08/04/2004 11:00PM

NFL preseason bets iffy proposition

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Preseason football kicks off Monday night, and the annual debate among handicappers has already begun: Are preseason games worth betting?

I've flip-flopped like John Kerry on this issue. There have been preseasons (or parts thereof) where I have analyzed the quarterback rotations and the coaches' tendencies and picked winner after winner, thinking I was on the Easy Street to riches. And I have done the exact same thing and experienced losing streaks, depleted my bankroll for the regular season, and questioned my sanity.

I have come to the conclusion that betting preseason football is a coin-flip. It's a 50-50 proposition, and you really have to pick your spots to come out ahead in the long run. Preseason games are meant for evaluating talent. That's what coaches do, and that's what handicappers have to do in order to see which teams have the depth to fill in when the inevitable injuries occur.

The Hall of Fame Game on Monday between the Redskins and Broncos certainly looks like a toss-up. The Redskins are favored by 2 1/2 points, and you have to assume that's because the oddsmakers expect the public to buy into the fact that coach Joe Gibbs is intent on returning a winning attitude to the Redskins.

If I had the proverbial gun to my head, I would take the Broncos plus the points because they still have the better team. I wouldn't be betting with any confidence, however, because there are going to be so many substitutions in the second half (with a lot of players who won't make the first cut) that anything can happen.

The Bears +4 at the Rams next Thursday is a much better bet, and one I made Wednesday because I started to see books moving the line to 3 1/2. The new Bears coach, Lovie Smith, who coincidentally used to be the Rams' defensive coordinator and should know a little something about how to slow them down, will want to start his tenure on the right foot. Quarterback Rex Grossman is expected to play most of the first half for the Bears, while the Rams coach, Mike Martz, doesn't take preseason games too seriously, and we shouldn't expect his starters to be in long.

On local radio shows, I have heard some handicappers recommend betting unders in early preseason games. This certainly makes sense with the old saying that "defense is ahead of the offense," and past performances would support it, but I would tread lightly this season. For one thing, if you look at all the totals in the first week of preseason games, the highest is 38 on next Saturday's Cardinals-Vikings game, so the oddsmakers are aware of these trends and have adjusted accordingly.

But more important is the fact that the NFL is telling officials to enforce the five-yard bump rule more stringently, and you know they will be trying to get the defensive backs used to the new rule before the regular season starts. So wide receivers will either be running more freely if DB's keep their hands off, or else flags will be flying (which will keep more drives alive while also stopping the clock, which could serve to lengthen the games, too).

Very early season predictions

The preseason is invaluable in fine-tuning one's analysis of how teams will fare this season. That makes this as good of a time as any to peruse the odds to win the Super Bowl, the season over/unders, and some available regular-season lines to see where we can find any value before everyone sees what we see in the preseason games.

Way back on Feb. 5, I tabbed the Vikings at 20-1, the Seahawks at 30-1, and the Bengals at 35-1 as my live longshots for the 2005 Super Bowl. That would have been the time to make those bets, as now the Seahawks are as low as 10-1 at some books and the highest I've seen is 13-1 at MGM Mirage properties, while the Vikings are also as low as 10-1 and can be found at 15-1 at Caesars Entertainment books and the Station Casinos. The Bengals are still 35-1 at Caesars, but I don't know if I would still make that bet.

The current overlay might be the Panthers, who were lowered to 10-1 after their valiant loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl, still being offered as high as 28-1 at Coast Casinos.

Most of the value has been bet out of Super Bowl futures, and the same can be said for the over/under season totals in which bookmakers increase the vig on the side on which they take more money. For instance, the Seahawks have an over/under of 9, and while a book would normally make bettors risk -115 on each side (risk $1.15 for every $1 you want to win), the over on that number is now as high as -160 around town.

Of course it pays to shop for the best numbers, and there are some judgment calls to make. If you think Gibbs will turn around the Redskins, do you bet over 8 1/2 wins at Stratosphere and lay -150, or do you take the Skins over 9 at better than even money (+105) at an MGM Mirage book and risk only getting a push if they win exactly nine games?

Last year, when the Imperial Palace posted its NFL games of the year, I made four pre-preseason picks and went 3-1. I took the Rams -3 vs. the Falcons in the sixth week of the season. The Rams went off as 10-point favorites and won, 36-0. I also took the Rams -3 vs. the Packers in Week 7. The Rams ended up favored by 4 and won, 34-24. I also took the Bears -1 1/2 vs. the Vikings in the 15th week of the season. That was a bad bet, as the Vikings ended up favored by 3 by game day, but I still won when the Bears prevailed, 13-10. My lone loss was the Colts -2 1/2 vs. the Broncos in the 16th week. The line moved as I expected with the Colts favored by 7, but the Broncos won, 31-17.

This year, my crystal ball says to jump on these lines now: Lions +3 vs. the Packers on Oct. 17, Eagles +1 1/2 vs. the Cowboys on Nov. 15, Vikings -3 vs. the Packers on Dec. 24, and the Rams -3 vs. the Eagles on Dec. 27.