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The Ultimate NFL Preview

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The Grantland NFL Gambling Preview

Our Vegas correspondent's betting strategies and tips

With our massive, four-part preview of the NFL season finally complete, it’s time to apply the research from the preview to the real world. Well, as real as Vegas can be. Over the past two months, while sifting through mounds of data and game tape, I’ve found a few value bets and pushed money onto the counters of various sportsbooks around this fine city.

I’ll also be joining the boss by participating in this year’s Hilton SuperContest, the notorious challenge that asks contestants to pick five games against the spread each week. Last year’s winner took home $207,000, and while I know that winning won’t be easy, I’m at least confident that my entry, “Waka Flacco Flame,” will be able to beat out “Simbotics” and claim in-office bragging rights.

I’ll be updating you on my picks throughout the season, but let’s go over the over/under bets and player props I put money down on already. Don’t expect to be wowed by the money being committed, because this is more about process than actually getting rich. (Yes, this is what I’m going to tell myself when I lose 70 percent of the time.) Also, keep in mind that some of the lines on these picks have changed since I made the initial bet. That’s usually a good sign, though: It means there has been so much action on the bet at that line that the casino has been forced to shift the line. Remember that a bookmaker’s goal isn’t to provide the most accurate odds possible, but to present a line that gets 50 percent of the action on either side of the bet. That limits their exposure to losses and ensures that the casino will make a profit by collecting the vig. The books aren’t perfect, and so one of the best ways to make a profit is to bet on a line before it moves. I arrived in Vegas too late to take full advantage of the initial NFL lines, but there were still some good opportunities to be had.

Team Over/Under Bets

We’ll use the first bet I placed as an example.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Under 8.0 wins (-120)
$100 to win $183.35

In this situation, I’m betting $100 that the Buccaneers will win fewer than eight games. If they win eight on the nose, the bet would be a push and I would get my $100 back. The -120 line means that I would need to bet $120 to win $100 in profit (for a total of $220). Since I bet only $100, a win on this bet would return $83.35 in profit for a total of $183.35. If the Buccaneers go 9-7, I get squadoosh.

A hundred bucks is about the maximum that I’m willing to commit to a bet like this, and there’s a reason I maxed out on the Buccaneers; I’m really confident they will fail to put up a winning record this year. Where some people see a 10-6 team with a boatload of young talent, I see a team that milked an impossibly easy schedule last year and thinks it’s a lot closer to the playoffs than it actually is. The Bucs improved their record by seven wins from 2009 to 2010. Since the strike-shortened season in 1982, that seven-win improvement has happened just seven times. Each of those teams has declined, and it’s been by an average of 4.5 wins. And only one of those teams managed to lose just two games off of its record from the previous season.

So let’s just say I’m confident about this one. And so is the market — the under on this line has moved at the Aria to -145.

New York Jets
Under 10.0 wins (-125)
$50 to win $90.00

This one, on the other hand, I’m worried about. The line has stayed stagnant since the time I bet it, which isn’t a good sign; it means that the market basically expects the Jets to be a 10-6 team, which is right about where I expect them to be, too. Their point differential called for them to win 9.8 games last year, and their game against the Jaguars in Week 2 sure looks a lot easier today than it did a week ago. I believe that there’s some possibility of the Jets collapsing altogether and finishing as one of the league’s worst teams, but it’s awful slim and requires a serious injury to someone like cornerback Darrelle Revis or left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson. There’s not really a ton of value in this one. I still think I have a good shot of winning or pushing on the bet, but I’d take a refund if I could.

Chicago Bears
Under 8.5 wins (-130)
$100 to win $176.90

Happy days! This line has moved all the way down to 8.0 wins, and the under is -135, which means that I was able to get on this bandwagon before it was too late. Vegas won’t usually move a line a half-win until it goes beyond the -160 range, so you can imagine how much money was being shoved on the under here. I suspect that the sharp bettors see the same thing I did in the first part of my preview: a team that won a lot of close games last year while staying remarkably healthy. Consider that the other teams in that column have an average over/under of five wins, and you can see just how big the difference is between my perception of the Bears and the market. We’ll see if I’m right.

Carolina Panthers
Over 4.5 wins (-115)
$50 to win $93.45

With a significantly healthier offensive line and a decline in the quality of their divisional brethren, I think the Panthers are probably capable of hitting the 8-8 mark they set in the 2009 campaign, bless their plucky little hearts. But even if they don’t, I should be OK. Last year they posted a 2-14 mark — a six-win drop that 27 teams made between 1983 and 2009. Of those teams, 25 improved the following year, gaining an average of 3.1 wins. That’s five wins, enough for me to win on this bet. The odds on this bet have moved to -120, so it seems like the house is leaning toward me being right.

Denver Broncos
Over 6.0 wins (+125)
$50 to win $112.50

I placed this bet immediately after the trade rumors about Kyle Orton going to Miami subsided, since the Broncos will be much better with Orton under center than any of their other QB options. I would have been SOL if the talks had resumed, but Orton appears to be set in Denver for the upcoming season, and because of that the over on this line has shifted all the way around to -120. If I placed the same bet on the Broncos today that I put in a few weeks ago, I would make a total of only $91.67 with a victory. See why anticipating the line is important?

Jacksonville Jaguars
Over Under 6.0 wins (+135)
$50 to win $117.50

There are almost comically few times, financially speaking, when it’s to your benefit to live in a building with a casino in the basement. When news about David Garrard’s shocking release comes across the wires, however? That’s a big fat exception. Carefully toeing that line between race-walking and running like I had stolen something, I hopped down in the elevator and made my way across the casino floor to the sportsbook, where I triumphantly got my $50 bet against the Jaguars in before the line came off the board.

A few days later, though, and I’m less sanguine. The bet came in a world where Peyton Manning was going to miss a game or two, and now it sure looks like he’s done for the year. This bet is off the books at Aria, but at the offshore book, the under is at +125. That’s only a slight improvement, so while I still think this bet is a winner (or at least a push), it looked a hell of a lot better when I was gloating in that elevator.

St. Louis Rams
Over 7.5 wins (+120)
$50 to win $110.00

Your NFC West champions are going to do the division proud this year. Gone are the days when a terrible team could make it into the playoffs with a mere 7-9 record! The Rams are clearly set for eight — and maybe even nine — wins this season, and the market has traveled in my wake, as this line is now at even money for the over.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Over 10.5 wins (-120)
$50 to win $91.65

This line was originally at 11 wins — and I avoided the bet then, but once I finished up the research for the preview and realized how strongly I felt about the Steelers and their remarkably easy schedule, 11 wins seemed awfully attainable. Barring an early-season injury to Ben Roethlisberger or Troy Polamalu that knocks them out for the remainder of the season, I think I’ve got this one.

Team Props

These “proposition” bets can take a wide variety of shapes. The Super Bowl is famous for producing particularly wacky ones, like a team’s rushing yards going up against an NBA team’s point total from the same night. The ones here are relatively simple — but team prop bets can get fiendishly complicated.

Carolina Panthers
Winning the NFC South (+3000)
$20 to win $620

Yes, the Panthers were 2-14 last season. Sure, they’re probably not going to win the division, but remember that four teams went from last to first in the NFC South over the past five seasons, and in the other season the Falcons went from last place to 11-5, coming up a game short of the crown. I’m not saying that I’m betting on the Panthers because they finished last, but people are underestimating just how much swing there is in these teams’ records from year to year. With that +3000 line, the Panthers need to win the division only 3.25 percent of the time for it to be a profitable decision for me. And can you imagine how cocky I’ll get to be while I’m handing in that slip to get paid? That will be my favorite $600 ever if it pans out.

Cleveland Browns
Winning the AFC North (+1000)
$10 to win $110

I was roped into this bet by Grantland editor Robert Mays, who insisted that I place a small bet down for him on the Browns before the season starts. After thinking about it for a minute, I realized that I expect the Browns to either be in first place in the AFC North on December 1 or expect them to be just behind the Steelers. Remember, they don’t play the Ravens or Steelers before the final five weeks of the year. What if they believe in themselves and end up squeaking out the division with a 12-4 record on the final day?

Yeah. You’re right. This was probably one of the times when it’s not good to live close to a dozen casinos.

Houston Texans
Winning the Super Bowl (+2500)
$5 to win $130

Yes, a measly five bucks. I need to put money on somebody to win the Super Bowl — and while I think other teams have a much better shot at actually getting there, the Texans represented the best combination of opportunity and good odds. Last year, I chose the Falcons at +2000 and felt great about it until Aaron Rodgers destroyed my dreams.

Player Props

Like the team props, these bets can be hugely complicated, but I’m keeping it simple: picking players to win yardage titles.

Sam Bradford
Most passing yards (+2000)
$20 to win $400

What would you look for in a passing champion? You’d want somebody who’s going to throw the ball a lot. You’d want him to be in an offense where the weather is going to be great in the winter, limiting the chances of his entering a game in which he can’t throw the ball very frequently. You’d want him to have good pass protection, so he doesn’t get hurt. And you’d want him to be playing on a team that’s got a good offense, but not one that’s so good they’re going to be running the ball to chew the up clock in the second half. Isn’t that Sam Bradford in 2011? I firmly believe that he hits 4,500 yards if he plays 16 games in a Josh McDaniels offense. I’m all in on this, too, as Bradford is the primary quarterback on each of my fantasy teams. If he dislocates his shoulder in Week 3, you might not hear from me for a few weeks.

Rashard Mendenhall
Most rushing yards (+1500)
$20 to win $300

Likewise, if you’re picking a running back to grab the rushing title, it’s not complicated: a sturdy back on a great team without a truly effective backup or change-of-pace runner to steal carries away. No one fits that criteria as well as Mendenhall, as his rookie injury was a fluky fractured shoulder. With Ben Roethlisberger around and a much healthier offensive line, I think Mendenhall gets about 1,700 rushing yards en route to the runner’s crown.

(There were also some really strange bets available for the rookies on this list. Mark Ingram, whom you saw splitting carries with two other backs last night, had the same +1500 line as Mendenhall to win the rushing title. In what universe does that make any sense? Dolphins back Daniel Thomas was at +1800, ahead of Matt Forte, Darren McFadden, and Peyton Hillis, each of whom were at +2500. I don’t understand this whatsoever.)

Most receiving yards (+800)
$20 to win $160

This bet on the field simply means that I think the person who will win the receiving title is someone besides the 23 players listed at the casino with odds available on them. Last year, the field would have won this bet because Brandon Lloyd was undoubtedly not listed as a favorite. Because wideouts are so dependent upon systems and good quarterback situations, I tend to think the field is a good bet here. The last time it would have paid off before last season was in 2004, when Muhsin Muhammad went from middling veteran receiver to superstar in a contract year. This is when I start rooting for Sam Bradford to turn Brandon Gibson into the new Brandon Lloyd.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Bill Barnwell:
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview Part IV
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part III
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part II
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part I
Viva Las Vegas: Apartment Hunting in Sin City
Viva Las Vegas: Sabermetrics in the Wasteland

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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