12/30/2010 2:31PM

Final week of NFL's regular season yields some wacky point spreads


Week 17 is the NFL’s version of Bizarro World (the alternate universe in Superman comics where bad is good and good is bad), especially when it comes to point spreads on this final week of the regular season.

Sure, we have some games this Sunday that look normal, like the showdown for the NFC West title with the Rams favored by about 2 1/2 or 3 at the Seattle Seahawks, but there are many that seem out of whack until you consider that oddsmakers are inflating lines on some teams in must-win situations while also downgrading some teams that are locked into their playoff positions and are likely to rest starters. Let’s take a look at the backward lines this week:

Dolphins at Patriots (–3 1/2): New England has the NFL’s best record at 13-2 and is a very popular team with bettors (and has justified that love with a record of 9-5-1 against the spread), so this line by all rights should be more than a touchdown and maybe even as high as –10 at home. However, since the Pats have locked up a first-round bye and home field throughout the AFC playoffs, they’re expected to rest a lot of starters, so now we see the spread down around a field goal.

Bears at Packers (–10): Chicago has beaten out the Packers for the NFC North title, but the Packers are huge favorites here for several reasons: they need a win to lock up a wild-card berth, plus the Bears are expected to rest some starters since they are locked into the No. 2 seed in the NFC unless the Falcons and Saints both lose earlier Sunday. Expect this game to go off the betting boards at 1 p.m. Eastern while those games are being played. If both lose, this line could plummet to about 6.

Cowboys at Eagles (no line): As of presstime Thursday, this game was still off the boards at most sports books. Back on Sunday and Monday, the advance line on this game at the Las Vegas Hilton was Eagles –12, assuming they would be trying to lock up a first-round bye, but then they lost to the Vikings on Tuesday night and are now locked into the No. 3 seed, so count on this line being much lower. The Lucky’s Race & Sports books adjusted the line to Eagles –9 after their loss, but then moved to 6 1/2 after it was announced Michael Vick will likely to skip the season finale with a bruised quadriceps.

Other wacky lines: The Chiefs are only –3 1/2 vs. the Raiders (it was –6 in advance wagering last week); Colts are –10 vs. the Titans (after being –6 1/2 last week); Jets are only –1 1/2 vs. the lowly Bills (–7 last week); and the Falcons are –14 1/2 vs. the Panthers (–7 1/2 last week).

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As handicappers, it’s our job to analyze the games in light of these changes. We need to determine which lines have been overadjusted, especially in light of the fact that a lot of times teams don’t win in must-win situations (if they were so good to be able to just flip the switch and win a game when they needed it, they would have done it earlier in the year and not be in this situation in the first place). In games where backups are expected to see more playing time, these have to be viewed like preseason games.

Back to the betting board

I went 1-1 last week as I lost with the Titans vs. the Chiefs but then won with the Saints over the Falcons on Monday night as they won outright. That was my third straight 1-1 week, which doesn’t get the job done when laying 11 to win 10, but hopefully I can finish the regular season strong heading into the playoffs.

Titans +10 vs. Colts

Yes, here we go again. I’m taking the Titans even though they let me down last week vs. the Chiefs, but this is more about fading the Colts. As stated above, this line has been inflated due to the Colts’ situation, and I’ll take the bonus points. Besides, we had the Titans against the Colts three weeks ago and got the backdoor cover as the Colts only won 30-28. I expect the Titans to step up and play their rival tough again, led by Chris Johnson going for his second straight rushing title as he trails Arian Foster by 111 yards. I honestly think he can get 200 yards against the Colts’ 28th-ranked rushing defense (the only reason it’s not last is because the teams ranked below them – Raiders, Cardinals, Broncos, and Bills – usually have teams running the ball all game long against them while teams often abandon the run vs. the Colts). And don’t forget that the Colts can accomplish their goal of making the playoffs by just winning this game; they won’t need to win by double digits, so that works in our favor.

PLAY: Titans for 1 unit.

Bengals +10 vs. Ravens

This play isn’t based as much on an overadjustment in the line. The advance line on this one was Ravens –9 1/2, and even though the Ravens need a win if they hope to get a first-round bye if the Steelers lose to the Browns, we haven’t seen much of a change except for it to reach double digits. The Bengals served notice that they haven’t packed it in for the winter with their 34-20 win over the Chargers last Sunday. They also played admirably in losses earlier this month to the Saints and Steelers. Again, the Ravens can reach their goals by just winning, so we have wiggle room with this big spread, especially the way the Ravens’ defense hasn’t been too tough late in games, so the back door should be open.

PLAY: Bengals for 1 unit.

Last week: 1-1 for a loss of 0.1 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1). NFL season record: 25-19 for a net profit of 4.1 units.