As every degenerate gambler knows, you only have a handful of advantages over Vegas. You could have a friend who works for a professional team. You could know another student who plays for your college team. You could possess inside dirt along the lines of "Dick Bavetta is reffing that Knicks playoff game tonight." You could own a Sports Almanac from the future like Biff Tannen. Or ...
You could have the first two weeks of the NFL season.
For two glorious weeks, Vegas has no idea. They're setting random lines and praying they don't get hammered -- like the classic "Your guess is as good as ours" line for the Minnesota-Dallas game (4½, Vegas's way of throwing its hands in the air). With exhibition season as meaningless as ever -- the Patriots did everything short of playing the Wahlberg brothers at running back -- the casinos can only rely on history and word of mouth, just like everyone else. Are the Panthers as good as they were last year? Are the Seahawks ready to make The Leap? Are the Ravens and Chiefs a little worse off? Is Vinny Testaverde completely washed-up, or just 98.725 percent washed-up? There's no way to know.
And that's how you take advantage. I spent the last three weeks watching every possible show, reading every possible magazine, scouring the web for information, then targeting a Belichick-like game plan for the season. Because there is a science to this. As far as comprehensive-yet-effective strategies go, it's no different than Billy Beane with Moneyball, John Henry with hedge funds, or Rob Tracy with college hoop recruits on Whatifsports.com.
In fact, I'm about to unveil my own strategy for football gambling, all for the low price of $0.00. Just for fun, we'll call it "Simbotics."
(As Jim Nantz would say, "What a moment!" When I'm hawking Simbotics tapes in 3 a.m. infomercials four years from now, you can say you knew me when. I want to be like a cross between Stu Feiner, Anthony Robbins and the great Tom Vu. Remember Tom Vu? You want fancy car? You want beautiful women? Come take my seminar! He was the best. Also responsible for my stepdad's greatest bad joke of all-time: "You know his brother, Deja?" I miss that guy. Anyway ...)
To practice Simbotics, before the NFL season starts, you need to figure out ...
A. Six playoff teams headed for a fall.
B. Six also-rans ready to take their place.
C. Five return playoff teams, including at least one ready to make The Leap.
D. Four frisky mini-sleepers (teams better than people think)
E. Five reverse mini-sleepers (teams worse than people think)
F. Five doormats (teams that just plain suck)
G. One juggernaut that will rise above everyone else (starting in early-November at the latest).
Those seven groups add up to 32. Pretty simple. And for the first few weeks of the season, until everything shakes out, you wager accordingly. Stick to your guns.
Here was my list heading into the season, as documented in last week's two-part preview (Part 1, Part 2). Remember, at the time, I couldn't come up with a sixth playoff team that would drop out this year ... so I KNEW someone from Group C was fishy. I just didn't know which team. You'll know once you see the group.
Group A: Dallas, KC, Baltimore, St. Louis and Denver.
Group B: Washington, Minnesota, Oakland, Pittsburgh and the Jets.
Group C: Indy, Carolina, Green Bay, Philly, Tennessee, and Seattle (the Leap Team).
Group D: Cleveland, Houston, San Fran, Detroit.
Group E: Buffalo; Jacksonville; New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati.
Group F: NY Giants, Chicago, San Diego, Miami, Arizona.
Group G: New England.
As it turned out, I finished 11-4-1 against the spread last week ... and only because of the above list. Looking back, I was dead-wrong about one team.
That's right ... the elusive Sixth Playoff Dropper-Outer.
All the signs were there with Carolina, I just missed them: Tons of good fortune last season, tougher schedule, a suspiciously low Vegas over-under of 8.5, the genuine possibility that Green Bay and Seattle were the two best NFC teams last January (and Carolina avoided playing them both). It wasn't just that the Panthers played poorly against Green Bay on Monday night. The Packers killed them. They did anything they wanted in that game -- it was like watching Johan Santana pitch to Cesar Crespo. Throw in Steve Smith's left fibula pulling a Theismann, as well as a three-steps-beyond-shaky offensive line, and Carolina looks like a hot craps player who stuck around at the table a little too long.
Important note: There's an 80-percent chance I was wrong about San Diego and Houston as well, but that was one of those weird games (27-20, Chargers) where something goofy happened to Houston every time it was taking control of the game (including two back-breaking Davis fumbles). Nice win for the Chargers, no question ... but as the Wolf said in Pulp Fiction, "Let's not start (expletive) each other's (expletive) yet."
(Sorry we had to censor a classic quote, but you get the point. Believe me, it hurt me as much as it hurt you.)
Hey, I'm not saying things won't change in Week 2. I can't stand the slate this week -- too many road favorites, two many weird matchups, not enough lively home dogs. If someone offered me 9-7 right now, I'd probably take it. Even Vegas seems confused. They royally screwed up with their opening Colts-Titans line -- Tennessee by 2 1/2, Indy +120 to win outright -- which will drop to a "pick 'em" by game-time, mainly because it's impossible to imagine a team as good as the Colts starting out 0-2. And I'm not crazy about the Titans either.
But if you keep your faith in Simbotics, you should be fine. You want fancy car? You want beautiful women? Check out my Week 2 picks ...
Home teams in caps
RAVENS (-3.5) over Steelers
As much as I like the 2004 Steelers, and as much as I dislike the 2004 Ravens ... I'm not ready to take Tommy Maddox on the road against a good defense. This feels like one of those Ray Lewis Games -- you know, those ones where he knows they need a win at home, so he pulls a Pele in "Victory" with the pregame speech, then tosses up one of those crazy 19-tackle games, replete with a few Madsen dances. Miked up the entire time, of course. God forbid we go a week without hearing Lewis scream "That's how it's done, baby!" 50 times.
(As for Deion's comeback, thank God Baltimore isn't playing the Raiders ... I think a washed-up Deion covering a washed-up Jerry Rice would have been like seeing Andrew Stevens and Shannon Tweed going at it on Cinemax, only in a 2004 release. You just couldn't bounce back from seeing something like that.)
Rams (+2) over FALCONS
On Sunday morning, my buddy Hench and I were watching all the early games at the same time. Seems impossible, right? I'm telling you, we did it. You can still get a feel for every game. The key is to concentrate on four or five games, flick around during any commercials, and immediately knock games out of the rotation once somebody takes a 14-point lead. Anyway, we were like Maverick and Goose -- I was operating the remote, he was barking out instructions any time I slipped ("Go back to 706, the Seahawks had a third down coming up!"), as we tried to catch as many plays as possible.
Here's why I'm mentioning this: It's amazing how you can watch 10 games at once and feel like you're not missing much. One time, we turned to the Saints game right as they were showing a replay of an Aaron Brooks near-INT, as the announcer said, "I'm not sure what Brooks was thinking with that pass." Good to see things have changed with old Brooksie. Another time, we turned to the Rams-Cards right as somebody said, "That was just a curious decision by Mike Martz."
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
With that said, I think the Falcons are the most overvalued team in the league right now -- they could have squandered that Niners game about 100 different ways, even though Rattay had a separated shoulder and Dorsey was concussed (I love that word). Something doesn't look right with them. Vegas hasn't realized it yet.
(One more thing: Stephen Jackson is even better than advertised. Not to pull a Dierdorf here, but I'm not so sure he isn't better than Faulk right now. Should be interesting to see how this plays out. And no, I'm not mentioning this just so Cowboys fans will start banging their heads against their desks. Although they should probably start thinking about it. Hey, speaking of the Cowboys ... )
Browns (+4) over COWBOYS
Two teams headed in opposite directions. And what about Jeff Garcia? He's jumping into the Dawg Pound, girls are fighting over him in bars, the city loves him ... if this were Teen Wolf, he'd be surfing on the top of Styles's van right now.
Panthers (+6) over CHIEFS
Toughest game on the board. I don't like either of these teams. At all. Have you noticed that the Chiefs have the exact same problem as the Ravens? They can't throw the ball, they can't play from behind, and they don't have a single WR who can make a play. Contain Holmes or Lewis, get a lead and you're beating either team. Throw in the fact that the Chiefs D is like the Bizarro Ravens D and I don't understand this KC affection at all. That's a 5-11 team with one great player. What's the difference between them and San Diego? Seriously, you tell me.
(Waiting ... )
(Waiting ... )
Couldn't come up with an answer, huh? Me neither. As for the Panthers, there's a decent chance that they aren't as bad as they looked against Green Bay -- maybe the Packers are much better than we realize. Or maybe the Panthers are much worse than we realize. I'm taking the Panthers for the "Banged-up playoff team reaching deep for one last gut-check win before fading into obscurity" potential.
(As for the Smith injury, I have an unbelievable roto story about this, but it's too soon. I need another week to regroup.)
Patriots (-8) over CARDINALS
PACKERS (-9) over Bears
I'm with Kornheiser: There are some genuine parallels to Elway-TD and Favre-Green. I still don't think you can win a Super Bowl with Aging Favre as your main guy, just like I never thought you could win a Super Bowl with Aging Elway as your main guy. But as a second banana who only had to make three or four big plays a game? Absolutely. And that's a pretty tough Packers team -- even tougher now that Vanilli has ended his holdout.
SAINTS (-7.5) over Niners
This would have been my upset special if the Niners didn't have banged-up QBs, especially when those same QBs weren't too inspiring to begin with. By the way, if you play QB for San Fran, does that automatically increase your chances of getting a concussion by 700 percent? What would happen if Eric Lindros took a few snaps for them? Would his head explode like the guy from "Scanners?"
Quick Saints note: Earlier this week, I was watching that "Sounds of the Game" show on the NFL channel, the one where they show some of the post-game locker room speeches. I was hoping for some Denny Green magic, which didn't happen, although Herm Edwards came pretty darn close. Anyway, Holmgren was talking to the Seahawks after the game, and he went out of his way to mention something along the lines of "That was a very good team we just beat; they're gonna win some games." Didn't seem gratuitous, either. So there's a decent chance that the Saints aren't nearly as bad as they looked last week -- maybe it was another one of those "Maybe the other team was just THAT good" games.
(With that said, remember one of the basic rules of gambling: Never, under any circumstances, stick a Jim Haslett/Aaron Brooks team in a two-team teaser. Don't do it. Don't do it. Stop. Don't even think it. I know the Saints and Chiefs look enticing when you drop them down by six points each. I know. It's tough. Just hold off. Trust me.)
LIONS (-3) over Texans
Houston gives me the heebie-jeebies after that Chargers game, when they looked like the definition of a poorly-coached team. Take it from someone who watched Pete Carroll trying to coach professional athletes for four straight years -- once you've endured The Signs of Perpetual Sloppiness (great movie title!) as a football fan, you will always be able to spot them with other teams. And yes, I'm starting to think Dom Capers drew up the plans for the Light Rail.
(Hey, here's a question: Is Charles Rogers's collarbone officially threatening to replace Fred Taylor's groin as the most unreliable body part in the league? Or does Freddie's groin have one more tug left in it? And where does Ken Griffey's hamstring fit into this? Okay, that was three questions.)
Jets (-3) over CHARGERS
J ... E ... T ... S ... JETS JETS JETS!
J ... E ... T ... S ... JETS JETS JETS!
(In 18-point font!)
J ... E ... T ... S ... JETS JETS JETS!
BENGALS (-5) over Dolphins
Some random thoughts: This looks like the game where Carson Palmer officially enters the "Take him at home, go against him on the road" stage ... if the Bengals D keeps playing like this (nearly 500 rushing yards allowed in the past two regular season games), we may need to re-evaluate the Marvin Lewis Era and wonder if he was just lucky to coach Ray Lewis for a few years (much like Byron Scott and J-Kidd) ... is Dave Wannstedt just using Microsoft Office to work on his resume, or did he buy a specific program?
(Wait, there's more!)
When your team has a QB controversy, and the two names involved in that controversy are Jay Fiedler and A.J. Feeley, there's roughly a 100-percent chance that I'm going against you on the road every week ... if you had a choice between finishing 3-13 and keeping your third-round pick, or finishing 4-12 and moving that pick for Lamar Gordon, wouldn't you just keep the pick and take your lumps? ... from a team chemistry standpoint, Jon Kitna has to be the best backup QB on the planet (did you see him leaping around after the Palmer-Johnson bomb?) ... not even Mitch "Blood" Green in his prime had as many gold teeth as Chad Johnson right now.
(Which reminds me: How do you go about getting gold teeth? Do you have to go to a special dentist? Could I go into my dentist's office right now and casually say, "Hey, I'm thinking about adding 12 18-carat gold caps on my teeth; can you schedule me an appointment?" How does this work?)
Redskins (-3) over GIANTS
Strange line of the week. Forget about Portis and Gibbs... that's a GOOD Redskins defense. They could cover this Giants line by themselves. Speaking of Portis, every time Hench and I turned that game on, poor Portis was running through the tackles and getting gang-tackled by five guys. They're not really using him like John Riggins all season, are they? Is that really the plan? Could someone explain to Joe Gibbs that Clinton Portis isn't John Riggins? Before he gets broken in half?
RAIDERS (-3.5) over Bills
Heard last summer: "Hi, I'd like to place an order for the Juvenation Machine please? Last name is Gannon. Sure, I'll hold ..."
(And by the way, that Bills collapse last week was like one of those "Unrecoverable Error" messages that Microsoft sends. How do you bounce back from that one? They squandered points in the Red Zone because Bledsoe pulled his typical Bledsoe stuff (including a horrendous sack on third down with a wide-open guy for the game-clinching TD. Then they forget to double-team Jimmy Smith on fourth-and-14 in the final two minutes. Then they allow the first-ever Hail Mary from inside the 6-yard line. Same old Bills. Are we sure Gregg Williams left? We saw him leave, right?)
JAGUARS (+3) over Broncos
I'm not crazy about this Jags team. Believe me. But this has to be the dumbest line of the week. I mean ...
Did you SEE Jake Plummer's lefthanded interception from his own end zone?
You saw that, right? Well, the guy is almost 30 years old!!!!! He's not changing! He's never changing!!!! He's like one of those prep school friends who never gets a real job and lives in his parents's guest house for a few years, and you're thinking, "He'll get it together at some point," and then you look up one day and he's 32. That's Jake Plummer. It's not happening. It's never happening.
Seahawks (-3) over BUCS
I like this Seahawks team. During these first few weeks, you're always looking for that breakout team that just lays the smack down on opponents, like the Rams in '99, the Vikes in '98, or even the Chiefs last season. That was one of those "Lay the smack down" games in New Orleans; the Saints were never in that one. Good sign if you're a Seahawks fan. Of course, if Shaun Alexander pulls a Boobie Miles in this game, all bets are off.
(As for Tampa ... yikes. I think they brought in Garner and Galloway so Brad Johnson wouldn't feel quite as washed-up. This team is going to be like an over-40 softball team. Imagine the announcer saying, "As for the Bucs, Tim Brown is inactive today -- he threw out his back raking leaves on Thursday. Also, Charlie Garner is listed as questionable -- he rolled an ankle playing H-O-R-S-E with his 17 year-old son.")
EAGLES (-3) over Vikings
Here's how I would describe the Terrell Owens Era in Philly: Let's say you have a buddy who's dating a crazy chick. You know she's crazy. Hell, HE knows she's crazy. But everything is cool for a few weeks, to the point that people start saying, "All right, maybe she really isn't crazy, maybe she's gotten her act together.
And then a few weeks pass ... and she turns into a complete lunatic. She makes Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" look like Mrs. Cleaver. Just like you thought. Your poor buddy can't get out fast enough. And you're looking back in disbelief that you suckered yourself into this thing working out.That's T.O. It's only a matter of time.
But for this week? We're still in the honeymoon phase.
Colts (+1) over TITANS
This is a Geoff Gallo Game. Back when Gallo and I were rooming together in Boston, we went to the Charlestown Dunkin Donuts every Sunday morning. We'd find one of the only tables that hadn't already been snapped up by 85-year-old loiterers or off-duty police officers, drink 90-ounce coffees, nibble on those frosted coffee roll thingies, and discuss the NFL lines like two military commanders planning an invasion.
Anyway, let's say he liked the Raiders. We would be sitting there studying the lines. Invariably, Gallo would glance up from his Boston Herald, shake his head, tilt back confidently and say, "I'm thinking about banging the Raiders. They're good, they're home, that line's too low ... you know what? Screw it, I'm banging 'em."
That's how I feel about that Colts team. With Edge in a contract year, with the new passing rules, with Manning and those receivers ... I mean, YIKES. They could go 15-1 this season and I wouldn't be surprised. As long as they don't have to play a close game, they'll be fine -- they're like those Blazers teams from the early-'90s. Plus, that Titans offense is already pretty banged up, and McNair hasn't even had his first injury of the year.
Screw it, I'm banging 'em. No way they start out 0-2.
Last week's record: 11-4-1.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.