- Eight playoff teams didn't make the postseason a year ago, and four of those teams didn't make it in any of the past eight years. What the unprecedented season meant for Vegas, and means for the playoff odds
On Saturday, the Titans will return to the playoffs for the first time in 3,283 days. It’s been eight long years for Tennessee—tying a franchise-record drought set from 1970-77, when they were the Houston Oilers. “I never thought I’d see the playoffs, honestly,” said linebacker Brian Orakpo, in his third season with the Titans after starting his career with six playoff-less seasons in Washington. So the scene in their locker room on Sunday, after clinching a postseason spot with a win over Jacksonville in the regular-season finale, was “magical,” in the words of safety Kevin Byard, and that was before left guard Quinton Spain elevated the evening by dropping to one knee.
And yet Tennessee’s long overdue return is, what, the fifth most extraordinary storyline heading into this year’s playoff field? The sixth?!
Buffalo’s unlikely berth has stolen headlines, but hardly anything about this year’s crop is normal. Based on the Las Vegas preseason odds, this combination of 12 teams (at 60,000/1) is six times as unlikely as the recent average, and twice as unlikely as any field going back to 2009. Only two divisions were won by preseason favorites. We’ve seen the most playoff turnover since 2003 (eight teams) and, for the first time in NFL history, four teams end playoff gaps of at least eight years (Titans, Bills, Jaguars, Rams). Meanwhile, dry spells started in Seattle, Dallas, Green Bay and Oakland as four of the top six preseason favorites are sitting at home for the first time since ’09 (as far back as sportsoddshistory.com was able to provide complete data).
Disappointing behemoths represent bad news for the NFL’s broadcast arm, but just the opposite for Las Vegas’s NFL division as many of the most popular teams fell far short of the heavily bet preseason over/under win mark. “This year was a good year for us,” says Jay Kornegay, the VP of Sports Book Operations at the Westgate Las Vegas. “A handful of marquee teams really struggled . . . It’s nice to see some fresh blood in the playoffs.”
Last year, a trend developed throughout the season as bettors put money on the Patriots and whoever played Cleveland (propositions that were a combined 25-6-1). During the offseason, the Westgate took more money from fans betting the Browns would not get to five wins (with the sportsbook’s manager saying at the time, “With all the draft picks they got, how can Cleveland possibly play to the level they did last year? It would almost be impossible.”) As Cleveland headed towards 0-16 and New England cruised again, the same betting strategy as last year would have netted a 23-9 record in 2017.
But the house made back money elsewhere, as only one of the other seven most commonly bet over/under plays cashed (Vikings over). Along the way, Kornegay has developed a soft spot for the Bills in particular, even if their late entry into the playoffs forced his staff to redo their playoff odds. “We had a booth of Buffalo fans in our book—about 12 of them,” Kornegay said. “It looked like they won the Super Bowl Sunday . . . I had forgotten how exciting that is just to make the playoffs.”
Still, his staff doesn’t see much hope for the Bills now, posting them as the longest shot to win it at all at 100/1. As for who could still create chaos, the Rams, who started the year at 100/1 to win Super Bowl LII, are now 10/1, the best odds of any team playing this weekend. If they were to win three straight, L.A. would be the biggest surprise champion since . . . the Rams. Kornegay was at the Imperial Palace at the time, when only three bettors put money on the Rams and some guy named Kurt Warner at 200-1 in 1999.
With a wide-open NFC and three newcomer AFC entrants, the Patriots have held steady as the Super Bowl favorite, now going at 2/1 odds. Because even in a wild, strange, historically unpredictable year, there are still sure things.
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