always, feel free to add to the discussion in the comments.