NFL 2018 Season - Week 14
 

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Numbers Game
by Dennis Ranahan

The Los Angeles Rams sign Aaron Donald and the Oakland Raiders trade Khalil Mack. Next week, these two teams complete the National Football League opening weekend in a Monday Night Football battle.

Will these two developments affect the point spread on the Rams/Raiders matchup?

The first line on this game, released shortly after the NFL schedule was announced in April, had the Rams pegged as a one point favorite. Wagering on this game came in strong and steady for the visiting Rams, and before the Donald signing and the Mack trade, Los Angeles was already up to a 4 point road favorite.

It can’t be argued with any ferocity that the signing of one of the best defensive players by team A and the loss of one of the league’s premier defensive players by team B, wouldn’t create a bigger talent gap between the two teams. But, will that affect the point spread in the season opener?

Linemakers and bookies have a tough job because they need to really come up with two point spreads … one reflecting the true strengths of the teams and the situations they are in and a second point spread that factors in public opinion. Even when the books know, based on their extensive resources and understanding of the game, that a team perceived by the public to be weaker than an opponent is nevertheless in a perfect spot to win, they can’t reflect all their knowledge in the point spread. Their job is to balance the wagering on both sides of a contest, and public opinion is as important as pure talent.

Sometimes, the books can’t help themselves. Smart money plays an increasing role in the setting of point spreads and if the wise guys come in heavy on a game their money can add up to a lot more than public action. That is why there are games that the public thinks are out of whack on the spread, when in actuality the line is adjusted to protect against smart money.

Even after a game the sportscasters may get the spread wrong. I have often heard an announcer categorizing a result as one team “upsetting” another when I knew having the winning side required laying two points on the spread. The sportscaster was still operating off public opinion while the world where wagers are won and lost capitalized on the situation with a willingness to lay points with a perceived inferior squad.

So, are the Raiders an inferior squad to the Rams?

The point spread move before the Mack trade and Donald signing indicated that was the opinion of the public. Was it right?

Based on talent alone, and given the recent moves strengthens the argument that they are right about the Rams being the superior squad. But, does that equal a win and point spread cover for Los Angeles when they visit Oakland on Monday night?

No.

Why?

Because as talented as the Rams are they find themselves in a down season based on season-to-season flow charts. When a team has a breakthrough campaign, a postseason berth after years of losing records, the next season is almost always a loser against the point spread. The Rams had ten straight losing campaigns before they earned an opening week playoff bye last year. They did it with first year head coach Sean McVay implementing his unique style of focusing entirely on the offense and allowing his capable defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, orchestrate the defense. The combination spun magic last year, but that success was bolstered by the motivation to erase a disappointing campaign in Jared Goff’s rookie season.

The quarterback out of Cal was the first player taken in the 2016 draft, and the second pick in that draft, Carson Wentz, showed more promise for Philadelphia in his rookie season. The Rams were saddled with the prospect of drafting a first pick dud. Then, boom, Goff takes to McVay’s offensive system and suddenly all the talent Los Angeles had collected in drafts based on their decade of losing came to fruition.

More of the same this year?

Not likely.

Living up to a great season does not provide the same motivational factors as looking to recover from a disappointing one. The Rams are on the right track, they have talent on both sides of the ball as good as any team in football, but that doesn’t mean they march through Oakland and come out with a win.

Now, given the dramatic defensive additions and subtractions these two squads had this week, we will be able to see if that moves the point spread. If it goes higher than four points, the public has checked in and the smart money is stepping back. But, if this line was to drop to 3½ before kickoff next week, we know this, the smart money is moving the line despite the public backing the Rams.

Heading into the week, I know this, we won’t have a bet on the Rams next Monday … and might take the home team with a more than generous point spread … even if it’s less than four points.

THIS WEEK: Tuesday: Season win total choices Wednesday: Super Bowl pick