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Friday, January 18, 2013

Playoffs??? Playoffs!?!

            Intoxicated by my success on a football weekend in Nevada in November, I took the risk of posting my NFL playoff predictions against the spread on Facebook and Twitter last Saturday. After the first game, in which I took Denver, I was in the hole and having second thoughts.
            A good gambler, even when there’s no money on the bet, as in this case, has to be steadfast, methodical and resolute, so I held on to my predictions for the last three games and ran the table, finishing 3-1 for the weekend. As I replied to one of my Facebook scoffers, a bet on my four predictions, evenly distributed among the four games and factoring in the vigorish, would have yielded a 36 percent return on investment in less than 36 hours.
            Divisional playoff weekend in the NFL may be the one time in the pro football season when there are clear protocols a bettor can follow to increase the chances of doing well. In any given year, of course, the odds can let you down, but over time the arc is clear and visible.

Bet the Better Team, Stupid

            On divisional playoff weekend, there are four teams playing at home with a week’s rest, against teams that played the week before and typically had worse records. In most years the home teams win three of the four games. You can look it up. If someone had simply bet on every home team this particular weekend, going back to when this playoff format went into effect, that person would have done very well indeed over the long haul.
            The other tendency that occurs on divisional weekend is that because the home teams have such a strong general advantage, the ones that win tend to do so emphatically, rendering the point spread irrelevant in most cases. Recognizing this, I pick the teams I think will win the game and ignore the points. Over time, the handful of games where the spread is a factor will even out.
            You could go to Vegas divisional playoff weekend, bet on all the home teams, and most years you’d win or break even. That’s too actuarial for my taste, so I try to figure out which underdog will pull off an upset.

Identifying the Upset Special

            To do that, I first look at the favorites to see if I can spot a glass jaw. Two things I particularly look for are a team that had a good record but played over its head and had a high takeaway/giveaway ratio. That sort of luck typically runs out in the playoffs. I also look for teams with coaches who are control freaks, obsessing over defense and special teams but never bothering to get a great quarterback and great offensive coordinator. They’re ripe for a playoff choke.
            On the underdog side, I look for one thing: A team with a good record (11-5 or better) that outscored its opponents by 100 points over the course of the year.
            Following those general guidelines, my picks to win this year were Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and New England. Like a lot of other people, I thought Atlanta would fold and was a bit embarrassed to win that prediction on points rather than actual victory. But how was I to know that Seattle (and Denver, for that matter) would skip their practice sessions on the prevent defense last week? That’s why they call it gambling.
            (Betting advice offered for entertainment purposes only. No guarantees made or implied, and past performance is no guarantee of future results.)