Notable bets: NFL upsets increasing, and bookmakers are smiling

Three field goals by Matthew Wright led the Jaguars over the Bills in a shocker. David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

The Buffalo Bills became the consensus Super Bowl favorites at sportsbooks just last week.

The Bills promptly went out and lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday as a 15-point favorite. It's the largest upset of the season, but also something that's become more common in recent years.

From 1996 through 2017, NFL underdogs of 15 points or more didn't pull a single outright upset, going 0-72 during that 22-season stretch, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. However, we've had one such upset in each of the past four seasons.

"There are way more opportunities for a bad team to pull off the big upset," Chuck Esposito, a longtime Las Vegas bookmaker now with Station Casinos, said. "We're seeing more and more teams that are huge underdogs, like the Jags and Texans, this season and on a weekly basis than we ever have before, increasing the probability of this happening."

During the previous 22-season stretch, there was an average of 3.89 games with spreads of 15 points or higher. Over the past four years, there's been an average of 5.75 such spreads, and we're only halfway through this season.

John Murray, executive director the SuperBook in Las Vegas, pointed to higher over/under totals leading to larger point spreads. Jay Croucher, head of trading for sportsbook PointsBet, echoed Murray's sentiments and hypothesized that the league becoming more pass-heavy could be leading to more frequent big upsets.

"More explosive passing offenses are leading to more of these large lines as well," Croucher said. "Underdogs in the past couple of years have covered due to deplorable quarterback performances from big favorites: Jared Goff last year against the Jets, and Josh Allen today."

Multiple veteran bookmakers were more surprised by the 22-year drought of upsets involving underdogs of more than two touchdowns than they were the recent uptick of big upsets.

"You'd think out of 72 games, you'd have at least one winner," Jeff Stoneback, director of race and sports for BetMGM in Nevada, said, referring to the lack of big upsets from 1996 to 2017.

Johnny Avello, a longtime Las Vegas bookmaker now with DraftKings, said he has seen so many upsets over his 30-plus-year career that he rarely is shocked by them anymore.

"This is live people playing a sport. Sometimes they don't do their best, and the other team comes with its best performance," Avello said. "It's just going to happen."

And when upsets do happen, like on Sunday, bookmakers typically end up smiling.

NFL notables

• Sportsbooks have responded to a rough three-week stretch in October that saw the betting public catch fire with back-to-back monster Sundays. BetMGM's Nevada sportsbook came out ahead in 10 of the 11 afternoon kickoffs on Sunday, with its only loss coming on the Chargers' 27-24 win over the Eagles.

• Underdogs went 9-3 against the spread Sunday, with seven outright upsets. The outright upsets produce the biggest win for sportsbooks, because of the increasing number of money-line parlays that are eliminated. For example, the most popular parlay leg at PointsBet on Sunday was the Cowboys' money line against the Broncos. Denver won 30-16.

• "Denver outright was our biggest winner of the week," Murray of the SuperBook said. "Between the money-line parlays and the players chasing the Cowboys in-progress, that was one of our best results of the season to date."

• Dallas closed as a 10-point favorite and failed to cover the spread for the first time this season.

• Bills-Jaguars was the most heavily bet game of the day at DraftKings, and Buffalo on the money line was the most popular play of any money line on the board Sunday.

"There was so much tied to the Bills," Avello of DraftKings said. "We took some pretty good-sized money-line parlays on the Bills. That was the one that probably killed the most [parlays]."

• Bills QB Josh Allen, who led Buffalo to an upset win over Minnesota as a 17-point underdog in 2018, became only the second quarterback in the Super Bowl era to win a game as a 15-point-plus underdog and lose a game as a 15-point-plus favorite, including the playoffs. Joe Namath is the only other quarterback to accomplish both, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

• The Cowboys and Bills each lost straight-up as double-digit favorites Sunday. It's the first time since Dec. 1, 2019, that two double-digit favorites have lost outright. A few bettors saw it coming.

• Colorado sportsbook MaximBet reported taking $8,000 money-line bets from the same customer on the Jaguars and Broncos. The Jaguars bet paid $56,000, and the Broncos bet paid $30,400.

• DraftKings reported a $500 two-team parlay featuring the Jaguars and Broncos at +2937 odds. The bet won $15,187.50.

• On Sunday morning at FanDuel, 99% of the money bet on the point spread for the Browns-Bengals game was on favored Cincinnati. Cleveland won 41-16.

• With Aaron Rodgers out with COVID-19, the Packers-Chiefs line saw significant movement, growing from pick 'em to as high as Kansas City -7.5. Even with all the line movement, the betting action was evenly divided. An hour before kickoff at PointsBet, 51% of the money bet on the point spread was on the Packers. "One of our closest spreads of the year, despite the crazy [line] movement," PointsBet spokesman Wyatt Yearout said.

• The largest bets reported by Caesars Sportsbook: $550,000 on Chargers -1.5 (Win) $550,000 on 49ers -2 (Loss) $520,000 on Chiefs -7 (Loss) $520,000 on Jaguars +15 (Win)

• The Buccaneers and Bills are now co-favorites to win the Super Bowl at Caesars Sportsbook, each at 6-1.

College football notables

• Georgia closed as a 40-point favorite over Missouri at Caesars Sportsbook. It was the fourth time since 1978 that there has been a 40-point spread between two SEC teams. None of those teams has covered the spread, including Georgia, which won 43-6.

• Updated odds to win the national championship via Caesars Sportsbook:

Georgia -110
Alabama 13-4
Ohio State 5-1
Oklahoma 14-1
Oregon 25-1
Cincinnati 50-1
Michigan State 80-1
Notre Dame 100-1
Texas A&M 100-1
Oklahoma State 150-1

• Notable opening lines via Circa Sports:

North Carolina at Pittsburgh (-5, 73.5)
Cincinnati (-24, 59.5) at South Florida
Michigan at Penn State (-1, 52.5)
Oklahoma (-5, 61.5) at Baylor
Notre Dame (-6, 63.5) at Virginia
New Mexico State at Alabama (-50, 67.5)
Texas A&M (-1, 58.5) at Ole Miss
Georgia (-21, 54.5) at Tennessee
Purdue at Ohio State (-19, 66.5)
Miami, Fla. (-1, 64.5) at Florida State

Q&A with Chris Moneymaker

Chris Moneymaker, who etched his name in gambling lore by winning the main event of the 2003 World Series of Poker, is also a longtime avid sports bettor. He recently spoke to ESPN's David Purdum about his sports betting career, what he believes is holding online poker back from expanded legalization and his latest venture, a partnership with 2021 World Series of Poker sponsor VELO to examine how the skills he uses in poker can pay dividends in real-life situations. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell me about your history with sports betting. When did you start?

Moneymaker: I got introduced when I was in my fraternity [at University of Tennessee]. I bet 50 bucks on Tennessee to beat Ole Miss. That was the first game that I ever bet. I was a sophomore in college. We were watching it as a fraternity. It was an away game, and Tennessee ended up blowing them out, so I won 50 bucks and I thought this was the easiest thing ever. Obviously, as you learn, it's not. But that's what got me into it. Then, I started betting with my dad, and it went well for a long time, until one weekend I kind of blew up and lost everything, which was a really big learning experience. It was the first time I had blown through a ton of money.

Do you still bet regularly?

Moneymaker: I predominantly bet on college football, NBA and NFL. I've just been betting whoever's playing Clemson and the under all year. It was working out well until this last weekend [when Clemson covered the spread on a last-play touchdown against Florida State]. But overall, I'm still up quite a bit using that strategy.

Has sports betting become easier or tougher?

Moneymaker: It's actually gotten a lot tougher. Back when I first started betting, the lines were never as sharp. I'm dating myself here, but basically when I first started, you'd call up your bookie at 9 in the morning and he'd give you the lines out of the newspaper. You could call back at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and the line would be the exact same. The lines just never moved, so it was much easier to beat the books back in the day.

That's why you had people like Billy Walters and all these other sharps that were just crushing people. Well, the advent of the internet, everybody being connected. There's not "inside information" anymore. As soon as someone gets injured or someone gets COVID or whatever it is, it's immediately out there for the whole world to see and the lines immediately are either taken off the board or are manipulated, swayed down or up. It just makes it to where it's really hard to get an edge, where back in the day it was a lot easier to get an edge. If anything, it's harder to bet than it was back then. And if you're uneducated on how to watch for line moves and why a line moves, it can be really difficult. At the end of the day, obviously sports betting is really tough to beat 10%. So it should be done as more of a hobby, entertainment side of things.

Sports betting is now legal in more than half the states in the U.S. Yet, online poker is only legal in five states. What do you think is holding online poker back?

Moneymaker: It probably just comes down to education of the lawmakers and the money. Money in the end of the day is what drives everything, and sports is a bigger market than poker. It's going to drive more revenue for the states, so they're going to be more inclined to do the sports side of things.

My contention's been for a long time that we need to get a state like California, Florida, New York to legalize that has a bigger player base that can show that if you have the numbers then you can generate enough revenue to make poker worthwhile in legalizing.

Your new venture with VELO is examining how the skills you use at the poker table can be used in everyday life. What skills do you believe overlap between poker and sports betting?

Moneymaker: Bankroll management and discipline. You have to be able to take a loss. I've got a lot of poker friends and sports betting friends that are constantly either really pumped up with cash, because they're running well, or they're completely flat broke, because they can't take a loss. You've got to be able to take the day or the week and chalk it up that you lost that day.