Spreading the Wealth
Denver is an unprecedented 28-point favorite against Jacksonville, but smart money—and NFL gambling history—is on the underdog Jaguars. No, really
This Sunday’s game in Denver between the 0-5 Jaguars and the 5-0 Broncos is anticipated to be a mismatch of historic proportions. This week The MMQB is exploring what it's like for the Jaguars to be the NFL's biggest underdog ever, whether there’s hope for the season—and the future—in Jacksonville, and how the Jags and the league's other winless teams might turn things around. Read the entire series, and check back each day this week for more.
In Week 4, the Eagles faced the Broncos at Mile High Stadium. Philadelphia had nine days rest. The Broncos were coming off a Monday night game.
The spread: Broncos, an 11.5-point favorite.
“And we couldn’t find anyone—anyone—to bet on the Eagles,” says Jimmy Vaccaro, a Las Vegas bookmaker since 1975 who is currently the vice president of sports marketing at the South Point Hotel and Casino. “The general public picked up on Denver before we did.”
By now it’s no secret: Peyton Manning’s undefeated Broncos are Super Bowl favorites.
So what happens this Sunday, when they face the 0-5 Jaguars?
“It’s the perfect collision,” Vaccaro says. “You’re going to see the highest point spread in NFL history.”
The Broncos opened the week as a four-touchdown favorite against the lowly Jaguars. After all, Manning & Co. scored more points last Sunday (51) than the Jaguars have all season.
Which leads to an interesting trend in Vegas. The Broncos covered the spread in four of their first five games, and likely would have done so against the Cowboys last Sunday had they played for a touchdown instead of milking the clock and kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired. “The more Denver continues to win, the more a liability they become to books in town,” says Jay Rood, the MGM Resorts Sports Director.
It’s reminiscent of another undefeated team: The 2007 Patriots.
New England began that season 9-1 against the spread. So Vegas upped the ante. In Week 11, the Pats were 25-point favorites against the Eagles—the NFL’s biggest spread since 1976, and the second largest of alltime.
Of course, there were other factors at play: With Donovan McNabb injured, A.J. Feeley was scheduled to start at quarterback for the first time all season; the game was in Foxborough; and the Eagles were a middling 5-5. The Pats were averaging 41 points a game; only one opponent had come within 16 points.
“I was going to go down swinging,” Feely says. “I knew that was the only way we were going to beat those guys.”
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson dialed up an aggressive game plan, Philadelphia went for it on fourth down in the first quarter and even attempted an onside kick in the second. Feeley, who threw for 345 yards and finished with three touchdowns and three interceptions, admitted he threw some riskier passes than he might have in a normal game.
Of the 10 largest point spreads in NFL history, the favorites covered just twice.
Did the Patriots cover? Not even close. They won, 31-28, largely because of two second-half interceptions by Asante Samuel.
Here’s the thing about heavy favorites: they rarely prevail in a blowout. Of the 10 largest point spreads in NFL history, the favorites covered just twice.
“No matter how bad the Jaguars are this season, they’re still an NFL team,” Vaccaro says. “You’ve got guys playing for their contract. Plus, once the team gets a big lead, maybe they back off a little bit. You take Manning out of the game.”
In other words, banking on a rout is far from a sure thing.
Experienced bettors will take the underdog, Rood says, “Historically that’s been the case.”
On Page 2: The biggest point spreads in NFL history, and whether they were covered
THE LINEAGE OF HISTORIC MISMATCHES
Spread: 27 (covered)
Steelers favored over the Buccaneers on Dec. 5, 1976
The Bucs’ minus-287 point differential remains an NFL record. Quarterback Steve Spurrier threw just seven touchdown passes—all year. Not much went right in their inaugural season. Weeks 12 and 13 were especially brutal. After getting banged up in a 49-16 loss to the Raiders (the eventual Super Bowl champs), the Bucs traveled to Three Rivers Stadium to face the defending champion Steelers.
Said Tampa Bay coach Jim McKay afterward: “We had no players, and the ones we did have wanted to stay at the hotel by the fire. I was ticked, because that’s where I wanted to stand.”
In bone-chilling 23-degree weather, Pittsburgh easily covered the spread, outgaining Tampa by 280 total yards in a 42-0 thumping.
Spread: 25 (not covered)
Patriots favored over the Eagles on Nov. 25, 2007
With Donovan McNabb injured, career backup A.J. Feeley started for the Eagles (5-5). It was supposed to be a mismatch for Tom Brady and the Patriots, who won their first 10 games by an average of 25 points. Not quite. Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson orchestrated an aggressive game plan, blitzing on roughly 50% of the Patriots’ passes as the Eagles sacked Brady three times. Still, the Patriots prevailed, 31-28, thanks to two second-half interceptions by Asante Samuel.
Spread: 24 (not covered)
49ers favored over the Bengals on Dec. 5, 1993
Led by quarterback Steve Young, the 49ers featured the league’s most prolific offense. They had outscored their last five opponents, 190-69. The Bengals, meanwhile, were 1-10. Quarterback David Klingler had more than twice as many interceptions (seven) as touchdowns (three). The team’s best pass rusher, first-round draft pick John Copeland, was out with a knee injury.
As you might imagine, fans at Candlestick Park weren’t exactly cheering as the 49ers ran off the field at halftime trailing, 8-7. But order was restored in the second half. The Bengals botched a fake punt early in the third quarter and Ricky Watters ran for two touchdowns en route to a 21-8 San Francisco victory.
Spread: 23 (not covered)
49ers favored over the Falcons on Oct. 11, 1987
NFL players might have been in the midst of a strike, but Joe Montana crossed the picket line, and Vegas set this line as a mismatch.
Montana and 11 strikebreaking veterans—including Dwight Clark, Roger Craig and Joe Cribbs—returned to the 49ers’ lineup in Week 4. They were heavy favorites against the replacement Falcons, who had just one regular on the roster: linebacker Tim Green.
San Francisco stormed to a 20-0 halftime lead, outgaining the Falcons 261-56. The 49ers won, 25-17.
“I think it was evident that they needed their veterans to win it,” Atlanta coach Marion Campbell told the AP after the game. “Our replacement guys, I thought, played well against theirs, and could have won it if that would have been the case.”
Spread: 23 (not covered)
Cowboys favored over the Buccaneers on Oct. 2, 1977
The Buccaneers, still winless as a franchise, scored a combined six points in their first two games. You didn’t have to be a Vegas bookmaker to know their fortunes weren’t likely to change in Week 3 at Texas Stadium against Tony Dorsett’s Cowboys (the eventual Super Bowl champs).
Dallas led 17-0 by the end of the first quarter, though Bucs’ linebacker Richard Wood made things interesting in the second when he scooped up a Dorsett fumble and ran 37 yards for a touchdown, cutting the deficit to 10. But the Cowboys tacked on two short field goals and won, 23-7.
“The only thing Tampa Bay has been able to beat is the spread,” St. Petersburg Times sports editor Hubert Mizell wrote in the next day’s paper. “Gambling America must love them.”
Spread: 22.5 (not covered)
Patriots favored over the Dolphins on Dec. 23, 2007
New England entered the game 14-0; Miami was 1-13. Not only did Bill Belichick’s squad score at will (averaging 37.4 points per game), it also ruthlessly tacked on points in the fourth quarter, outscoring opponents 137-72 over the final 15 minutes. That stat certainly contributed to the line.
Tom Brady threw three first-half touchdowns—two to Randy Moss—and New England was up 28-0 at the break. But the Patriots cooled off in the second half. Brady threw two picks in the third quarter and was sacked twice in the fourth. Although the Patriots won, 28-7, they didn’t cover the spread. (New England went on to be double-digit favorites in its regular season finale and throughout the playoffs, including their Super Bowl loss to the Giants.)
Spread: 21 (not covered)
Patriots favored over the Buccaneers on Dec. 12, 1976
The Bucs scored first and even took a 14-7 lead into the locker room at halftime. But the game panned out just like Tampa’s season—with great disappointment. The Patriots scored 24 unanswered points, including Sam Hunt’s 68-yard interception return, in their 31-14 victory. The Bucs finished the season 0-14, losing by an average of 20 points. “You almost come to a Buddhist detachment from the outcome,” defensive end Pat Toomay told the New York Times in 2007. “It was a nightmare of the highest order.”
Spread: 20.5 (not covered)
Patriots favored over the Colts on Dec. 4, 2011
With three touchdowns, tight end Rob Gronkowski nearly covered the spread himself. The Patriots led 31-3 after the third quarter. But the winless Colts fought back. They scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter—two on passes from Dan Orlovsky to Pierre Garcon—and New England needed Deion Branch to recover an onside kick in the final minute to seal a 31-24 win.
“People can say what they want to say about not playing hard,” Colts tight end Jacob Tamme told the Associated Press afterward. “But I think that (comeback) pretty much shut that up right there.”
The Colts were 16.5-point underdogs against the Ravens the following week (Baltimore didn’t cover the spread but won, 24-10).
Spread: 20.5 (not covered)
Patriots favored over the Jets on Dec. 16, 2007
The undefeated Patriots had plenty to play for. It was the Spygate rematch and New England could lock up home field advantage through the playoffs. The Jets were 3-10, and just 1-5 on the road.
On a cold, slushy day with wind gusts exceeding 20 mph, Tom Brady had his worst game of the season (14-for-27, 0 TD, 1 INT and a 51.5 rating). So New England relied on its running game, specifically Laurence Maroney, who rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots did not cover the spread, but won, 20-10.
Spread: 19.5 (covered)
Rams favored over the Panthers on Nov. 11, 2001
Kurt Warner didn’t have his best day. He threw for only 144 yards and had three interceptions. Didn’t matter. The Rams easily beat the spread against the hapless Panthers in Week 9. (Carolina hadn’t won since opening day, and wouldn’t again for the rest of the season).
St. Louis finished with 337 rushing yards, the third highest total in franchise history, averaging 8.2 per carry. Marshall Faulk had 183 of them, and two touchdowns. The Rams stormed to a 31-0 lead in the second quarter, and won 48-14. The Panthers were underdogs in all but one of their remaining games—they were favored against the 6-8 Cardinals and won, 30-7—but covered the spread just once.
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