Week 17 of the NFL is always a tough week to handicap for the bettors, and maybe even tougher for the bookmakers who have to baby sit a few lines as they wait for information and scenarios to unfold. Several games will be treated with caution by the sportsbooks because of being meaningless, even though most books will take care of that by offering lower limits. In other instances, they have to wait for rumors and reports from the practice field such as Tom Brady and the Patriots and how long they’ll actually play in their home game against the Dolphins.And then there are semi-meaningless games with all kinds of variables from players who will play and who won’t that has the team rating all muffled. The feature game in this category goes to the Cowboys visiting the Eagles. The initial early line on Monday had the Eagles as 12-point favorites against the Cowboys who had quarterback Jon Kitna listed as ‘doubtful,’ meaning rookie Stephen McGee would likely start. When QB Michael Vick got hurt, the line was left vacant until Thursday morning. If the line was Eagles minus-12 with Vick, knowing that McGee would play, then it’s got to be at least a 4 ½-point line move, right? And then, how much do you add on for wide receiver DeSean Jackson being out? Position players usually don’t get much consideration in point spreads, but this kid actually makes the quarterback look better because of his athletic ability.
Another aspect to look at from a handicappers’ perspective is who the game means more to. The Lions are the perfect example this week. They aren’t going to the playoffs, but they have won three in a row, including two straight wins on the road. They’ll come home to a glorious reception as though they’re in the playoffs against the Vikings, who showed some grit last week, but have essentially packed it in on a disappointing season. After winning at Philadelphia on Tuesday with rookie quarterback Joe Webb, the Vikings line dropped 3 ½-points from their early line of plus-7 on the basis of Minnesota appearing that they had something left in the tank. But do they have anything left? Is their motivation for this game there just because they don’t want to lose 10 games? Who is hungrier at this juncture: a team who fell one game short of the Super Bowl last season with lofty expectations for this year, or a team who is clearly on the rise and proving it weekly? I’d have to side with Lions here laying minus-3 (-120).
On the early line of Jacksonville at Houston -- before their games were finalized Sunday -- the Jaguars were installed as a 2 ½-point favorite. After an injury to QB David Garrard and the likelihood that running back Maurice Jones-Drew wouldn't play, coupled with both teams losing Sunday, the Texans became 3-point favorites. That’s quite a swing for a team like the Jaguars that still have playoff implications, but it also says a lot about the back-up QB, Trent Edwards, who has a tendency to be overcautious with the football when piloting the ship. Jones-Drew, as great as he is, has proved to be replaceable and has no bearing on the movement. It says a lot about the quarterback when a shift happens like that favoring a team that got blasted in the fourth quarter last week by a rookie quarterback (Tim Tebow) who everyone believes can’t be an NFL QB. However, Houston has shown the ability to get up for these Week 17 meaningless games -- to them -- as they have won convincingly in the final game of the year the last four seasons.
Statistically, the Dolphins were coming strong to play this week at New England regardless of the implications. They are 6-1 on the road this season and are 4-0-1 in their last five trips to Foxboro. Because New England coach Bill Belichick is likely to allow his key starters to play only in the first half, the line is reduced considerably to the Patriots being 4-point favorites, up a whole point from the opener. Had this game been in Week 12 where the game meant something to New England, we’d be looking at a spread closer to minus-8 just because of how well the Patriots offense has been cashing in for the public. They are America’s favorite team to bet right now and the line movement reflects that despite the coaching moves that will greatly impact the final outcome.
When looking at the Bears getting 10 points at Green Bay, we’re all thinking that game must not mean anything, but it does, kind of. The "kind of" part is built in to the line because in order for it to mean something, both the Falcons and Saints have to lose which would then make the Bears game at a later start time mean playing for home field. Had this game been in Week 13, the Packers would be around 4 ½-point favorites if under the same circumstances, of which being the Bears scoring some points like they have been the last two weeks. This game will be taken off the board at most sportsbooks when the early games involving the NFC South teams start and then offered once again when those games become closer to the final outcome, which in the Falcons case at home against Carolina could be the second quarter or earlier.
The Falcons early line was closer to being a line that reflected them beating the Saints on Monday night and resting this week as they opened up as 10-point favorites. Upon losing, making home field a dangling incentive carrot for Week 17, the Falcons were quickly adjusted to minus-14 against Carolina where it sits right now.
The “Game of the Week” features the Rams at Seattle in a do or die matchup for the NFC West crown and ticket into the playoffs. The Seahawks will start Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback and the opening line of Rams minus-2 was built in to him starting, but the Sharps jumped all over it pushing the game to minus-3. The fact that the Seahawks haven’t looked like they did earlier in the year at home also looks to be the key as they have gone 1-3 in their last four at home against the number. The Rams look to be a solid play this week simply on the basis of Whitehurst trying to control the show.
Some early Sharp money came in on the Broncos at home getting 3 ½-points against theChargers, but incremental public money, spurred by an incoming New Year’s Eve crowd, has kept the game at Chargers minus-3 or 3 ½. This game kind of has the same approach that the Lions game does in that it means a whole lot more to the Broncos who seemed energized with some pride for the future due to the play of Tebow. Whereas, the Chargers are playing for nothing in Week 17 for the first time in ages. Will the Chargers road woes of 2-5 on the year continue and what is their mindset like after being thoroughly disappointed in a year where they had one of the top offenses and defenses statistically, only to watch everyone else play in the postseason while they‘re at home?
Happy New Years to everyone and may your 2011 NFL betting year be much better than 2010.
For many, it has been one of the worst ever.