Note from the Sports Guy: The first version of this column was posted on my old bostonsportsguy.com website (January, 1998), with the second version running right here on ESPN.com (January, 2002) and the third version running last year (January, 2004). So here's "NFL Playoff Manifesto 4.0," which includes the latest updated names/theories from last year's playoffs.
- "We've come too far to stop now. For Granny ... for Nate ...
[long pause] ... for Caretaker ... let's do it."
-- Paul Crewe
Back in 1991, my buddy Geoff and I created The System, a template of gambling rules that rose from the wreckage of a catastrophic NFL playoffs. At the time, we were worried that somebody would pull a Kathy Bates, break our legs and turn us into James Caan from "Misery." Fortunately, we nailed a few "makeup" bets and escaped relatively unscathed. My mom didn't even suspect anything when I asked her for an extra $500 during the second semester of my junior year because I wanted to "join a gym."
Put it this way: You learn the most about yourself when your back is pressed against the wall -- or in this case, when somebody's holding you upside down by your legs over a seventh-floor hotel balcony. Yes, Geoff and I have been to hell and back in the NFL playoffs. There's no doubt about it. As Boomer Esiason once said, "The best adjective that describes these guys is ... is ... resiliency."
Maybe it took a few years, but we finally worked out the kinks. Things peaked during the 2001 Playoffs, as we went 6-1 during the first three rounds and nailed all three Super Bowl bets: The Ravens straight-up, a parlay (Ravens + the over), and even a random "Who will score the first TD?" bet (on "the field," thanks to Brandon Stokely). Everything went our way. And maybe we aren't savvy veterans along the lines of Robert Horry, Mike Timlin and Herschel Savage, but we're getting there. During the 2004 Playoffs, you may remember my picking the winners of all 11 games, running the slate in Round 1 and finishing 8-3 against the spread. And it's all because of the system.
Without further ado, here are 15 timeless gambling rules for the NFL postseason:
|RULES TO LIVE (AND DIE) BY|
Want to see these rules in motion?
Check out the Sports Guy's picks for the opening weekend in the NFL playoffs.
RULE NO. 1: Never, ever, EVER back a crappy QB on the road
More important than every other rule combined. Crappy QBs become infinitely more crappy in the playoffs -- without exceptions -- because their shakiest qualities become magnified against a quality defense and a rowdy playoff crowd. If you need further evidence, harken back to the archives for every one of Scott Mitchell's playoff performances in the mid-'90s, which will be released next month with deleted scenes and director's commentary from Mitchell, Wayne Fontes and Rusty Hilger.
More recent examples from the past few seasons: Jay Fiedler in Oakland, '99; Jon Kitna against Miami, '99; Shawn King in Philly, '00; Vinny Testaverde in Oakland, '01; Elvis Grbac in Pittsburgh, '02; Tommy Maddox in Tennessee, '03; Jake Plummer in Indy, '04; Quincy Carter in Carolina, '04; Anthony Wright against Tennessee, '04 (special exemption here: Wright was home, but the fact that he's Anthony Wright trumped any possible home-field advantage).
RULE NO. 2: When in doubt, seek out the popular opinion and go the other way
If the general public could pick games, bookies wouldn't be driving Lexuses around town with giant wreaths on them. When Geoff and I were relative neophytes, our first great gambling moment happened during the '90 playoffs, when we went against the grain and grabbed the underdog Redskins in Philly. Everyone loved the Eagles to win the title that season ... and if Randall Cunningham was as good in real life as he was in Tecmo Bowl, it would have happened. Undaunted, we jumped on the 'Skins ... and they cruised to a 20-6 upset. I still remember the score.
Three good tricks for this one:
A. Follow the movement on the lines from Monday to the weekend. If anything moves substantially -- by a point or more -- that means the majority of gamblers are backing that team. And you know what that means.
B. Watch "Inside the NFL," check out the gambling section in Friday's New York Post, then watch the pregame shows. If everyone seems to be siding with one team, something's probably up. Remember last year's Other Way Game, when Indy destroyed Denver in Round 1? Everyone and their brother loved the Broncos that week.
C. Pick the worst gambler you know, find out who he's taking and go the other way. Never fails.
D. During the second or third round of the playoffs, there's always one team that looked a little TOO good the previous week and nobody can think rationally about them. For example, during the 2005 playoffs, everyone fell in love with the Falcons after they shellacked a shaky Rams team. Don't get sucked in.
RULE NO. 3: Before you select a team, make sure Marty Schottenheimer, Mike Tice, Mike Martz, Mike Sherman or Jim Mora Sr. isn't coaching them
Let the record show that I ignored this rule by taking the Chargers -7 over the Jets last season. The lesson, as always ... well, you knew already.
(Along those same lines ...)
RULE NO. 4: When in doubt, check out the coaching matchups
An easy rule of thumb: Before you make a selection, imagine you're watching the game and seeing one of those split-screen thingies with both coaches pacing the sidelines. Could you handle knowing that you backed the coach who looks like the overmatched doofus? For instance, six years ago, I took Miami over Buffalo simply because I didn't want to see a spilt-screen shot and know that I gambled on the doofus (Wade Phillips) over the guy who looked like a real coach (Jimmy Johnson). Sounds stupid? It worked. Buffalo doubled Miami's yardage and dominated the time of possession ... yet they still blew the game with four turnovers. Go figure.
RULE NO. 5: Don't bet heavily against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick under any circumstances
You might remember Barry Sanders, then Brett Favre owning this rule in their respective primes. Here's what I wrote way back in 1997: "Brett Favre is pure evil. Never, ever, ever load up against the Packers because of him. Just stay away. He's the one player who can single-handedly turn the tables on any team, much like Barry Sanders, John Elway and Dan Marino in their primes. As Scatman Crothers said to Danny Torrance in 'The Shining,' 'You stay away from Room 237 [and Brett Favre]! You hear me? Stay away!'"
Now the torch is passed to Brady and Belichick: A combined 9-0 in the playoffs, something like 345-1 in big games. Wager against them at your own risk.
RULE NO. 6: Ignore final records and concentrate on how the team finished the last five or six games of the season
This isn't the NBA, where contenders can coast for a few months and "turn it on" for the playoffs. In the NFL playoffs, you're always better off gravitating toward hot teams and away from hot-and-cold teams (like the 2003 Rams or Broncos), or teams that peaked too early in the season (like the 2003 Chiefs). You can't "turn it on" in the NFL. Doesn't happen. So when you see that the 2005 Bengals have lost their last two games by double digits apiece ... well ...
RULE NO. 7: When in doubt, research special teams and turnovers
Sounds dumb? The Patriots won the 2002 AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh thanks to touchdowns from a punt return and a blocked field goal, as well as Kordell Stewart giving them two huge picks down the stretch. Those things weren't accidents. The Pats had been making plays on special teams all season; Kordell had been killing the Steelers in big games for years. The funny thing is Steelers fans still complain about this game, like the Pats were somehow fortunate to win. Are you kidding me? That game was a microcosm of everything that was right and wrong with those two teams.
So here's what you do: Check out those two stats (special teams and turnovers) and remember that Pats-Steelers game, or even the Panthers-Rams game last January. In the playoffs, Little Things always end up becoming Big Things.
RULE NO. 8: Beware of the Road Favorite
If you're wagering on a Road Favorite in the playoffs, you better have a good reason ... and I mean, a really good reason, like "The Giants are heading into Chicago for Round 2, Rex Grossman just broke his ankle in five places while shoveling snow, and Kyle Orton and his 'Hand That Rocks The Cradle' beard is getting the start."
(Hey, that reminds me ... )
RULE NO. 9: Check out the backup QBs ...
And ask yourself one question: Are Vinny Testaverde, Tommy Maddox, Quincy Carter, Anthony Wright, Scott Mitchell, Cade McNown, Bubby Brister, Danny Kanell, Gus Frerotte, Mark Rypien, Spergeon Wynn, Stoney Case, the Huard brothers, the Detmer brothers, the McCown brothers, the Sklar Brothers, Dr. Jonathan Quinn, or anyone named "Billy Joe" involved in a "One hard hit to the starting QB, and they're quickly warming up on the sidelines" capacity?
(Note: This is like checking the safety on a gun.)
RULE NO. 10: Only pick an underdog or a road team if you're convinced it has a chance to win the game outright
This used to be the paragraph where I rattled off cool gambling stats for the first three rounds, trying to demonstrate how gamblers should gravitate toward home teams except for one underdog pick every round (two if you were really feeling it). Unfortunately, that logic was blown out of the water by Round 2 of the 2004 playoffs, when all four road teams inexplicably covered. So much for stats. In the age of parity, you can't play the percentages like that anymore. But here are two rules of thumb to remember:
A. At least one underdog covers every round. Always. This will never change.
B. If you're picking a road team to cover the spread, you better think it can win outright. For instance, here's what I wrote before talking myself into the Panthers over the Rams in January, 2004: "Don't get suckered into the Panthers on Saturday because you 'think they can keep it close.' You better believe they can knock Bulger around, move the ball with Stephen Davis, get some circus catches from Muhammad and Smith and come out of St. Louis with the Dubya. Or else take the Rams and lay the seven."
RULE NO. 11: Beware of the easy two-team teaser on the same day
I created this rule during the 2003 playoffs, after everyone and their brother teased the Jets (home against the Colts) and Packers (home against the Falcons) on the Saturday of Round 1. Well, the Gambling Gods didn't appreciate that ... so Michael Vick ended up having the game of his life in Lambeau. The same situation arose in Round 2 of the 2004 playoffs -- with the Pats (home against the Titans) and the Rams (home against the Panthers) -- and this time, I was ready:
"This Rams-Pats tease is those 'Britney Spears X-Rated Video: Click here!' e-mails. In other words, any time something looks too easy, it usually is. Something weird is gonna happen. And it won't be with the Pats."
What happened? The Rams lost to the Panthers. And a new gambling rule was born.
RULE NO. 12: Never bet heavily against a playoff team that has a coach and an owner whose last names both end in a vowel
A friend of a friend named Oaksie created this one three years ago, after San Fran pulled off two bizarre covers against Green Bay and Atlanta in the first two rounds (two games that smelled worse than Vlade Divac). Doesn't apply this season.
RULE NO. 13: Never bet too much money on your own team
Especially in the playoffs. If they lose, it's doubly excruciating and the collective devastation almost feels like a quadruple loss. Remember, gambling is supposed to be fun, despite how it turns out for every TV character.
(And I shouldn't need to remind you that you should never, ever, EVER wager against your own team. But I will, just for safety.)
RULE NO. 14: Don't try to be a hero, just try to win money
A new addition to the list. When the playoffs roll around, some gamblers have a tendency to get cute and go against the grain -- like with Jake and the Broncos last year-- so they talk themselves into stats like "Did you know the Broncos had the best time of possession mark of any team this season?" and "They could have been 14-2 with a couple of breaks," and suddenly you're going against Manning and the Colts at home like an idiot because you want to be a hero.
Here's a good rule of thumb: Take a deep breath and ask yourself one question: "If my life depended on this pick, would I still be making this bet?"
RULE NO. 15: Before you make your decisions, take one last look at the quarterbacks again
(Note: I update this ending with every version of the column. In version 1.0, we used Jon Kitna and the Seahawks. In version 2.0, we used Elvis Grbac and the Ravens. In version 3.0, we used Jake the Snake and the Broncos. This year? Chris Simms.
Imagine taking the Bucs in Chicago for Round 2:
They're down by seven points, there's 11 minutes left in the game, the Bucs are at their own 12-yard-line, the Bears fans are going crazy, it's 2 degrees with a minus-35 wind chill ... and Chris Simms is bending over center. He's 9-for-26 for 121 yards and three INTs, including one that Nathan Vasher brought back for a TD. You're PRAYING for Simms to hand off every down. And yet he's dropping back to pass again, and he's looking for Joey Galloway over the middle, but he has to rush the throw ...
Does that sound like a nightmare or what?
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.