Las Vegas on the morning of January 2nd looks outside my window like pretty much every other morning in the desert. Bright sun pours through my window. Cars trickle along Tropicana Avenue. Planes constantly deposit vacationers coming to town to win the fortune of a lifetime while other planes depart full of disappointed, exhausted partiers looking forward to going home just to get some rest.
It is a new month, a new year and very nearly the end of the football season but the machinery that is Vegas just keeps humming along like a Japanese auto plant.
After a week away in the snowy mountains of Colorado pretending I belong with the 1% that awoke this morning with a larger tax bill due Uncle Sam, I returned to Las Vegas late last week. While others on my flight geared up for their ‘epic’ Vegas New Year’s Eve, I returned to work. In Colorado, I barely wrote and did no handicapping. I had laid bets to cheer on before I left and met up with an actual professional handicapper for a couple beers to understand how he does what he does but little new work was accomplished. I am not sure if I truly deserved a holiday vacation after spending the last 4 months chasing a dream, but I took one anyway.
The government can take my money and my guns but they can’t take my vacations.
In truth, even upon return I struggled to return to ‘work’. My handicapping of games last weekend was next to nothing – but given it was week #17, I figured quantitative analysis was moot anyway.
It is fitting that the NFL’s week #17 comes amidst bowl season because they both present the same challenge in handicapping – a team’s performance is driven more by the intangible more than by any quantifiable factor. Is a college team motivated to play in a bowl game when they thought they deserved better? If an NFL team isn’t playing for a spot in the post-season and are 60 minutes away from a much desired vacation, will they play hard?
Clearly, from my betting results, I am in no position to answer these questions. I lost more bets than I won, but through some smart money management (and luck, always luck), I sit here only slightly lower than I was when I left behind the glittering lights of the Strip back on December 20th.
Strangely enough, the bets I had been losing all season are the same ones that have rescued me, while the old stalwarts I could count on for a nice juicing of my bottom line have failed to come through. I won’t make some clichéd joke about the Mayans or a Kim/Kanye spawn shifting the world’s axis and changing my betting success but maybe what worked early in the season is no longer applicable. I guess over the next week, with the final bowl games playing out and the playoffs starting we will learn more.
As I haven’t written one of these in a couple weeks, there is a lot of ground to cover, so I won’t discuss every bet I have made (in truth, I haven’t discussed every bet I made in a week since about week #2). Just know that in addition to the bets mentioned below, I was much more active (I have laid a total of between 25 and 30 bets over the last few weeks).
If I don’t discuss it doesn’t mean it was a win or a loss, but rather it was unremarkable. Everyone likes motorcycle stunts – whether they succeed gloriously or crash spectacularly – so those are the ones worth looking back at.
NFL Week #16
Bet #1 – Tampa Bay (-3) vs St. Louis
In hindsight, the moment I tried to write a preview touting this pick and ended up denigrating the Bucs the entire time, I should have known it was doomed. I knew the Bucs had pretty much laid down and quit on Greg Schiano yet I couldn’t imagine they finding a way to lose to the Rams at home. What I didn’t count on was Josh Freeman deciding to complete more passes to the Rams defense (4 interceptions) than his own receivers. I guess that is one way to show your new coach that you respect him as much as you respected the last guy that got fired. Despite this wasted money, I maintain my pride in recognizing that this Bucs team was a fraud even as they started the season well. Luminaries like Peter King, who has been around the NFL forever can close their eyes because a coach gives a good quote and heap praise on him but in the process have to forget every similar precedent that has come before. I don’t.
Bet #2 – Washington (-6.5) at Philadelphia
It’s funny how things work out. The revised system I have been tinkering with loved the Skins so I bet this yet I hated this pick a day after betting it. I didn’t like I got Washington at a high number (it had been -5.5). I started to remember that the Eagles had started playing better recently under Nick Foles, even winning at Tampa. I didn’t like the hype accompanying a rookie QB going on the road to a division rival. Everything screamed let down. I came into that Sunday resigned to losing this but assuming my other bets would off-set it. Then Washington held on for a 7 point win with a last second goal line stand and this bet ended up being the only win on the day for me while kicking me in the gut once again for thinking the Bucs were anything but frauds that checked out weeks ago.
Pre-New Year’s Weekend Bowls
Bet #3 – Poinsettia Bowl: BYU vs San Diego State Under (49)
Over/Unders have been a scourge for me all season. Outside of a couple rare occasions, all season I seemed to find a way to be on the wrong side of these bets. If you need your team to score a bunch of points, there was no better way to ensure that happens than have me take the Under. But, strangely, in the bowl season that has changed. Call it the accumulation of a few weeks off, unfamiliarity with new foes, indifference at playing in bowls or jitters on a big stage for some of these teams, but betting Unders has been my profitable strategy this bowl season and it started with BYU and San Diego State. Remember that BYU beat Utah State 6-3, a Utah State team that averaged 34.9 points per season. I actually went out to eat dinner before halftime of this game and never seriously worried I would lose this bet. For the record BYU won 23-6, but whatever…yeay Cougars.
Bet #4 – Holiday Bowl: UCLA (-1) vs Baylor
In the days leading up to the Holiday Bowl, well after I had laid this bet, the line climbed up to around UCLA -2.5, so I was feeling pretty good getting in early and being on the side of the money. Clearly I wasn’t alone in thinking UCLA would handle Baylor. Which I guess is some sort of consolation – it means I am not the only idiot out there. UCLA got absolutely pounded by a Baylor team that had shown a defense exactly once all season. Looking for a spin on this game in hindsight, I would argue that Art Briles is a smart enough coach to have adjusted his bowl planning from last year’s 67-56 scoring buffet against Washington while Jim Mora, Jr. has never coached in college and has therefore never planned out a bowl preparation schedule. That is the logical answer. The emotional answer is that UCLA beat USC and almost won the Pac-12 and after that just couldn’t be bothered to care at all about this game. L.A. types always look down on those from the heartland.
NFL Week #17
Bet #5 – Indianapolis Moneyline (+250) vs Houston
Technically this was probably a horrible bet. Indianapolis was playing for nothing – having locked into the #5 seed for the playoffs while Houston needed to win this game to maintain the #1 seed and get a playoff bye. The difference in motivation for two relatively equal teams (they had played a close game that Houston won in Houston just a couple weeks ago), should have tilted toward the Texans, which is why they were nearly 7 point favorites. But little of this Colts season has made much sense. My guess is that sportswriters across the country have already inundated Colts owner Jim Irsay with requests to write a story about this Colts season – envisioning getting to cash movie royalties from their own personal The Blind Side. Coach Chuck Pagano’s battle with leukemia. Peyton Manning leaving. Rookie Andrew Luck leading a remarkable turn-around. The movie writes itself. So, of course, playing at home in Pagano’s first game back, against a division rival, the Colts weren’t going to lay down like Schiano’s Bucs. Luck could have sat on the bench for the 2nd half and no one would have complained. Yet, he was in there and he helped led the Colts to the win – pushing the Texans to the #3 seed and into a game next weekend. The movie could end no other way.
(Especially as I have the sneaking suspicion the Colts fairytale ends in Baltimore this week.)
Bet #6 – 2nd Half : Denver (-6.5) vs Kansas City
Bet #7 – 2nd Half Parlay: Denver (-6.5), San Francisco (-7) vs Arizona
Trying to find a feel for Week #17, I had teased 3 big underdogs (Chiefs, Panthers, Cardinals), relaying on the assumption that home favorites would come out and play just well enough to win without worrying about the big spreads (Chiefs and Cardinals were at +17 or more). The Panthers had won out-right in New Orleans early in the day, and the Cardinals came out strong at Candlestick while the Chiefs came out completely flat in Denver. At the half, the Broncos held a comfortable lead and looked like they could expand it at will. The Niners had awoken and looked poised to dominate the second half, so I essentially called my tease dead and bet both of these as a hedge in recognition of the flow of the game. Sure enough, the two better teams came out and continued to dominate after half both expanding their leads and easily winning both these bets for me.
New Year’s Eve and Day Bowls
Bet #8 – Sun Bowl: USC vs Georgia Tech Under (63)
Bet #9 – Sun Bowl: Parlay: Georgia Tech (+8), Under (63)
The only person that appeared less interested in being in El Paso for the Sun Bowl than USC coach Lane Kiffin was CBS announcer Gary Daneilson, whose brain chip malfunctions any time he can’t spend three hours fluffing the SEC during a football telecast. This over/under seemed to assume the same high powered Trojan offense and toothless Tech defense would come to El Paso. USC without Matt Barkley, playing in a windy stadium and against an opponent, I am pretty sure they only scouted by watching their fictitious game in a 20 year old film, had no offense. Tech’s defense has secretly improved at least a little after firing defensive coordinator Al Groh. The Under was never in doubt and neither was a GT line where they could even lose by a touchdown and still win the bet. Winning the game by two touchdowns works just fine too. Just know that watching this awful game has ensured Danielson will never give credit to a good team from the Pac-12, so in essence I think we were all losers.
Bet #10 – South Carolina (-4.5) vs Michigan
After winning 3 of my 4 bets on New Year’s Eve bowl games, I ended up only winning 1 of 4 on New Year’s Day itself. However I was still up across the two days, thanks to betting more heavily on games on which I felt confident and keeping bets low on others. The Sun Bowl and the Chick-Fil-A Bowls saw big bets. The New Year’s Day games saw smaller bets because I just didn’t have a good feeling on most of the games. I bet this because I hadn’t been impressed by Michigan much this year and The Ol’ Ball Coach has built a solid and balanced team in South Carolina that was one turnover fueled implosion in Gainesville from being in the national title conversation. Despite Jadeveon Clowney, almost killing a man, this game remained close throughout. Thankfully, a lunch time engagement kept me from watching the second half of the game until immediately after S. Carolina scored a touchdown with 11 seconds remaining to win by five. While I know it was entertaining, I am fine missing out on the stress of having my bet hanging in the balance the entire game.
After taking a week off from handicapping this was an interesting lesson in gambling 101. Had I bet early I would have gotten S. Carolina at -6 and lost my bet. I waited, bought at the bottom of the market and won (Note: the same thing occurred in the Rose Bowl with Stanford opening as a 6.5 favorite, closing as a 4 point favorite and winning by 6). I wish I could claim some great strategy fueled this win, but it was just the lack of focus on this game until just before New Year’s. And luck.
But, opening a new year with a win driven by buying at the right number was a good way to re-focus after a holiday week. Better than learning the lesson by being on the wrong side.