Here’s why I often say it’s easier to beat Michael Phelps in the water and Usain Bolt on land—in the same day—than it is to successfully handicap the NFL: Last year in the NFC, five teams—Packers (15-1), 49ers (13-3), Saints (13-3), Lions (10-6) and Falcons (10-6)—dominated the conference. Not only that, but Green Bay, New Orleans and San Francisco scored huge at the betting window, combining to go 35-12-1 against the spread (according to stats at Covers.com). And yet who stormed through the NFC playoffs (beating the Falcons, Packers and 49ers) and won the Super Bowl (beating the 13-3 Patriots), covering the spread in all four games? The 9-7 Giants—the same Giants who lost twice to the last-place Redskins (by a combined score of 51-24), who were 6-6 in early December, who scored six fewer points than their opponents for the season, and who needed a Week 17 victory to even qualify for the playoffs.
And then there’s this number: 9½. That was the Giants’ projected win total in Vegas last summer. That’s right, if you placed a bet in the preseason on the Giants to go “over” 9½ wins and another on them to win the Super Bowl, you cashed one of those tickets. And now you know why I’m prematurely gray and a preferred customer at every liquor store in the Valley.
On to this week’s NFC East and NFC North win total predictions. (Note: For this exercise, I used the best available numbers and odds from Cantor Gaming, MGM Resorts International and the LVH.)
Cowboys (8½): Last year, half of Dallas’ victories were by a total of nine points (including two narrow wins over Washington). So you could say the Cowboys were lucky to go 8-8. Then again … five of their losses were by a total of 20 points (they blew a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead at the Jets and a 27-3 second-half lead to the Lions). So why should you believe the Cowboys will improve by at least one game in 2012—when six of their first nine games are on the road? Because they’ll be favored in two of those games (Seahawks, Panthers) and could easily split the other four (Giants, Ravens, Falcons, Eagles). Because they upgraded the worst part of their defense (secondary). Because of the always-underappreciated Tony Romo (whose 102.5 QB rating last year ranked behind only Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady). And because from Nov. 18-Dec. 23, they play five of six games at home before closing at Washington. The play: OVER (LVH, -130)
Eagles (10½): Let’s get the obligatory Mike Vick injury joke out of the way: You’ll see Las Vegas awarded a Super Bowl before you’ll see Vick play all 16 games. The Eagles QB has done so only once in his career, and the past two seasons he’s missed a total of seven games. Which is why it’s impossible to see Philadelphia reaching 11 victories (something the Eagles have done just once since posting five straight 11-plus-win seasons from 2000-04). True, Philly will be favored in at least half of its road contests (Cleveland, Arizona, Washington, Tampa Bay). But that’s countered by a tough home schedule that includes the Ravens, Giants, Cowboys, Lions, Falcons, Panthers and Bengals (and the Eagles were 3-5 in Philly last year). The play: UNDER (LVH, -110)
Giants (9½): If you believe the Giants aren’t primed for a Super Bowl letdown, sprint immediately to the LVH, which has New York’s total at 8½ (“over” -160). Even better, just send your money to me. I already noted how incredibly fortunate the Giants were to even make the playoffs last year. What I didn’t tell you is that they played six games decided by four points or less … and went 5-1. Also, for just the second time in his eight-year career, Eli Manning finished with a QB rating higher than 86.4. Finally, New York’s schedule includes Dallas (twice), Philadelphia (twice), San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Green Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta and Baltimore. The play: UNDER (MGM Resorts, -155)
Redskins (6): Last year, with Rex Grossman and John Beck under center, Washington swept the Giants and lost three games to the Cowboys and Eagles by a total of 12 points. The Redskins also had the Patriots on the ropes (27-27 tie with less than five minutes to play). Had Washington gone just 2-3 in those contests, it would’ve finished 7-9. Now the ’Skins have Robert Griffin III leading the offense (yes, I believe in RG3), a legit No. 2 receiver (Pierre Garcon), an improving defense that figures to be much more consistent (Washington allowed 20 points or less eight times last year … but gave up 33 or more five times), and a last-place schedule (which includes the Rams, Bucs, Vikings and Browns). The play: OVER (LVH, -130)
Bears (9): The Bears “over” has taken a ton of action this summer—and not just because so many myopic Chicago fans live in and pass through Vegas. Last year, the Bears started 7-3, then QB Jay Cutler and star RB Matt Forte suffered season-ending injuries, leading to a 1-5 finish. Cutler and Forte are now healthy, and just as importantly, they have some help around them (the Bears traded for WR Brandon Marshall, who teamed with Cutler in Denver, and drafted WR Alshon Jeffery). Chicago is virtually guaranteed three victories in its first five games (Colts, Rams, Jaguars), and if you count the Vikings (twice), Seahawks and Cardinals as Ws, that puts the Bears just two victories from pushing this total, and three from cashing. The play: OVER (MGM Resorts, -105)
Lions (9½): Did the Lions go 10-6 last year, their first double-digit-win season since 1995? Yep. Did the Lions compile that 10-6 record by rallying from a 20-0 deficit in Minnesota, a 27-3 deficit in Dallas and a 27-14 fourth-quarter deficit in Oakland, not to mention barely holding on for a three-point home victory over the Vikings (thanks to a blown official’s call on the game’s deciding play)? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Oh, and did injury-prone QB Matt Stafford, in his second full year as a starter, remain upright for all 16 games and throw for more than 5,000 yards? Yes again. My point: After nearly two decades of futility, the Lions were way overdue to catch a few breaks, and they did. It’s not happening two years in a row. The play: UNDER (MGM Resorts, -140)
Packers (12): My easiest season over-under winner last year? That would be Green Bay “over” 11 wins (Rodgers & Co. finished 15-1). It’s understandable why bettors would lean “over” again (after all, Green Bay had the worst defense in the NFL in 2011 and still went 15-1). But I also understand the logic behind an “under” play (winning 28 games in consecutive seasons—which the Packers would have to do—in this parity-filled era is next to impossible; plus, the Packers were remarkably healthy last year). Hey, going 11-5 is nothing to be ashamed of, especially when the schedule includes the 49ers, Saints, Bears (twice), Lions (twice), Texans (road) and Giants (road). The play: UNDER (Cantor, -105)
Vikings (6): The good news for Vikings fans: You’ve got a great shot to start the season 2-0, with games against Jacksonville (home) and Indianapolis (road). Not only that, but you close October with back-to-back home games against the Cardinals and Buccaneers. The bad news: Adrian Peterson, who is recovering from a torn ACL, probably won’t be close to 100 percent all season. The worst news: Your quarterback is Christian Ponder. Or Joe Webb. Or Sage Rosenfels. (But, hey, at least you got that new stadium approved!) The play: UNDER (LVH, -120)
Best Bets: NFC East – Giants UNDER; NFC North – Lions UNDER. (Next week: NFC South, NFC West.)