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Let's kick off the NFL season with a trip to Las Vegas to put our money where our mouth is

Trade value column? Check. Regression nerd article? Done. The four-part team-by-team preview? Fin. A whole bunch of podcasts? All gone. There’s only one thing left to cover in this NFL preview, and that required a trip to Vegas this past week. The NFL season might have started yesterday, but today is the day for my annual NFL over/under and assorted (likely losing) bets column.

This is the third year I’ve done this column for Grantland, and the first year I’ve done it without living in Vegas for part/all of the betting season. As a result, the most frustrating thing about the bets I did lay down is that many of the prices for the sides I wanted to back had already been bet heavily and stripped of much of their value. It’s not exactly a secret that I’m very fond of the 2013 Chiefs; unfortunately, so was much of Vegas two months ago. As a result, a line that opened with the Chiefs over 7.5 wins at a price of -115 rose to the point where it ranged from -175 to -195 at the books I visited during my week in town. It’s even risen in cases over the past weeks; one casino had the Seahawks at over 10.5 wins at -115 as recently as August 23, but by September 1, that same bet was up to -175. Last year, because I was living in Vegas when these lines were posted, I was able to get pretty decent prices on most of the lines I wanted to back.

Last year, the bets I chose to make would have lost 5 percent of their value had I not been robbed of the tickets. (They’re in a safe place this year.) The year before, my bets actually returned a 46.6 percent profit, albeit at about one-third the initial outlay. This year, I bet a little less than I did last year and focused it on a smaller set of bets. There’s also one bet that represents a much larger percentage of my total expenditure than how I’ve structured things in the past. But you’ll see that as we go along.

As a quick refresher, in case this is your first time reading, let’s cover a typical over/under bet. Here was a line I saw at the MGM family of sportsbooks this past week:

Carolina Panthers: 7.5 wins
Over: -135
Under: +105

With this line, you’re evaluating how many wins the Panthers will finish the 2013 season with. (Ties are equivalent to losses.) If you think the Panthers will finish with eight wins or more, you would want to bet the over. The -135 figure indicates that you would need to bet $135 to win $100 in profit (and receive $235 back). If you were to bet $100 at the -135 price, you would win $74.07. Meanwhile, if you thought the Panthers would win seven games or fewer, you would want to bet the under. Since that line is +105, the payout is flipped; if you bet $100, you would win that $105 figure. That’ll cover the majority of the bets in this piece, and the others are pretty self-explanatory.

Let’s get started with one that looks great right now!

Denver Broncos

MISS the playoffs: +675
$20 to win $135

I think the Broncos are going to make the playoffs; in fact, I picked them as my AFC representative in the Super Bowl, as many others surely have. Last night, they made mincemeat of last year’s Super Bowl winner, producing a dominant second half while blowing out the Ravens. So why bet on them not to make the playoffs? Because the odds are nice! A line of +675 implies that the Broncos will make the playoffs 87.1 percent of the time. That seemed a little high to me in that moment, but after watching them last night, this already feels like money I might as well have set ablaze. Great start!

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

OVER 7.5 wins: -135
$200 to win $148.15

MAKE the playoffs: +230
$30 to win $69

WIN the NFC South: +800
$25 to win $200

WIN the Super Bowl: +6000
$20 to win $1,200

If you’ve listened to the preview podcasts, you know that Mays and I are very high on the Buccaneers. The betting market shares a little bit of our enthusiasm for an improved team, but it’s not on board for much more than an 8-8 or 9-7 season. Those odds to win the NFC South and win the Super Bowl are pretty generous; they’re tied with the 24th-best odds in the league to win the Super Bowl, and while the Buccaneers would face a tougher path to make it to the Super Bowl than most teams, they’re considerably better than the 24th-best team in the league. And while 60-1 is a pretty big long shot, there would also be some value in hedging this bet and locking in a smaller victory if the Buccaneers were to make it as far as the NFC Championship Game.

The odds on divisional bets really differed drastically from book to book. Most of the bets I made on division champions were at the Wynn, which gave out much more generous odds than, say, the books owned by Harrah’s. While the Raiders were 28-1 to win the AFC West at one book and 25-1 at another, Harrah’s had the Raiders at 8-1. Obviously, shopping around is important.

Kansas City Chiefs

OVER 7.5 wins: -165
$250 to win $151.52

MAKE the playoffs: +220
$30 to win $66

That 7.5-win line was actually a disappointment to me. Again, if you’ve listened to the podcast, you know that I’m also very high on the Chiefs in 2013, thanks to a number of factors, notably including superior coaching and a massive upgrade at quarterback. To me, in a weak division with an excellent core of talent, they’re a 10-win team. With that in mind, knowing the books had been hit with plenty of action on the over 7.5-win line, I was hoping somebody would offer the Chiefs at eight wins so I could take the over on that, probably at somewhere around even money. Instead, I had to settle for the massive amount of juice.

Indianapolis Colts

UNDER 8.5 wins: -120
$100 to win $83.33

Consider this a lesson learned from last year’s bet on the 49ers. I’m confident that the Colts will regress toward the mean in terms of luck and not win 11 games, as they did a year ago, just as I was confident the Niners wouldn’t win 13 games in 2012. They didn’t, of course, but they also didn’t drop by all that much; San Francisco still won 11 games, which beat their posted total of 10 wins, so I lost my under bets there.

In that case, what I failed to properly account for was that the regression was already priced into the line. The posted win total for the 49ers was a full three wins below their record from the previous year. I had written that I expected the Niners to finish 9-7, which didn’t leave much margin for error in terms of my bet. I don’t regret writing that the Niners would regress — after all, they did — but the bet should have been only a small play for me.

Here, I’m keeping that in mind. I think the two most plausible records for the Colts are 8-8 and 7-9, both of which would win the bet, but I also think that 9-7 and 10-6 are significant enough possibilities that it’s only a moderate play for me.

Philadelphia Eagles

WIN the NFC East: +600
$20 to win $120

One of a number of long-shot bets on divisional winners. I think each team in the NFC East has a minimum 20 percent chance of winning the division, and this line prices the Eagles in at a 14.3 percent chance of claiming the trophy. I won’t pretend it’s likely, but the 5-11 Redskins weren’t exactly favorites to win this division last year, either.

Atlanta Falcons

NOT MAKE the playoffs: +135
$50 to win $67.50

There was plenty of action in town on Atlanta finishing under 10 wins, which was at -165 or so in some books, so why would its odds of missing the playoffs be so high? It could win nine games and make the playoffs, I suppose, but it seems like there’s some value here, especially if the new-look defense is as ponderous as I’m concerned it might be.

Jacksonville Jaguars

OVER 4.5 wins: -160
$100 to win $62.50

WIN the AFC South: +3000
$10 to win $300

I don’t have super-high hopes for the Jaguars, if I’m being frank. But five wins in the AFC South? That’s very feasible. The Jags were 2-14 a year ago, but they underperformed their Pythagorean Expectation by 1.4 wins and should have better coaching on both sides of the ball this year. The average team with two wins or worse in a given season has won an average of six games the following year, with 17 of the 24 previous examples winning five or more. That seems relatively safe, and in fact, most books around town have the Jaguars posted at five wins, not the 4.5-win figure.

As for the AFC South? I’ll take a flier on just about anybody to win a division at 30-to-1. Of course, I don’t think they’re going to win the division very frequently, but if I think the Colts will decline and the Titans will be a bad team, the division should be pretty wide-open. If the Texans were to suffer from some season-ending injury to a player like J.J. Watt or Matt Schaub, and the Jaguars get their running game going with Denard Robinson and Maurice Jones-Drew … stranger things have happened. One season after finishing 1-15, the Dolphins won the 2008 AFC East under equally strange circumstances. At 30-to-1, there’s some value in this bet.

Detroit Lions

OVER 8.0 wins: -135
$250 to win $185.19

MAKE the Playoffs: +190
$40 to win $76

I wasn’t comfortable betting on the Lions to win the NFC North with Aaron Rodgers around, but I do feel pretty good that they can post a winning record and likely make it into the playoffs at 10-6.

Oakland Raiders

UNDER 5.5 wins: -185
$300 to win $162.16

MISS the playoffs: -950
$800 to win $84.21

OK. Just as Simmons invested heavily in the Raiders playing terribly for his bets, I’m of the opinion that the Raiders will be either the worst team in football or among the worst teams in football, which led me to these two bets.

I’ll go with the big one first. The bet on the Raiders missing the playoffs actually opened up at the Wynn around -1650, but there’s been enough action on the corresponding “Yes” playoff bet that the “No” price has dropped down to -950. That’s also true of every other long-shot team’s playoff odds, though; the Cardinals and Jaguars each made similar sorts of moves, which suggests that the public is betting on just about every long shot to make the playoffs.

The corresponding “Yes” bet on the Raiders is now down to +675. Those two lines together imply that the market gauges Oakland’s likelihood of making the playoffs to be 12.5 percent. My “No” bet, in a vacuum, is profitable if the Raiders miss the playoffs more than 90.5 percent of the time.

My best guess is that the worst team in football would make the playoffs much less frequently than 9.5 percent of the time. A Pro-Football-Reference.com study estimates that a team whose true talent level is around 5.0 wins — which is where the market suggests the Raiders are — would make the playoffs around 3 percent of the time.

Furthermore, the Raiders aren’t even in the optimal situation for a bad team to make the playoffs. That would be a situation like 2010, when the 7-9 Seahawks (who had the point differential of a 5.5-win team) made the playoffs because they played in a terrible division, the NFC West.1 It’s much harder for a terrible team to win the nine or 10 games necessary to win a wild-card berth. The Raiders play in a division with one team regarded as a genuine Super Bowl contender (Denver) and one with significant upside (Kansas City). To make the playoffs, Oakland would almost surely need both these teams to miss the postseason.

And beyond all that, the Raiders aren’t a team like last year’s Colts or Vikings, a team at the bottom of the barrel that had made some notable improvement at a key position like quarterback. If anything, the Raiders are a worse team today than they were a year ago. They’ve swapped out Carson Palmer for what will likely end up as a combination of Terrelle Pryor and Matt Flynn; Pryor was selected in the 2011 supplemental draft whose lone game in the pros was dismal, and Flynn’s lost his job twice in two training camps. More than $50 million of the Oakland salary cap is set aside for dead money owed to players who are no longer on the roster. Their defense consists almost entirely of veterans who were signed on short-term deals, few of whom were above-average players elsewhere last season. Their best offensive player, Jared Veldheer, is out indefinitely with a torn triceps. And if they get to December with a middling record, they’re almost surely going to try to tank during the final month of the season in the hopes of getting one of the two prime prospects available in the draft, Teddy Bridgewater or Jadeveon Clowney. They’re not making the playoffs. (Does that seal the jinx?)

The 5.5-win bet falls under much of the same logic. I don’t think the Raiders will do anything besides kick field goals well; they had the point differential of a 4.3-win team a year ago, and that was with a much better quarterback and much more talent on their roster. I would normally hesitate to go under a 5.5-win total, but this one seems pretty good. I should also note that the 5.5-win figure was unique around town; the other books I went to all had the Raiders at 5.0 wins, and even that had juice that pushed it around -150 or so. Nobody believes in the Raiders, and it’s hard to see why they should.

St. Louis Rams

UNDER 7.5 wins: +115
$80 to win $92

Hey, if I think they’re going to be one of the eight worst teams in football, I should probably back them to finish under .500, right? This was a case where I thought the odds available made it worth my while; I don’t think I would have backed this bet if the under bet was at -115.

Pittsburgh Steelers

OVER 9.5 wins: +130
$80 to win $104

WIN the Super Bowl: +2200
$20 to win $440

The Steelers were my favorite Super Bowl choice among the mid-level teams in the same range that held the Falcons a year ago. The +130 line on the over-9.5 win bet implies that the Steelers will win 10 games or more 43.5 percent of the time; I think it’s probably closer to 50 percent, given their schedule, the coaching, and the talent on their roster. In any case, it was a relatively small play for me.

Minnesota Vikings

UNDER 7.5 wins: -190
$200 to win $105.26

If you’re an aggrieved Vikings fan who thinks that I’ve been underrating the team, consider that the 2-14 Chiefs have been given better odds of winning more than 7.5 games than the 10-6 Vikings have been of failing to do so. In fact, this line was above -200 at some of the other sportsbooks around town. At -125 or so, this would have been my biggest over/under play. Instead, because there’s so much juice on the under, it’s only an above-average-size opinion for me.

I finished up by placing three player prop bets. I bet on Andrew Luck to win the passing title at +1500, or 15-1. I also bet on Trent Richardson at +1200 to claim the rushing title, and took Danny Amendola at +1500 to win the receiving title. Each of those bets were for $20.

So, that brings us to a total of $2,685 invested. Of course, the size of the bet doesn’t really matter here; it’s more about the relative sizes of the bets versus one another and the principles and concepts behind the handicapping decisions. I’ll probably bring these up during the season in my columns (especially if the Raiders go on a winning streak), but we’ll definitely take a look back after the season and see how I did.

Filed Under: Bill Barnwell, NFL, People, Sports

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell