Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Spread Formation: Defying the Odds and Why Picking Winners Is a Daunting Task

I drove a taxi for four years in the Chicago area. It's an interesting profession, which I heartily recommend to anyone. It's sort of like being a bartender—everyone should do it for a little while, to learn about people in all their infinite glory and folly. Cab drivers themselves are a rare subspecies. Their numbers include an eclectic ethnic mix of mostly men and a few singular females. I met ex-cons doing that job. I also met ex-'Nam vets. And down-and-outers looking for quick cash. And people between jobs, just looking to "fill-in," who ended up driving a cab for years. And unemployed musicians. Also a lot of pot smokers. I even knew a few crackheads. Cabbies often wear the mantle of "losers," but their hearts are often unbelievably good, and their spirit of perseverance is remarkable. Always tip them well.

It's also probably not a surprise to learn that a profession that revolves around cold hard cash also attracts a gambling element, and there are quite a few cabbies who go in for horse racing. It's not uncommon for the addictive-natured cabbie to get a decent $50 run, and then head straight for the track to test his luck. It's ultimately probably going to be a losing trek—but at least the odds are better than doing crack.

Besides horse-racing, cab drivers love the NFL football pool. I was involved in one of these during my driving tenure. I even won a few times, and my biggest pay-out was splitting a $600 pot. Pretty much chickenfeed compared to big-time gambling, but I figured that, over the course of four years, I probably broke even, which is all a gambler should realistically expect. Those weekly pools, however, were based on a "straight-up" formula: You picked winners outright. This, of course, is a lot tougher than it seems, because there's always some game or other that befuddles expert analysis. (This explains why a cabbie named Doobie Unterberger's sister, who knew nothing about football, won as often as anybody, using a system based on the "cuteness" of team uniforms. "I like the Bengals," she'd say, "they have those cute tiger stripes!")

But I was glad that the cabbie pool was not based on the vaunted point spread, that bete noire of serious gamblers everywhere. With the spread, it's not enough to pick a winner—no, you have to pick a winner based on what the final score would be when the projected lesser team is allotted extra points before game time. The spread is a lot like horse-racing odds, in that they can change all week depending on the "action." The oddsmakers shift things around, all in service of their own profit, because, as in Vegas casinos, the odds are always with the house.

Last week, my brother called from L.A. and decided that we were going to do our own mock picks against the spread. "Just for fun," of course. I never liked this spread business. It's a dangerous game. Still, when there's no money involved, it's simply a fun exercise, and I figured what the hell: time to get my feet wet in an area of sports that has intimidated me for years.

So, based on the early Wednesday odds, I picked the 14 games. All of a sudden, things like home-field advantage and injuries and historical tendencies and specific player matchups and coaching stength loomed larger than before. You gotta think harder and longer when you pick against the spread. Picking undefeated Indianapolis to beat lowly Houston is a no-brainer; picking Indy to beat the Texans by 19 points is another matter altogether. Indy won, all right, but "only" by 14, so in that case Indy was a losing pick. World-beaters are often losers in the "spread formation," and the system makes insignificant games and seemingly pointless plays loom large indeed. New England, for example, was a three-point favorite at Miami. That game careened wildly and closely back and forth, and it looked like the Dolphins might emerge triumphant. And if not the winners on the scoreboard, they seemed a lock to "cover the spread." But the final, 23-16 Pats—not at all indicative of how close the game truly was—covered the spread nicely if your money was on New England. Then there were the Redskins, hovering at victory, leading Tampa Bay 35-34 and seemingly having blocked the Buccaneers' extra-point attempt with time running out. The 'Skins were favored by one point, and if the game ends 35-34, then no money changes hands: this is what they call a "push" (you've got to "beat" the spread). Then the refs call the 'Skins for an off-sides penalty, and the Bucs, instead of trying the PAT again, go for the two-point conversion and get it, winning the game 36-35, and making Tampa Bay money good as gold.

But whattya know—I picked 10 correct out of 14. Not bad. So now I'm feeling frisky (like gamblers and cab drivers often do), and I wanna try this spread stuff again. So here goes nothing. My first public offering based on the "early line." This could become a habit. It's the kind of thing that got Pete Rose in a truckload of trouble. Still beats crack, though.

1. Jacksonville at Tennessee (+4)—The 2-7 Titans are rebuilding (some might say in disarray). The experts want to give them 4 points, so, if they lose 20-17 on the field, they win 21-20 at the Vegas pay-out window. The Jaguars are an up-and coming team with a shot at the playoffs. They have incentive, then. Yet this game's in Nashville, the Titans are coming off a bye week, and they're desperate for a "W." Pick: Tennessee.

2. Miami at Cleveland (-2)—Lowly Cleveland is "giving" 2 points. That means if they win 17-16 on the field, they lose 18-17 with the bookies. Will Miami respond positively after a noble losing effort last week against the Patriots? This is the kind of game that drives gamblers mad: it means almost nothing in the playoff race, but it's a damn tough call. Pick: Miami.

3. New Orleans at New England (-10)—To avoid a push, the Pats need to win by 11 at home against a demoralized Saints team. It's a no-brainer if this is the 2004 Patriots. They've been up and down, however. Winning isn't the issue here. It's the points. You see what a hassle this is? Pick: New England.

4. Oakland at Washington (-6)—Raiders coach Norv Turner returns to his old stomping grounds, where he was the last coach to take the 'Skins to the playoffs in 1999. 'Skins coming off heartbreaking loss in Tampa. Theoretically, both teams are improving, but that's not always apparent. Under the circumstances, it seems a daunting spread for Washington to cover. They could even lose outright. Of course, they might win 26-21, but that's not good enough. Pick: Oakland.

5. Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants (-7)—Two soap operas collide. The Eagles have no T.O., probably no McNabb, and are reeling from a crushing Monday night home loss to Dallas. Giants coach Tom Coughlin's ass is redder than red after his special teams gave up two touchdowns and his Manning QB threw 4 interceptions in losing at home to an otherwise inept Vikings team. For 57 minutes on Monday, the Eagles looked like their own methodical, boring, grind-'em-out selves. They should've won that game, but now face a tough road challenge with former Lions QB Mike McMahon under center. The Eagles still have a D, and Manning is still capable of costly errors. It'll be low-scoring, it says here. Maybe Giants win, 14-10. Pick: Philadelphia.

6. Tampa Bay at Atlanta (-6)—So the Falcons are gonna spot the Bucs 6 points? I'll take that action. Chris Sims looked very good for the Bucs last week. So the odds are in favor of his getting rattled by the Falcons' aggressive D. And even though the Bucs gave up 35 points to the Redskins, they still have a pretty good D on paper. Meanwhile, the Falcons blew it against an inferior Packers team on their own home field. They're not bound to lose two straight at home. Maybe Michael Vick will work his magic. Or maybe he'll let Warrick Dunn work his. Still looks close to me. Pick: Tampa Bay.

7. Arizona at St. Louis (-9.5)—Here's one of those funny little oddsmakers wrinkles: the half-point. If the Rams win by 9, there's no push. They must win at home by 10 over a bad Arizona team. If they win by 9, Arizona money wins. Who knows which Arizona team will show up: the bad one, or, the uh...the worse one. Let's hope Steven Jackson runs roughshod over 'em. Pick: St. Louis.

8. Carolina at Chicago (+3)—Bears get the obligatory home-field spread, which presumes that if these teams played at a neutral site the game would end in a tie. At 6-3, the Bears are a big surprise, but exactly how good are they? Excluding their games against woeful divisional foes, they're 3-3. The Panthers, meanwhile, at 7-2, look to be feeling their oats. Sidebar story: Bears wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad faces his old team for the first time. Not that the Panthers are missing him, not with the emergence of Steve Smith as all-world. The Bears' D has allowed fewer than 12 points a game, and that's impressive. They'll be jacked-up in the Windy City, which means even more pressure for rookie Bears QB Kyle Orton, who'll be facing an aggressive and good Panthers defensive line. This'd be a helluva game to watch, but a nasty one to bet on. Pick: Carolina.

9. Detroit at Dallas (-8)—Cowboys, coming off the high of improbable Monday night win over Eagles, spot 8 points to a confirmed mediocrity, the 4-5 Lions. Those points are a classic trick here. To avoid the push, Cowboys need to win by, say, 24-15, which could happen. Or not. The Cowboys need to keep pace in their division, so the winning part isn't really the problem. It's that damned spread. The Lions suck, which means they might put up a fight. Pick: Detroit.

10. Pittsburgh at Baltimore (+4)—That's strange. Initially, I could find no line for this game. I had to hunt down the +4 for Baltimore. Maybe that's because Charlie Batch is injured and Ben Roethlisberger isn't ready to return to action, leaving the Steelers with Tommy Maddox at QB. On the surface, this looks like an easy bet, since the Steelers look way superior to the incredibly disappointing Ravens, who, it must be acknowledged, have had crippling injury problems. But someone in Vegas is antsy. They're afraid Maddox will fold up on the road against a usually very tough foe. I guess it's a good thing that the Ravens have Kyle Boller back at QB. What would be better is if they had Ed Reed and Ray Lewis back on the defensive side. The Ravens got killed last week at Jacksonville, and Jamal Lewis still hasn't gotten his sealegs. Who knows, maybe this fainthearted spread has some legs of its own. But that's why they play the games. Pick: Pittsburgh.

11. Seattle at San Francisco (+12)—As Harry Caray used to say, "There's danger here, cherie." The Seahawks are looking great. Terrific young QB in Hasselback, the amazing Shaun Alexander at RB, and a renewed team spirit that has them ruling the roost in the NFC West. 49ers are 2-7 and yielding almost 30 points a game. They're better at home, of course. On the other hand, Cody Pickett's their QB. Let's see, the Niners lost 52-17 in Washington on Oct. 23. Question: Can they gain 23 points over that effort against a good Seattle team on the S.F. home turf? Well, maybe 22. It's not unlikely for 'Hawks to win this 30-17. Pick: Seattle.

12. Buffalo at San Diego (-10)—Buffalo stomps on the Chiefs at home last week, and now the oddsmakers are gonna spot 'em 10 points? Guess they figure that Bills QB J. P. Losman will not repeat his excellent effort, and that the Chargers' Brees, Tomlinson and Gates will do the big-time offensive nasty. This is the kind of game that makes bookies rich men. I'm all confused. Yet the Bills still have a chance to make a run in the AFC East, and if they can shut down a good K.C. offense, they can at least stem the tide against the Chargers. They'll lose, but they'll cover. Pick: Buffalo.

13. N.Y. Jets at Denver (-13)—Now you're talking. A team on the upswing at home against a team in despair. Heck, spot the Jets 14, and I'll still pick the Broncs. Pick: Denver.

14. Indianapolis at Cincinnati (+4.5)—Ya gotta love that ".5." Should be a helluva matchup. Unless, of course, Peyton gets hot and the improved Indy defense pressures Carson Palmer. Then there's the law of averages: Can Indy go 10-0, and on the road against a team with a fire in its belly? For all the offensive potential here, it should be noted that only Indy's D has given up fewer points in the AFC than Cincy's. So let's do a little reverse thinking: If this game were in Indy, the Colts would be favored by 7.5. Does that help? It's a huge test for the Bengals, and maybe a major showcase for their gifted, flamboyant WR Chad Johnson (pictured above in "cute tiger stripes"). We've even got two African American division-leading coaches squaring off, Tony Dungy versus Marvin Lewis. Ya got me. Sometimes you can only roll the dice. Pick: Cincinnati.

15. Kansas City at Houston (+6.5)—This is sad. Houston's 1-8. Are they really this bad? Maybe so. The Chiefs at 5-4 need to re-prove that they're any good. They need to reassert their offense before the year gets away from them and the Broncos get out of divisional reach. Maybe Houston can lose by 6. They're just as likely to lose by 7. Pick: Chiefs.

16. Minnesota at Green Bay (-4)—When the schedule-makers put this one on the MNF docket many months ago, it looked like a winner. Now we have a 4-5 Vikings team, fresh off a yacht orgy and a weird "W" in New York, facing a gasping 2-7 Packer team riddled with injuries and fresh off a surprise "W" in Atlanta. Look for the Packers to play as well as they can on their home field. Favre also has a knack for performing well on Mondays. Still a very tricky proposition for a 2-7 team to spot any opponent 4 points. I can only base this one on what I saw on TV last week. The Vikings won, yes, but their offense was anemic, and they had an opposing QB throw them 4 interceptions. The Packers played with a lot of moxie, and Favre is still Favre. Nevertheless, I'm biting my lip on this one. Pick: Packers.

Even as we speak, the oddsmakers are finagling with these spreads. They'll continue to do so up until gametime. But this is how I'd spend my money if I placed my bets today. If I were only still driving that cab, I'd probably manage to find myself a spare $50, and lay it all on Denver, which looks like the pick to click. (Now if only Jets QB Brooks Bollinger can repeat his 4-interception performance of last week against Carolina. Here's hoping.)


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