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Post Thanksgiving
by Dennis Ranahan

The New Orleans Saints visit the Dallas Cowboys tonight to kickoff Week 13 National Football League action. After Thanksgiving, the point spread results in the NFL are more driven by teams jockeying for playoff position and the books setting lines that lure people to bet the wrong way as much as talent alone.

If tonight’s game is decided by talent exclusively, the Saints win. No team has maintained a level of excellence to both win and cover point spreads as well as Drew Brees and his merry group of men.

It didn’t start that way. The Saints were upset in their home opener in a shootout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 48-40, then needed late heroics in second week action to edge the Cleveland Browns, 21-18.

But since that opening loss and narrow second game win, the Saints have been on a mission, or as the Blues Brothers would explain it, “A mission from God.”

They have established Brees as the front runner for Most Valuable Player and when their defense isn’t dominant, their offense simply outscores their opponent. Brees has enjoyed this season while passing Brett Favre and Peyton Manning to become the all-time leader in passing yardage and now is headed to the one honor he has missed in his Hall of Fame career, an NFL MVP for a season of work, albeit he was named Super Bowl MVP in 2009.

So, bet on the Saints and laugh all the way to the bank?

Not necessarily.

We have crossed over the Thanksgiving threshold, and that is a signal that when a team that has dominated up to now more often than not gets caught by bloated point spreads and higher than beatable expectations.

For example. Take the 2007 New England Patriots. They were the team that came closest to matching the 1972 Miami Dolphins perfect season. They swept their regular season schedule, 16 straight wins, and entered Super Bowl XLII a double-digit favorite against the New York Giants, where they lost their only game of the season.

But, do you know what they did against the point spread after Thanksgiving in 2007?

Before the holiday the Patriots were 11-0 straight-up and 10-1 versus the point spread. After the holiday, they were 8-1 straight-up but only 1-8 versus the line.

Three years ago the Carolina Panthers were perfect coming into their Thanksgiving showdown in Dallas and blew away the Cowboys for a holiday feast that advanced their unbeaten mark to 11-0 and moved their point spread record to 9-2. After that win in Dallas, the Panthers won six of their last eight games, but lost the Super Bowl and split their point spread decisions with a 4 and 4 mark.

Two years ago, the darlings of the NFL were the Cowboys. They came into their home Thanksgiving game against the Washington Redskins with a perfect 10-0 mark against the point spread and a 9-1 straight-up record. On Thanksgiving that year, they beat Washington but lost their first point spread decision and closed out their campaign with a 3 and 5 won/loss record while compiling a losing 1-6 mark against the point spread.

Using these three examples of teams that got to Thanksgiving on top of the league, we can see where expectations and bloated lines resulted in a combined point spread record of 6-18. Those of you interested in a 25% play may want to load up on the Saints tonight.

Now, does that mean Dallas is the play in this one?

The Cowboys have concerns too. On Thanksgiving, they needed breaks, two long touchdown passes and a missed late call by a ref to escape with a one point spread win over the Redskins. Washington was playing that game with a backup quarterback who threw three interceptions after having only two days to work with his offense, and still, Colt McCoy, had the Redskins in position to clip the point spread late.

Here is what we’ve got tonight.

A Saints team that may have collected all the money they are going to for their backers this year, and a Cowboys team just good enough to keep New Orleans motivated enough to have them play another inspired game. The Saints are also in a fierce battle with the Los Angeles Rams for top seed in the NFC playoffs.

In balance, this is a great matchup tonight, but not a great bet.