COVID chaos creates NFL scheduling mess

One way or another, Patriots quarterback Cam Newton’s story figured to be worth following this season. His early success has been stalled by an unexpected plot twist in the form of a positive COVID-19 test.

Newton and the Tennessee Titans have become case studies for the coronavirus concerns and hypothetical questions posed during the summer: What would happen if a star quarterback were sidelined by the virus? How would the NFL handle a team experiencing an outbreak?

The first signs of COVID chaos were apparent Sunday when the NFL made major modifications to the schedule that impacted eight teams over a seven-week span. The fallout is far-reaching, leaving football bettors and bookmakers confused by the status of a schedule that is essentially day to day.

“Whatever the league says, it’s just written in pencil anyway,” South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said.

It was apparent in August that college and NFL schedules would be fluid this season, and a handful of college games have been canceled or postponed each week. As for the NFL, it was anticipated that at some point positive coronavirus tests with players and coaches would become problematic, and that point is now.

The Broncos-Patriots game scheduled for Sunday in Week 5 was first moved to Monday before the NFL changed plans a second time and shifted the game to Sunday in Week 6, wiping out the bye weeks for Denver and New England.

A virus outbreak among several Tennessee players and staff members caused the postponement of the Steelers-Titans game in Week 4 and forced the league to move Bills-Titans in Week 5 from Sunday to Tuesday. The domino effect kicked in, and the Chiefs-Bills game that was scheduled for Thursday will be played Monday.

Bookmakers have been quick to take COVID-related games off the betting board and repost the lines only when the NFL announces new dates, although it’s becoming evident even the new dates are tentative.

“It’s definitely a headache,” Westgate SuperBook director John Murray said. “But this is just another wrinkle we have to deal with now, and you have got to be ready to pivot. When we get together to make the next week’s opening lines on Sunday, we say, ‘Is that game off the board because of COVID or because of a quarterback injury?’

“The one positive is we get more games on weekdays, and that’s good for the wagering handle. Instead of having nine or 10 games on Sunday morning, we have more games on Monday or Tuesday, and it’s good for business.”

Newton’s uncertain status makes it impossible to post a line on New England’s next game. The point-spread adjustment from Newton to backups Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham is significant. Andrews said he makes the drop-off 6.5 points from Newton. 

The schedule changes will benefit some teams and create adversity for others.

The Chiefs, who suffered their first loss Sunday to the Raiders, initially faced a quick turnaround Thursday in Buffalo but now get seven days off before facing the Bills in Week 6.

The Dolphins, who won Sunday at San Francisco, are no longer playing at Denver this week. Instead, Miami will host the Jets in Week 6, get a bye in Week 7 and host the Rams in Week 8, meaning the Dolphins will benefit by staying home for nearly a month.

In addition to self-inflicted misery, the Jets face a new scheduling dilemma with the elimination of their bye in Week 11, when they will go to Los Angeles to face the Chargers. The Jets also play at Seattle in Week 14 and at the L.A. Rams in Week 15, making for three West Coast trips in five weeks. On the bright side, a more difficult schedule should make it easier for the Jets to land the No. 1 overall draft pick.

Pittsburgh also drew a bad hand, beginning with an impromptu bye that has passed. The Steelers are set to play three consecutive road games from Weeks 7 through 9 at Tennessee, Baltimore and Dallas.

“If one team is causing the disruptions, that team should be punished,” Murray said. “Why put the rest of the league on hold? If it’s just the Titans that are causing all the trouble and not following protocols, I think they should have to forfeit games.”

This might also be the start of a larger scheduling mess. What happens if more teams must deal with positive virus tests and additional games need to be moved? The NFL could create a Week 18 scenario to extend the regular season and push back the playoffs and Super Bowl, which is scheduled for Feb. 7 in Tampa, Fla. It has been reported the Super Bowl could be played in late February if the season is delayed or the schedule stretched out.

Stay tuned for more announcements because the only constant in 2020 is widespread confusion.

The wagering handle has remained strong, with bettors and bookmakers simply happy to have NFL action as an option. A chaotic season is obviously better than no season.

“The league wants to play all of the games, and we don’t want any games canceled,” Andrews said. “It sucks for the players. I’m not complaining. Compared to what 95% of the country is going through, it’s a small problem.”

The Cowboys lost quarterback Dak Prescott to a season-ending ankle injury Sunday, and veteran Andy Dalton led the winning drive in the final minute of a 37-34 victory over the Giants. Prescott leads the NFL in passing yards with 1,856 — 354 yards ahead of second-ranked Russell Wilson of the Seahawks — for the league’s No. 3 scoring offense (32.6 points per game). A new QB does not mean doomsday for Dallas.

Andrews said the adjustment from Prescott to Dalton is only two points to the betting line. Dalton was rated among the top backups in the league.

“I don’t think it’s going to be that much of a drop-off to Dalton, and when you watched that game, you could see why,” Andrews said.

The Cowboys are 2½-point home underdogs to Arizona on Monday, when the Cardinals will be playing their third consecutive road game. I’ll be on the home dog, and hopefully that bet turns out much better than my preseason pick of Dallas to win the NFC. A defense allowing a league-high 36 points per game is far more concerning than Dalton replacing Prescott.

In the hapless NFC East, the Cowboys still can be a playoff team. However, with a 2-3 record and seemingly destined to stay under its posted preseason win total of 10, Dallas is in the discussion about the NFL’s most disappointing team.

“The Cowboys were a really popular team with a lot of sharp bettors who were playing Dallas Over the win total and to win the NFC and Super Bowl,” Murray said. “We really liked the Cowboys, and we thought they were head and shoulders above the rest of that division.”

Two of the last four Super Bowl losers missed the playoffs the next season, and the 49ers are headed in a similar downward spiral. San Francisco’s win total closed at 10.5, but the team is 2-3 and last in the NFC West after home losses to Arizona, Miami and Philadelphia.

San Francisco’s two victories came against the Giants and Jets, who are a combined 0-10. DraftKings sportsbook has posted a prop on the Jets finishing 0-16, with “Yes” priced at + 725.

If you bet the NFL, expect to sweat. VSiN’s Ben Fawkes reported this major wager placed Monday at DraftKings — $1.487 million on New Orleans moneyline (-333) against the Chargers. The bet paid $446,100 after the Saints overcame a 20-3 deficit and survived 30-27 in overtime. Imagine being the bettor who was sweating out that result.

 

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