Last week, I explained how and why sportsbooks try to balance action. Now would be a good point to take a break from the weekly lessons and review everything that has been discussed to date with a look at a week’s worth of football games at Bodog Sportsbook from the House’s view. I want to thank Kent, Bodog’s top bookmaker, for providing me such detailed information and I apologize in advance if I’m giving out any House secrets.
Before I get into the discussion of the lines themselves I want to introduce the terms public money and smart money. Public money is the action taken from everyday bettors and sports fans. For many sportsbooks this makes up the majority of wagers taken. Public money tends to come in on favorites or on teams that have generated recent press. These wagers range in value from small to moderate, and are frequently placed for the House minimum. Smart money is the action taken from professional gamblers, or wiseguys. These wagers are on average much, much larger than the average public wager and are frequently placed for the House maximum. Public money comes in all week long and is not easily swayed by small moves in the line. Smart money, or sharp action, as it is sometimes called, usually comes in very early and very late, when the lines are at their extremes, and is more easily encouraged or discouraged by changes in the line.
The games to be discussed are the four NFL Wildcard Playoff games, held January 12th and 13th, 2002. The first game was played Saturday afternoon and featured the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Philadelphia Eagles. Tampa Bay was 9-7 and Philadelphia was 11-5 in the regular season. The two teams had met the week before in a meaningless game (the Bucs had already clinched the last wild-card spot and the Eagles had already clinched the NFC East) and Philadelphia’s back-ups rallied the Eagles to a 17-13 win in that game. Tampa Bay had won 6 of its last 8 games, including a 24-17 win in St Louis so they had some momentum, even if two of those wins were close affairs with the hapless Lions. The Eagles also closed out the regular season winning 6 of 8, but because their division rivals in Washington and New York had bad years, they perhaps didn’t get the respect they deserved. The opening line out of Vegas was Eagles -3. In the NFL, being the home team is usually worth a Field Goal, so if the two teams were playing on a neutral field this would mean the line would likely be Pick’ em. Kent and his team thought this line was perhaps a tad low, and opened at Philly -3.5. Action was limited early in the week, but by Friday the Buccaneers had generated more sharp action and the line was changed to slightly encourage betting on the Eagles at -3.5 (-105) with The Bucs +3.5 (-115) on Saturday morning. As kick-off approached, public money slightly favored the Eagles and Kent moved the line back and forth from -3.5 (-105) to -3.5 (Even) to control the amount of sharp action on the Buccaneers and at kick-off the House was slightly exposed on the Buccaneers. The Eagles put on a strong game and covered easily with a 31-9 win. In this case the public majority was right.
The next game had the NY Jets taking on the Oakland Raiders for the second straight week. The Jets needed a long last-minute field goal to beat the Raiders and qualify for the playoffs in that game and neither team looked very good the last few weeks of the season. I heard rumors of opening lines as low as Oakland -2.5, but the first lines I saw had the Raiders as a 4 or 4.5-point favorite. Kent handicapped the Raiders as a 6 point favorite, but had to take into account the previous week’s result and opened the line at 4.5. Sharp and public money began to flow in on the Raiders and by Friday the line was moved to -5. Public money continued in on the Raiders all day Saturday and the line was moved all the way to -6 (-120) before late sharp action on the Jets at +6 (Even) brought the House close to balancing action. With the Raiders up by only a Touchdown late, the game hung in the balance before Charlie Garner’s 80 yard TD run with 87 seconds left sealed the Jets doom and a 38-24 final score. For the second time in two games, the public took money from some of the professional bettors. The two Saturday games were both moderately balanced and with a split in the results Kent was happy just collecting the vig for the two games.
Sunday’s first game had the potential to be a classic. San Francisco and Green Bay both had great years and could have been division winners with their 12-4 records if not for the even better seasons enjoyed by the Rams and Bears. The teams looked close on paper with well-known offenses and much-improved defenses. Home field advantage looked to be the difference as Green Bay is tough at home, especially when it gets cold and the Packers opened as a 3.5-point favorite. Action early in the week was split and the line remained pretty solid until late Saturday afternoon when both public and smart money started to roll in on the Packers. At kick-off, Kent had moved the line all the way to -4 (-120) in an effort to attract sharp money on the 49ers and despite some large bets placed that way, the House was left to root for San Francisco. It is worth mentioning the Total for this as it moved from 39 early in the week all the way to 43 as both public and sharp money rolled in on the Over. Its not often that you will see a line move that dramatically in the NFL, especially in the playoffs. The game lived up to the billing and was close right to the wire. With just over 5 minutes to go, San Francisco was down 18-15 with the ball. Kent was kind of hoping that would be the final score but some guy named Favre had other ideas and, after an interception, led his Packers the length of the field for a late Touchdown and a 25-15 final score. The Packers had covered and the public was 3-0 for the weekend on pointspreads but the House did well on the Total, as the final score of 40 was a field goal too low for many bettors.
The final game of the weekend had the defending Super Bowl champions, the Baltimore Ravens taking on the Miami Dolphins. Despite the bumbling play of the Ravens on the season finale of Monday Night Football against a high school team disguised as the Minnesota Vikings, Kent and his team had the Ravens as a 1-point favorite on a neutral field. After giving the Dolphins 3.5 points for home-field-advantage, the opening line was Miami -2.5 and this seemed to be the consensus. Miami money came from all sectors early in the week and never really stopped. Kent was reluctant to move to -3 as the risk of getting sided was large but the flood of Dolphin money left him no choice and he finally relented late Sunday afternoon. Moving to -3 didn’t stop the tide, so Kent moved the line as far as -3 (-115) to get some late Ravens money but at kick-off, Kent and his team were cheering for the Ravens. Baltimore looked very different than they had the previous game and dominated the Dolphins in a 20-3 win. The public took its first loss of the weekend and the House split for the second straight day.
The Ravens game illustrates how tough it is to handicap the first weeks of the playoffs. Teams that are unmotivated in the regular season suddenly jump to life and others that looked strong all year crumble in the face of pressure. The betting public was 3-1 on spreads and 0-1 on Totals and players who had the discipline to keep their bet sizes the same for all games should have come out ahead. Sharp bettors who got in early on the favorites also went 3-1 and being early on the Green Bay-San Francisco Over would have earned another win. The House went 1-1 on lopsided spreads and 1-0 on the lone unbalanced Total so Kent was happy today. It was the value-seeking sharp money that bets late that paid the price this week losing on the first 3 games before getting a limited measure of revenge with the Ravens win.
There were some good lessons to learn this week, and perhaps the most important one involves the Packers-49ers Total. Players who bet the over early or the under late would have been winners, even shopping for the best Total on Sunday wouldn’t have made your Over a winner, which is what I talked about a couple of weeks back about the timing of placing your wagers. Kent’s theory is to bet the Over early and the Under late as public money often prefers the Over and can drive the line up over the course of a week. He was certainly right in this case.
Next week, I’ll talk about why the lines are moved off standard (-110) when I take a look at Week 2 of the NFL playoffs and key numbers.
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Rob Gillespie is President of Bodog Sportsbook & Casino