The Philadelphia Eagles own the NFL's best record at 13-2, yet they are home underdogs to an 8-7 Dallas Cowboys team eliminated from postseason contention. The Jimmy Garoppolo-led San Francisco 49ers are poised to be the first five-win team in the Super Bowl era to be a road favorite over an 11-win team (Los Angeles Rams). And the playoff-bound Kansas City Chiefs are 3.5-point underdogs to the 5-10 Denver Broncos.
It's all part of the annual craziness that is Week 17 in the NFL for bettors and bookmakers, where in addition to handicapping the games and considering the usual variables like weather and injuries, there are many other factors to consider. The biggest one? Handicapping motivation for teams relegated to the NFL draft, ones on the wild-card bubble, ones starting a rookie QB and others that have solidified a playoff position.
"Basically it's a cross between real football and preseason lines," Westgate Las Vegas Superbook assistant manager Ed Salmons (who oversees football odds) told ESPN. "It's essentially a guessing game."
"Most strong handicappers build a model which incorporates year-long and trending data," professional bettor and handicapper Bill Krackomberger told ESPN. "But it's impossible to just take a model's output, as you would earlier in the season, and expect to have success in Week 17. Even when teams are in must-win situations, that is already adjusted in the line and then some. You will need to pay a premium to back those teams."
Incentivized teams like the Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Falcons, who need to win to get into the playoffs, are the easiest to forecast. However, playoff-bound teams with a solidified seed (think: Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars) pose more difficulty. History has shown some coaches rest stars, while others instead prioritize momentum.
"We have to monitor all the games in all sports," CG Technology vice president of risk Jason Simbal said. "But as a bettor, you can focus on one game and get us."
This vulnerability forces oddsmakers to change routine and protocol reserved for the season's first 16 weeks. Many sportsbooks reduce the limits allowed for sides, totals and money lines. Plus, the house is monitoring sharp action more closely.
"You're definitely going to see lines move more aggressively, based on who's betting, compared to other weeks," Salmons said. Simbal agreed that the numbers will be moved faster if respected bettors make plays, noting, "For these games, the inclination is they came across some special news. That's why you have to be so careful."
A prime example this week is the Rams. Head coach Sean McVay told the media on Tuesday night that he was planning to rest his starters. At that time, the line across Las Vegas was still Rams -4. As news came out on Wednesday that Todd Gurley and Jared Goff wouldn't play, along with Aaron Donald, the line moved from Rams -4 all the way to 49ers -3.
Information is relevant for any game in any sport. But late-December weather updates, performance-based player bonuses and the status of a top-tier player all carry more weight in Week 17 for bettors. "They're following nine Twitter accounts for a team," Simbal said. "One guy may report that a QB is playing only one series. They will make a play and we may not find out that information for another five minutes because we're tracking all the other sports."
Additionally, oddsmakers and bettors must assess the wide-ranging variable of effort and commitment to winning.
ESPN NFL analyst Jeff Saturday reached 11 postseasons with the Indianapolis Colts. He also played for the 2011 squad that finished with the league's worst record. "No one is talking about football," Saturday said on ESPN Radio this week when describing the atmosphere surrounding the final practice. "It's whatever UFC fight, whatever boxing match, whatever basketball event you can go to. You're trying to get rid of football for a while." But drawing simple conclusions from a win-loss record or playing status can be dangerous and presumptuous.
"Some teams like to be known as the one who stepped up to the plate and prevented a team from reaching the playoffs," Krackomberger said. "Or sometimes the second string of a playoff team wants to show the starters they belong."
Five-figure bets will hinge on increased trick plays, two-point conversion attempts and other unconventional situations.
"I don't think anyone should wager a serious amount of money on Week 17," Krackomberger said.
While more research is required for handicappers and bettors, there is still one certainty that both care about: Every ticket cashes the same.