Opening day is the most serious time for upsets. Everyone knows that because I just made it up myself. The only form chart is what's been scraped together from the results of the exhibition games. No one knows whether or not the hotshot rookies can really play, or if they've just been making their reputation against reserves.
Now that's the way it's supposed to work out but it didn't last year. Form held up, despite all those TV geniuses who love to spout off about the "wacky world" of whatever. If you'd have taken the underdog on opening day '07, you'd have cashed a winner on only five of the 16 games. But there was one fluky contest in there, and since it comes up again on Sunday, let's look at it a little closer.
On opening day 2007 Jacksonville was favored by 7, at home, against the Titans, a higher number than usual between these two eventual AFC wild card teams, but logical. The Titans took it, straight up, 13-10, setting a club record of 282 yards rushing. Go figure? Tennessee never had run for a number like that. The Jags, who ended up a respectable 11th against the run, never had given up that much.
They met again in November in Tennessee. Both were hustling for wild card berths, but the Jags were missing their quarterback, David Garrard, out with a sprained ankle. Worse yet, his back-up, Quinn Gray, had sprained an ankle the week before against the Saints, and the No. 3 guy, Todd Bouman, hadn't left the bench all year. Time to tap out on the Titans, right? Especially since the number favoring them was a meager 4 ½. Make that a trap number.
Jacksonville won it in a breeze, 28-13, intercepting Vince Young twice, stopping the Titan runners cold, sending their own little Maurice Jones-Drew over 100 yards, and generally enjoying themselves throughout. And now this strange match-up presents itself again, and in handicapping contests such as this, I rely on a formula.
If a line looks out of line, go against your own logic and assume that Vegas knows more than you do. Don't fall into their trap. In setting my own price, I had Tennessee, at home, favored by 4 over the Jags, who had the same 3-1 exhibition record -- as if that means anything. The early line came up Jacksonville by 3, adjusted to 2 ½, and thus it became a no-brainer play on the Jags.
I'll give you another reason why I like the visiting Jags to cover. I think what's going to tip the balance is the pass rush. They sacked Young four times in their victory last year. The rest of the season they were below average in the sack department, and it killed them in the postseason loss to the Patriots. Gone is Marcus Stroud, their big boomer inside, but added are their top two draft choices, DE's Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves, both edge rushers. I think this will be a season dedicated to chasing enemy QB's.
They'll send it in against Young and give him a rough afternoon. Their own David Garrard will throw for 250, the running game will pick up another 150, and Jacksonville, as a roadie, will put a W on the board and, yes, will cover the meager spread. Next time around --in Jacksonville -- why it'll be a completely different story, of course. Who ever said this is easy?
As I explained, this is a formula pick. Many thousands of readers have written in, lined up outside my house, clawed at the windows, all of them avid to find out, "What's a formula pick? What's the formula?" I've written about it for many years, explained it in detail, still folks don't catch on, so this will be my annual, "Here's the formula," column, and if you miss it, you're going to have to wait another year to catch up.
In fact, what I'm going to do in this first, mysterious week of the season, is to give you nothing except for picks that fall into the formula category. There will be little thought involved, the kind of thing I briefly fell into when handicapping Jags-Titans -- you know, pass rush and sacking and so forth. Just numbers, and let's see what happens.
So here's the formula, and by law I must print this disclaimer that the following information can be used only for research purposes, or purely for amusement, such as if you get into a handicapping contest with your grandmother or loony old aunt, and by no means can it be used for actual bets, offshore, onshore, with a bookie, with a neighborhood hustler, to finance a trip to Vegas, or any other no no's. OK, we all straight on this?
On Sunday, a week before the main slate of games, I set my own price. This must be done quickly, without too much deep thought, without a clever eye toward what you figure the oddsmakers are going to come up with. Then the opening line comes out that night, later adjusted during the week. If the opening line, or in some cases the adjusted line, falls three or more points away from my own line, I turn around and go their way. This is what people find hard to understand. I go against my own pick, with the pros, away from the idiots, of which I am first in line. I don't fall into the trap.
Traps are the reason, I believe, why in most of the handicapping boxes you see in the newspaper, the consensus, is always under .500, the guessing average, the percentage you'd come up with if you had 10 old ladies doing it with hatpins. And the guys in the paper are supposed to be experts. But they fall into traps. Bookies don't make their real money on the vigorish, the vig, I firmly believe. They make it on traps.
Many years ago, when the late Sonny Reizner of the Castaways in Vegas had taken over from Bob Martin as The Man out there, the No.1 handicapper, the guy who set the most seriously regarded opening line, I had a long talk with him about what I've just laboriously explained to you. My formula, based on a trap line. He had a good laugh.
"A wiseguy system," he said. "You think we don't have our share of wiseguys out here? I'll tell you what. You come out here and play your wiseguy system. I'll send a limo to meet your plane."
Well, I don't care. I still think the system makes sense. It was 64 percent winners last year -- against the spread. But then, ahem, it was below .500 the year before, but I think I've figured out the problem. I was trying too hard to guess what Vegas would do, rather than going, slambang, with my first thought. I mean the thing is still being adjusted, looking ahead to that day when I retire and go out to Vegas for the football season and actually play the system for real money, rather than making the "mind bets" I do now.
You understand, of course, that this is an opening week column, overlong, to set up what I will refer to, from week to week, as a "formula pick," or "system pick," or the like. The columns from now on will be shorter, I promise you, and devoted to real football and not the cobwebs of my mental rooftops. This week's system games:
• Bengals at Ravens. I had Ravens by 3. Opening line, pick-em, moved up to Bengals by 1½. Variance -- 4 ½. Cincy is the play. There is an asterisk here. When I set my price, I didn't realize that all the Ravens quarterbacks except Flacco were kaput. This calls for some deep thought so maybe we'll just exclude this from the normal, run of the mill handicapping, formula-wise.
• Seahawks at Bills. I liked Seattle, giving 3. I mean Jason Peters is still out, so the Hawks' rush figures to kill young Trent Edwards. Opening line, Seattle, giving 1, which meant it was not within the formula, but then it moved to Bills, giving 1, which brought it in. So the system play is on Buffalo, but not if the late line moves in Seattle's favor (are you following all this? Sometimes I wonder).
• Chiefs at Patriots. I had the Patriots over the Chiefs by 14. I mean Tom Brady's foot and all that. It opened at 16 ½, flirted briefly with 17 (Formula! Formula!) then dropped to 16. A non-play, unless it goes up again, or plummets drastically.
• Jags at Titans I've talked about. It's up to Jags minus 3 now, which puts it 7 points away from my own line, an almost unheard of variance. This becomes a tap out game, under my system.
• Cardinals at Niners. Finally, I had the Niners, at home, favored by 3 over the Cardinals, embroiled in that Matt Leinart-Kurt Warner soap opera. A no-brainer for me. The line's always around 3 points when these traditional powers meet. Whoa, hello there! Cards opened minus 2 ½ and haven't budged, except to flutter briefly at 3. Bingo, formula. Slam dunk play on Arizona.
Dear Website readers. No one wants to turn a nice, family publication into a tout sheet. But with absolutely no past performances to go on, how's an honest handicapper to come up with something sensible on opening day? I'll settle down in weeks to come, I promise.