NFL Fact or Fiction: Week Seven Underdogs That Will Cover the Spread

Michael WillhoftContributor IIIOctober 21, 2011

NFL Fact or Fiction: Week Seven Underdogs That Will Cover the Spread

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    Let's be honest; NFL football is awesome.

    We watch our favorite teams for sixteen regular season games, and—if we're lucky—for a playoff game or four.

    But what makes the NFL more exciting than any other professional sport is the fact that it's the league that draws the highest percentage of betting money.

    Just think about how prevalent gambling on football has become: point spreads are listed in the morning paper, sports radio personalities routinely pick games against the spread and Chris Berman's famous "Two Minute Drill" has the favorites flagged on-screen when he makes predictions about the final scores.

    Whether you're a professional sports bettor picking every game on the board, or an amateur throwing a few bucks on your favorite team once in a while, betting on the NFL is as responsible for the popularity of the sport as the players on the field are.

    Now that gambling is less of a social stigma, it's okay for me to write about underdogs who have the best chance of winning. And in this case, the term "winning" doesn't apply to the team that scores the most points in a particular game.

    To a bettor, the term "winning" has a different meaning. And if you're reading this article, you know what I mean.

    Because covering the spread can sometimes be more important than winning outright, here are this week's underdogs and whether it's fact or fiction that they'll cover the spread...

    (All lines are courtesy of the Las Vegas Hilton at the time of this article's publication.)

FACT: Denver (+1.5)

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    This line opened at +2.5. The Miami Dolphins are 0-6. Tim Tebow will have more fans in Miami than the home team this Sunday.

    These are the facts, and they are undisputed.

    Well, you get the idea. Even though the Denver Broncos aren't a great team by any stretch of the imagination, there's no reason the Dolphins should be giving points to anyone (other than the St. Louis Rams, maybe).

    Throw in the fact that Miami is 0-7-1 ATS (against the spread) in their last eight games dating back to last year, and this ending practically writes itself.

    The Dolphins offense looked terrible on Monday Night Football; Matt Moore missed easy reads, forced too many throws, and didn't show any signs of improving. That doesn't bode well for this Sunday's game.

    Can't you imagine Tebow rushing for one score and throwing his now-famous "jump pass" for another as Moore watches dejectedly from the opposite sideline next to Brandon Marshall, who's openly holding up a sign that says "WWTD (What Would Tebow Do?)"

    Two bad teams going at it in a half-empty stadium and the local fans can't even watch on television because of an NFL blackout? Give me the points and give me the money.

FACT: Tampa Bay (+1)

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    Tampa Bay is currently listed as a one-point underdog against the Chicago Bears this weekend. Therefore, as the 'dog, it's a fact that they'll cover the spread in a "home" game this Sunday.

    With the game being played in London, there's no real home-field advantage for either team (unless the Brits start to hate Jay Cutler's pouting as much as most Americans do). However, I think the Buccaneers are the slightly better team; I can see the line swinging in Tampa Bay's favor by kickoff.

    Mediocrity might be the word that best describes both teams, which is never a good sign when it comes to betting the game. When deciding whether or not to place a bet on a game, it's usually a good idea to stay away if neither team is good. You'll just end up kicking yourself for betting on a game that has no intrinsic value (unless the Bucs or Bears are your favorite team), especially when you're on the losing side.

    This game will probably boil down to Josh Freeman against Devin Hester. And because Tampa Bay has the option of taking the ball out of Hester's hands by punting it out of bounds, my money's on Josh Freeman.

    After the game, Freeman jerseys will be the newest fashion statement on the King's Road and in Peckham pubs alike.

FICTION: Houston (+3)

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    The Houston Texans without Andre Johnson aren't nearly as intimidating as the Houston Texans with Andre Johnson.

    It's science.

    And that's why the line for their game against the Tennessee Titans is set at +3.

    Basic handicapping assumes that home-field advantage is worth three points, meaning that the oddsmakers believe the Texans and the Titans to be evenly matched in this game. And while this might not seem correct at first glance, it makes more sense when you look at the history between these two teams.

    Except for an anomalous 20-0 victory by the Texans last year, the Titans have played Houston tough over the past five seasons. In fact, Tennessee has compiled a 7-3 ATS record against Houston dating back to 2006. Take that into account when making your wagers this weekend if you're looking at this game.

    Titans running back Chris Johnson hasn't had that breakout game yet; perhaps the team's first divisional home game will be the spark CJ2K needs to get on track this season. If he starts off well this Sunday, he'll be all the Titans need to beat the Texans by a comfortable margin.

FICTION: New York Jets (+1.5)

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    I'm always confused by a two-point line in the NFL, which is how this game opened. Safeties aren't common, and kickers never miss extra points. That being the case, if you're backing the Jets in this one, you're basically saying that they're going to win the game outright.

    Let me restate that: you're saying that Mark "Three-And-Out" Sanchez and the Jets' anemic offense will outplay Philip Rivers and the league's sixth-ranked passing attack.

    While I realize that the Jets have a strong defense, so do the Chargers. In fact, they're ranked second in the NFL against the pass (in case you missed it). Because of their proficiency against the pass so far, I don't think the Chargers will be relying on zone defenses to confuse Sanchez in this game. I see single coverage on the outside with blitzing linebackers in the middle that will ultimately force Sanchez into tough situations.

    With the Jets struggling for offense, it'll be up to the defense to score for them. That's not the position you want to be in as an NFL team. Yes, the Jets have the ability to score on defense, but it shouldn't be their only method for scoring points.

    It would seem that bettors are in agreement with me. After all, the Las Vegas Hilton opened this game with the Jets as a 2.5 point favorite. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Since it opened, the line has been bet down from Jets -2.5 to Jets +2, before moving to Jets +1.5 today.

    Rarely do you see Vegas miss that badly on an opening line: a four-and-a-half point swing that turns the opening favorite into an underdog. Did the Hilton's oddsmaker press the wrong button when posting the line?

    That guy might be out of a job with all the money he's going to cost the Hilton on this game.

FACT: Seattle (+3)

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    It's a good thing people can bet on NFL games, otherwise this Sunday's matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and Cleveland Browns would be unwatchable.

    Seriously, are any of your buddies really pumped up to see how this score turns out?

    Normally, I wouldn't bet on Seattle in a game away from Qwest Field under any circumstances. Then last week's game against the New York Giants happened. The only reason I'm backing the Seahawks in this game is because of their outright win as 10.5 point underdogs against the Giants.

    People might disregard last week's result as an aberration, but I see it as a turning point for the Seahawks. In order to build on the momentum from last week, they need another strong performance away from home. And I think they know this.

    Cleveland has already lost at home to the Cincinnati Bengals and the Tennessee Titans; not exactly the cream of the crop in the NFL. Also, they barely squeaked past the Miami Dolphins at home (17-16 in week three).

    Getting a field goal against a bad team is key for Seattle. Remember, the Seahawks aren't good either.

FICTION: Washington (+2.5)

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    Yes, John Beck has recently been named the starter for the Washington Redskins in this week's game against the Carolina Panthers.

    I'm surprised the line isn't higher by now.

    Remember, Beck is the guy who lost his job to Rex Grossman—yes, THAT Rex Grossman—in training camp. He's also the guy that the Redskins are turning to on the road against the up-and-coming Panthers.

    By contrast, Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton has played relatively well considering the amount of hype he received before the season started.

    While he hasn't been Aaron Rodgers, Newton has the Panthers playing much better than expected at this point in the season. And although the results in the win column aren't necessarily there, Newton has been cashing tickets for bettors with alarming regularity.

    He's fast earning the nickname "Backdoor Cam" for his ability to cover the spread when the result of the game has been decided. Think back to his performance at home against the Green Bay Packers (and the aforementioned Rodgers) when his Panthers were a 9.5 point underdog. Down 30-16 late in the fourth quarter, Newton scored a rushing touchdown with only 37 seconds left to sneak in the back door and cover the spread.

    Backdoor Cam. It's a thing.

    In this week's game against the Redskins, the backdoor cover won't apply though since the Panthers are favored. I expect Carolina and their fifth-ranked passing attack (based on passing yards per game) to handle Washington pretty easily.

FICTION: Atlanta (+3.5)

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    I'm still not sold on this season's version of the Atlanta Falcons. They lost badly as a small favorite on the road against the Bears, they couldn't cover four points in Seattle against the Seahawks, and they blew a 14-point lead at home on Sunday Night Football against the Packers in front of a national television audience.

    Oh, and they didn't cover in that SNF game against Green Bay (even after they had been bet up to six point favorites). Think about it: if you include the spread, they were up 20-0 in the Georgia Dome before halftime and still lost the game.

    On the other hand, the Detroit Lions have been ATS warriors over the past year and a half. Last season, the Lions covered nearly every game as they started to change the public's perception of their team. This year, they've continued to reward their backers by posting a 4-1-1 ATS record to date.

    Considering how much the Falcons have underachieved this season and how much of a resurgence the Lions have had recently, it's strange how quickly the opening line was bet down from six. Maybe bettors are seeing this as a letdown game for the Lions since they're coming off their first loss of the season.

    For me, I can't see any Atlanta cornerback being able to cover Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson and I can't see the Lions' defensive line being held in check. I see this as a retribution game for Detroit; they want to prove they're not the perennial NFL doormat they once were.

    I'll take Detroit at home, despite having to lay the points.

FICTION: Kansas City (+4.5)

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    The Oakland Raiders went 6-0 against the division last year, and that was when the Kansas City Chiefs were at full strength. This year, the Raiders are still good. The Chiefs? Not so much.

    The wild card in this week's matchup of AFC West divisional rivals is newly acquired Raiders' quarterback Carson Palmer. Despite the fact that Palmer has only practiced a few times with the first-team offense, the buzz around the Oakland is that Palmer will be named the starter for the game against the Chiefs.

    While he will certainly need more time to develop solid chemistry with his receivers, Palmer has the skills necessary to manage the game—that's all he'll need to do anyways.

    The Raiders have relied on a tremendous running game spearheaded by running back Darren McFadden; the team is averaging 160 rushing yards per game, second in the NFL. With that kind of production on the ground, Palmer will not be relied upon to carry the team.

    The Chiefs are ranked 21st in the league in rush defense, allowing over 119 yards per game. With that in mind, it's pretty obvious what the game plan will be for the Raiders: ground and pound.

    The fact that Raiders head coach Hue Jackson will go to Palmer means that he's an upgrade over Kyle Boller, who was initially expected to start when quarterback Jason Campbell went down with an injury.

    That faith in Palmer will be rewarded on Sunday; expect an Oakland win by seven points as they control the clock with their running game.

FACT: Arizona (+3.5)

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    My first thought when I saw this line was that the oddsmakers were begging people to take the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the more I've thought about this game, the more I like the Arizona Cardinals.

    And I don't really know why.

    I think I'm leaning towards Arizona because of the hook; at +3.5, there's some value in placing a bet on the home team here. The Steelers are banged up and traveling across the country for this weekend's game; they also couldn't cover the spread against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars at home in Pittsburgh last Sunday.

    I think the Steelers might be slipping.

    At least, I don't think they're the all-powerful AFC North juggernaut that they have been for so many years. I can't really see them running away with this game, especially with all the injuries they've suffered this season. This game seems like a trap for the Steelers, and will probably come down to a field goal.

    This play isn't based on the fact that I think the Cardinals are a better team than the Steelers, but I'm leaning towards Arizona because they can keep the game close.

    And at the end of the day, a close game is all they need to cover the spread.

FACT: St. Louis (+13)

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    The St. Louis Rams are not good. But when you're getting two scores as an underdog in an NFL game, it might be worth it to take a shot on one of the worst teams in the league.

    Think about it: last week, the Green Bay Packers were 15-point favorites at home over the Rams. They managed to cover the spread in their 24-3 victory, but not as easily as most people thought. This week, the Dallas Cowboys will have to be as effective—or more—than the Packers were against the Rams last week.

    My money's on the Rams in this one; I doubt that the Cowboys are a better team than the Packers, and I think most of America would agree with me on that.

    In order for a favorite to cover a double-digit spread in the NFL, nearly everything has to go right for that team. They can't have any turnovers, they need to convert inside the red zone with regularity, and they need to play solid defense.

    If the Rams score just twice against the Cowboys (let's say a touchdown and a field goal), that means the Cowboys will have to score at least 24 points to cover the spread. If the Rams get lucky and score another time, Dallas will have to put up serious points to make its' backers happy. Take that into account before jumping on Dallas this weekend.

    Oh, and in case you were wondering, this season's double-digit underdogs have gone a combined 7-3 ATS so far. Just saying.

FICTION: Minnesota (+9)

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    We may have seen Donovan McNabb's swan song this past Monday, and that doesn't bode well for the Minnesota Vikings for the remainder of the season. The Christian Ponder era begins—much earlier than anyone had anticipated—this Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

    This line opened at eight points and has since gone to nine since the news about Ponder replacing McNabb at quarterback was reported on ESPN. It might be as high as 9.5 or 10 by kickoff as the public gets its' money down on one of the league's best teams.

    This bet is as much against Ponder and the weak Vikings' offense as it is a bet for Aaron Rodgers and the offensive weapons he commands. Watching Rodgers play quarterback allows people to see the position played at its highest level; he's able to pick apart defenses seemingly without trouble.

    And that's not a good sign for the Vikings.

    The Packers are putting up points on everyone, scoring at least 24 points in each game this season. In a related story, the Packers are undefeated. They've won every game comfortably; their smallest margin of victory this year has been seven points.

    I don't see a reversal of fortune for the defending Super Bowl champions in this game. This might be the last game that bettors will get relative value on the Packers, as oddsmakers will be sure to bump the lines by a point or two on Green Bay going forward.

FACT: Indianapolis (+14)

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    The 2011 Indianapolis Colts: another candidate for the double-digit underdog theory. Did anyone think the Colts would ever be getting double-digit points while Peyton Manning was on the roster? I still can't get over seeing +14 next to Indianapolis, but I'm going to take the points and run.

    Sure, the New Orleans Saints have a distinct home-field advantage in the Superdome, but a two touchdown spread is too many points for me. As much as I love Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his hurry-up offense, I'm playing the Colts here because they're already up 14-0 and the game hasn't started yet.

    Much like my thoughts on the St. Louis Rams, I feel that the Colts aren't a good team but have the ability to cover the spread in this game.

    Remember the Sunday Night Football game at home against the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers? The Colts were double-digit 'dogs in that one too and almost managed to win the game outrightthanks to strong play by their defensive line.

    I'm predicting defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to have solid games this Sunday, much like they did in week three against the Steelers. All it will take for the Colts to cover is a lucky bounce or a strip-sack which leads to a short field for the offense.

    Even Curtis Painter can score points if he starts a drive at the opponent's 20 yard line.

FICTION: Jacksonville (+7.5)

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    Blaine Gabbert, meet Monday Night Football.

    Don't be nervous though, you're only playing against a team in the Baltimore Ravens who are: coming off their bye week, have the seventh-ranked pass defense, and are playing with a chip on their collective shoulder.

    Should be a fun night for the rookie quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Although the hook is usually cause for concern, I think the Ravens won't have any trouble with the Jaguars or the spread.

    Not only do the Jaguars have the league's worst passing attack, but the Ravens have had two full weeks to prepare for them. Gabbert has a tough assignment this Monday, that's for sure.

    I'm picturing a few turnovers forced by the Ravens defense, and I wouldn't be surprised by a Baltimore defensive touchdown in this game. The Ravens know how to play on the road and won't be intimidated by the Jacksonville crowd.

    Give me the veteran team built on defense against the rookie quarterback with limited offensive options. 7.5 points seems too good to be true.