02/05/2009 12:00AM

Steelers' late score saved day for books

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LAS VEGAS - Super Bowl Sunday 2009 had a different feeling here than in years past.

Fewer people were in town for the game and hotels weren't as full, plus the people that were here weren't betting nearly as much. The total handle for this year's matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals was $81.5 million, down 11.5 percent from last year's $92 million and the first time since 2004 that the handle didn't exceed $90 million.

However, the sports books were still standing-room only, even if it wasn't elbow-to-elbow as in years past, and once the game kicked off, no one was thinking about a recession. It was all about the party, and the action. Bettors - wiseguys and once-a-year players alike - were following not only their wagers on the Steelers or the Cardinals but also on the wide array of proposition wagers that have become synonymous with Super Bowl Sunday.

The Steelers closed as 7-point favorites at most books on the Las Vegas Strip, with several off-strip properties moving to 6 1/2 the day of the game. Since the Steelers won, 27-23, but the Cardinals covered the spread, it would appear at first glance that the books might have lost money on the game since more money did come in on the Cardinals during the course of the two weeks leading up to the game. But the state's sports books were content with the Steelers' victory. In general, bookmakers like it when a favorite wins but doesn't cover because that means they don't have to pay out on the underdog's money-line price at plus-money. The Cardinals were available at +220 (win $2.20 for every $1 wagered) and even higher at some books two weeks prior, and were bet to as low as +170 on Super Sunday.

Nevada's books posted a nearly $6.7 million win on the game, holding 8.2 percent of all money wagered. It wasn't one of their biggest wins, but certainly was much better than last year's $2.5 million loss, which was largely attributable to the books paying out money-line wagers when the Giants pulled the 17-14 outright upset of the Patriots.

It was looking like it might be a repeat of that when the Cardinals took a 23-20 lead on Larry Fitzgerald's 64-yard touchdown pass from Kurt Warner with 2:47 to play. That would have been a much worse result for the books, especially because the total had been bet down from 47 to 46 1/2 at most books, so many more bettors were cheering for the under.

But, as we all saw, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led his team down the field and hit Santonio Holmes with a 6-yard scoring strike to make it 27-23, kill those money-line bets, and send it over the total.

The fourth quarter was obviously the wildest part of the game, but there were prop bets being decided on nearly every play. Here are the highlights from a Vegas sports book point of view:

* The opening toss (which was heads, and offered at -101 at the Las Vegas Hilton) was won by the Cardinals. There had been widespread speculation that while the Steelers would certainly defer if they won the toss, the Cardinals might choose to receive to put their offense on the field first. So the Station Casinos had a "first team to kick off" prop that was Steelers -170 and Cardinals +140. When the Cardinals deferred after all, their backers started with a nice juicy payoff.

* The Steelers drove right down the field and Roethlisberger ran into the end zone on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Big Ben was 25-1 to score the first touchdown of the game at the Las Vegas Hilton, and many other props (first team to score, whether first score would be a touchdown, shortest TD of the game over/under 1 1/2 yards) hung in the balance when Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt threw the challenge flag (cashing for those who took the Cards to make the first challenge at

-110). When the play was overturned, Jeff Reed kicked a 19-yard field goal.

* One of the most popular props is choosing the first player to score a TD. Pittsburgh running back Gary Russell, offered between 15-1 and 18-1 at most books, ended up with the honors on the Steelers' next possession, with a 1-yard run (winning that under 1 1/2-yard TD prop for those bettors after all).

* The Cardinals rallied to make it 10-7, and then had the ball late in the first half with a chance to take the lead or at least tie the game. They got a first-and-goal at the Steelers' 1 with 18 seconds on the clock and many bets were in the balance, including whether there would be a score in the final two minutes of the first half (which looked like a certainty), whether the score would ever be tied after 0-0, what the last score of the half would be, and the first-half over/under (23 1/2). Those who laid -3 1/2 points on the Steelers in the first half were pretty much dead in the water. But James Harrison stepped in front of Anquan Boldin and picked off Warner's pass and ran it back 100 yards for a touchdown that not only swung those other bets the other way, but also paid off at +155 on whether there would be a special teams or defensive touchdown and gave the Steelers a 17-7 lead to cover the first-half spread and send it over the first-half total of 23 points.

* When the Cardinals scored the safety in the fourth quarter to close the gap from 20-14 to 20-16, that meant a payoff of between 7-1 and 9-1 for those who bet that there would be one in the game. The books usually clean up on this prop as it hadn't happened in the last 17 years, but they had to pay off this time.

* The Cardinals' cover improved my DRF picks to 32-19-2 (63 percent) for the season, including 3-2-1 on 2-unit best bets, with a net profit of 11.9 units.