Behind the Bets

You're looking at Matt Ryan, but linesmakers are looking at you. Getty Images

Four road favorites to open the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs? It's historic! It's unfathomable! It's the British laying points to beat the Colonies!

But you know what makes this moment even more special? The postseason is the one time in the NFL calendar when bookmakers care about you, John Q. Public, much more than they care about the wiseguys.

It never works this way. Bookmakers—whether they're running a shop in Vegas, a web-site based in Antigua, or a corner in Brooklyn—always keep an eye on the $10 and $20 bets coming in from the squares, but what they really sweat are the nickel and dime bets made by wiseguys. One nickel ($500) on the favorite from a well-respected pro will move a line from seven to seven-and-a-half a lot faster than five dimes ($5,000) from nobodies.

But strategies, be it for bookmaker or wiseguy, always change come playoff time. With fewer teams to study, linemakers construct even smarter spreads than the freakishly accurate numbers they hang during the season (in Week 17, Packers-Lions and Skins-Niners both finished within a half-point of the opening number). That means pro bettors, who make their money on the tiny differences between their power ratings and the spreads posted by bookmakers, find slim pickings. "The more data you get the more accurate the predictions, so lines are pure in the playoffs; it's tough to find an edge," says Baker, a wiseguy who goes by his last name (seriously, that's how everyone in Vegas knows him). "I might find one game I want to bet on."

In other words, betting in the postseason is so tricky even the wiseguys don't bother. So, without much pro money coming in—or to guard against—bookmakers start channeling Oprah. What do you want, John Q? Who do you like? How do you feel? They're almost entirely focused on the public's betting hopes and desires. Suckers.

That's what makes all the fuss about this weekend so interesting. You may be shocked that the roadies are getting so much love, but you shouldn't be. Deep down, it's how you really feel.

Consider these factors that you, no doubt a very sophisticated bettor, are thinking about right now whether you know it or not: Three of the four home teams (the Chargers, Dolphins and Vikings) didn't wrap up their division titles until the last day. That doesn't inspire betting confidence. Meanwhile three of the road teams (the Colts, Falcons and Ravens) locked up playoff spots weeks ago. Bettors like that. And your subconscious probably hasn't forgotten that the past three Super Bowl winners (the Giants, Colts and Steelers) had to pack their bags during the playoffs.

Then there's this little known nugget, which RJ Bell of Pregame.com sent me: In the past seven seasons there have only been four road favorites in the playoffs—and all four won.

John Avello, who runs the book at the Wynn in Las Vegas, understands all this. He left Poughkeepsie for Vegas 30 years ago, started as a dealer in the black jack pits and has worked as a bookmaker for the past 25 years. There's very little in the gaming industry he hasn't experienced. Except for, you know, making all four home playoff teams dogs. "Never seen it, never done it," he says.

Now, a lot went into his linemaking strategy for this weekend, he says, such as:

Falcons minus-1.5 over the Cards: "Atlanta doesn't have a lot of experience but scores a lot of points. And the Cards haven't played with much intensity since they locked it up."

Eagles minus-3 over the Vikes: "Philly is on a roll."

Colts minus-1.5 over the Bolts: "Everyone has seen this Chargers offense the past few weeks, but the Colts aren't afraid of anyone."

Ravens minus-3 over the Fins: "Baltimore is 6-2 on the road against the spread. Miami is 2-6 at home against the spread."

But really, more than anything else, John says he and every other bookmaker based this week's numbers on you. Really. It is, he says, "What we believe the public is thinking about right now."

And what you're thinking is that the Cards lolligagged into the playoffs while the Falcons are a year away from winning it all; that the gimmick-heavy Fins offense is no match for a Ravens team that has never been so well balanced; that the Vikes barely beat the Giants second-stringers in Week 17 while the Iggles D could shut out the 1999 Rams right now; and that in a Colts-Chargers game of evenly matched talents, Tony Dungy will find a way to gut it out (or, just as likely, Norv Turner will find a way to muck it up.)

You're thinking there's no way these road teams don't payoff.

Funny, everyone who had the British thought the same thing.

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Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.