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What can we learn from the NFL and CFB line moves so far?

Jeff Fogle  
VSiN City newsletter

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Can Julio Jones and the Falcons get back to the Super Bowl?
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As a huge football weekend approaches, betting markets are stirring in the NFL Wildcard games and Monday’s Alabama/Georgia showdown. An updated “Market Watch” plus a college basketball upset and Friday’s Big 10 hoop previews right now in VSiN City. 

Football Betting: “Market Watch” for Wildcard Weekend and Alabama/Georgia
Back as promised with an updated look at betting patterns in this weekend’s NFL playoff action and Monday Night’s National Championship game in college football. Let’s take them in kickoff order…

Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET: Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs
Opening Line: Kansas City -8, total of 46
Tuesday’s Line: Kansas City -7.5, total of 44.5
Current Line: Kansas City -8.5, total of 44.5

The Wynn Las Vegas was actually at Kansas City -9 Thursday evening, as were many offshore sites. Though, stores that tested 9 prior found Tennessee money hit the board. Could be that 9 is the ceiling…and that sharp money hits Kansas City at -7, Tennessee at plus 9. As we mentioned the other day, Kansas City at anywhere from -7.5 to -8.5 is in the basic strategy teaser window. A six-point move crosses both the 3 and the 7 (the two most important numbers in football betting) in one fell swoop at those prices. Minus 7.5, 8, or 8.5 drops to -1.5, -2, or -2.5. Stores who DON’T want to be flooded with both sharp and public teasers may stick on nine and accept that sharp dog money will hit them. All are trying to balance exposure knowing that the public wants to use Kansas City in teasers and money line parlays. Notice that the Over/Under is still down 1.5 points from the opener. Temperatures are expected to be near freezing. Not windy, but probably a breeze. If you’re not familiar with Over/Under betting, 45 is an important number (scores like 24-21, 28-17, 31-14, 38-7 are common). Looks like sharp Under money would hit 45 if it came back into play. A worse forecast before kickoff would drive the total lower. 

Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET: Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams
Opening Line: LA Rams -6, total of 50
Tuesday’s Line: LA Rams -6, total of 49
Current Line: LA Rams -6, total of 48.5

Most stores were at Rams -6 Thursday night, though some were showing Rams -5.5. Many offshore sites had also dropped to Rams -5.5 That tells us Falcons money has decided that plus 6.5 or plus 7 aren’t in the cards, and it’s best to take a relatively key number like plus 6 when it’s still available. We’ll have to see what happens between now and kickoff. It could be that Rams money will re-hit the board at -5.5, creating a “Pro’s vs. Joes” stand-off. This total has come down a bit as well. Weather should be fine. This is more likely a reaction to Atlanta’s tendency to play below scoring expectations this season (5-11 to the Under). More on that momentarily in our expanded preview. 
 
Sunday at 1 p.m. ET: Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars
Opening Line: Jacksonville -8, total of 42.5
Tuesday’s Line: Jacksonville -7.5, total of 41
Current Line: Jacksonville -8 (or 8.5), total of 39.5

Another game that will cause teaser headaches for sports books. In fact, many of what are called “square books” offshore currently have the game at Jacksonville -9 on the assumption that their public-heavy clientele will want to bet the Jags and use them in teasers. Las Vegas is much more solidly at Jacksonville -8.5 (or even -8) as we reach publication deadlines. It’s assumed Buffalo money would come in heavily on plus 9 if it went up in Las Vegas because of so much sharp skepticism about Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles. The Over/Under has dropped a field goal because both quarterbacks could struggle vs. the defenses they’ll be facing, and due to a forecast for possibly windy conditions midday local time Sunday. 

Sunday at 4:30 p.m.: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints
Opening Line: New Orleans by 5.5, total of 49.5
Tuesday’s Line: New Orleans by 6, total of 48.5
Current Line: New Orleans -6.5 (or 7), total of 48

Sevens started popping up all over the place Thursday evening. Some stores have lower vigorish on the Saints at -7 (-105 instead of -110). Others are at the full -110. The square books offshore are at 7. Let’s see if Carolina money comes in with some enthusiasm now that the key number is so wildly available. The last thing sports books want is for another game to rise into the teaser window! The Saints will already be a popular choice without bringing “basic strategy” proponents into play. This total is down 1.5 points even though the game is indoors. Tells you something about the respect sharps have for the Saints defense this season, and their ability to run clock if necessary with an improved rushing attack. You’ll be hearing several “long-term” trends about Overs or higher totals in past New Orleans playoff games. Remember that those were reflective of a poor defense. Irrelevant for this game.

Monday Night’s College Football National Championship (in Atlanta, GA)
Opening Line: Alabama -4 vs. Georgia, total of 48
Current Line: Alabama -3.5 vs. Georgia, total of 45

This is already a very actively bet game, and we’re not even to the weekend yet. The biggest news late Thursday was that the total fell to 45 virtually across the board. That reflects HUGE interest in the Under because:

*The public usually bets Overs in big TV games
*The game is indoors, so conditions won’t hurt offenses
*48 was already a low total for a college game
*48 and 47 are fairly key numbers for college Over/Unders (though 46 is relatively dead)

What we’re seeing here is that the public believes this will be a defensive struggle, AND the sharps who run models are getting low scoring games in their projections. Normally, Under money hits later in the process because professional bettors know that the public might gift them an extra point or two in the hours leading to kickoff. Alabama/Georgia has unleashed an early feeding frenzy on the Under. Very uncharacteristic of championship football betting…but not at all surprising given the quality of defenses on the field. Let’s see if 45 turns out to be a floor that starts to encourage Over interest. 

On the team side, stores are now split between 3.5 and 4, rather than painted 4. Sharp Georgia money decided it wasn’t going to get plus 4.5 and started to come in. 

Be sure you watch VSiN programming throughout this fantastic football weekend for all the latest news from both sides of the counter. 

NFL Wild-card Stat Preview: NFC Champion Falcons begin defense of their crown in LA
We want to start off by mentioning that odd sun angles WON’T be a factor because of the evening start time. We noted back when the Rams beat the Saints in an afternoon regular season game at this stadium that New Orleans players were getting blinded by the sun due to unfamiliarity. No such home field edge for the Rams over the Falcons this week under the lights. 

Atlanta (10-6) at LA Rams (11-5) 
Las Vegas Line: LA Rams by 6, total of 48.5
Records vs. the Point Spread: Atlanta 7-9, LA Rams 9-7

The Rams were one of the great stories of the 2017 season. No longer shackled by the outdated coaching approach of Jeff Fisher, Los Angeles stormed to a NFC West division title on the arm of Jared Goff. Atlanta suffered a bit of a Super Bowl hangover after losing a heartbreaker to the New England Patriots. Though, their drop in form this season seemed more connected to Steve Sarkisian’s shakiness as the new offensive coordinator. Let’s check out our indicator stats…

Yards-per-Play
Atlanta: 5.9 on offense, 5.1 on defense (vs. the #4 ranked schedule)
LA Rams: 5.8 on offense, 5.3 on defense (vs. the #17 ranked schedule)

What also may have been a somewhat hidden key to Atlanta’s drop is that killer schedule. The Rams had it easy most of the way, until running into Minnesota, New Orleans, and Philadelphia late in the season. That brought LAR to league average. The Falcons had it tough all the way. Here, we see plus 0.8 for the Falcons vs. the tougher schedule, compared to plus 0.5 for the Rams. You regular readers of VSiN City know that the Falcons have looked better in yards-per-play than on the scoreboard this season. The offense moves in the middle of the field before stalling. That’s the big reason for all the Unders.  

Key Passing Stats 
Atlanta: 7.8 yards-per-pass attempt, 21 TD’s, 12 interceptions thrown
LA Rams: 7.8 yards-per-pass attempt, 28 TD’s, 7 interceptions thrown

Last season, Atlanta had an AMAZING passing line of 9.2 yards-per-attempt, and a 38/7 TD/INT ratio. So, the Sarkisian anvil was a real thing. The lineup is still very talented. It’s not nearly as scary as last season. A much sharper ratio from Goff and new head coach Sean McVay. Big edge here to the Rams. 

Pass Defense 
Atlanta: 6.7 yppa allowed; 22 TD’s allowed, 8 interceptions
LA Rams: 6.8 yppa allowed; 21 TD’s allowed, 18 interceptions

Very similar numbers until you get to interceptions. Atlanta is much more passive on this side of the ball, trying to keep things in front of them rather than angling for an interception. The Rams are much more likely to force and grab and errant pass. 

Impact Defense 
Atlanta: 38% third down pct-allowed, 16 takeaways, 39 sacks
LA Rams: 38% third down pct-allowed, 28 takeaways, 48 sacks

Wow…that’s an extreme difference in impact plays. Atlanta averaged only one takeaway per game! Sure, it was a tough schedule. But, that’s passive defense. If you add them up, that’s a 76-55 edge in impact plays for the host. And, that aggressive defense (coached by Wade Phillips) is facing an inconsistent offense. 

We’d have to say that most of the evidence points to the Rams winning the game. The case for Atlanta plus the points would involve a big edge in experience at the quarterback position, and the tendency for first-year head coaches to make too many tactical errors in their playoff debuts (you saw that with Oklahoma late in the Rose Bowl). The case for the Rams centers on its defense’s ability to keep the Falcons from ever finding a rhythm and getting things going. A lot of pregame media coverage will focus on Goff…but the key to picking the point spread winner probably involves a correct read on whether or not the Rams defense can control the evening against Ryan.  

This one could swing hard in either direction. As great as this Rams story has been, they were squashed by Minnesota, and outplayed at home by Philadelphia in the game Carson Wentz got hurt. Are the Rams ready to win a playoff game over an experienced opponent by at least a touchdown? It’s probably going to take cheap points off a turnover edge to create a double digit victory. 

NBA: Where will the Houston Rockets’ Power Rating settle during James Harden’s absence?
Pro basketball superstar James Harden is going to be out for a while with a Grade 2 hamstring injury. Houston announced Thursday he would be re-evaluated in two weeks. That means he’ll miss at least two weeks, but it will likely be longer. 

Betting markets didn’t make much of an adjustment in his first game out at Orlando, as Houston was laying -7.5 Wednesday evening. Thursday, Houston was plus 4.5 at home in a back-to-back against Golden State…who was missing Kevin Durant. 

Based on our estimated “market” Power Ratings Thursday, Houston still graded out in the mid 80s vs. Orlando, but was much closer to the high 70s or low 80s against Golden State. 

*We had Orlando at 75, so Houston -7.5 away means about 85
*We guess GS is about 87 without Durant, so Houston plus 4.5 is about 79 or 80

The NBA markets can be volatile from day-to-day, particularly when back-to-backs create fatigue scenarios and changes in rotations. We’ll need to see a few more Houston lines without Harden to pin things down further. Luckily, the Rockets don’t play any back-to-backs over the next few days. Here’s what’s ahead, along with the most recent estimated “market” Power Rating for those opponents. 

Houston’s Immediate Schedule
Saturday: at Detroit (78)
Monday: at Chicago (76)
Wednesday: vs. Portland (81)
Friday January 12: at Phoenix (73)

Remember to adjust three points for home field advantage (Jeff Sagarin of USA Today currently projects 2.56 as home court value in the NBA, 3.15 in college basketball). We should have a much sharper sense of “Houston without Harden” next Thursday with our weekly NBA Power Ratings update. 

College Basketball: Arizona State shocked, Arizona surges late in Pac 12 road challenges
Last night Greg Peterson previewed a pair of road challenges for current Pac 12 powers Arizona State and Arizona. One was stunned, while the other pulled away late. Let’s run the numbers. 

Colorado (plus 9) 90, #4 Arizona State 81 (in overtime) 
Regulation Score: Arizona State 74, Colorado 74
Two-point Pct: Arizona State 43%, Colorado 51% 
Three Pointers: Arizona State 9/33, Colorado 10/27
Free Throws: Arizona State 18/24, Colorado 22/32
Rebounds: Arizona State 42, Colorado 47
Turnovers: Arizona State 7, Colorado 14
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI Ranking: Arizona State 14-19-16, Colorado 139-110-152

Big shocker. ASU jumped out to early leads of 11-0 and 15-3, which looked like a great bounce back from Saturday’s loss to Arizona. The Sun Devils would lose the rest of regulation 71-59 to a team that hadn’t done much to impress all season (as you can see from those computer ratings), and then lose overtime 16-7. You have to assume unfamiliarity with altitude was an influence in the final 25 minutes. Tired legs can show up on poor two-point defense numbers, and on three-pointers. ASU made it’s first three treys, then shot 6 of 30 the rest of the night.

Arizona State falls to 12-2 straight up, after winning its first dozen. Sun Devils are still an impressive 10-3-1 against the spread, but there’s evidence that the market has caught up. And, the most respected analytics sites didn’t have ASU as a top 10 team anyway, let alone #4. Colorado is 9-6 straight up against a weak schedule, and 6-8-1 ATS. 

#14 Arizona (-3.5) 94, Utah 82
Two-point Pct: Arizona 54%, Utah 42%
Three Pointers: Arizona 4/12, Utah 12/26
Free Throws: Arizona 30/36, Utah 18/22
Rebounds: Arizona 46, Utah 23
Turnovers: Arizona 12, Utah 11
Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI Ranking: Arizona 15-13-17, Utah 53-55-67

If you tuned this one out at halftime when Arizona was up 14…then saw the final score later…you don’t know about the great second half! Utah would rally early to get within a bucket at 61-59 with 12:20 to go…would finally draw even at 70-all with 6:10 to go…and would still be within 79-77 with just under three minutes left. 

Arizona won the rest of the game 15-5, with all 15 of those points coming from the free throw line. Obviously, most of that came from desperation fouling by Utah. Keep this in mind for future reference…Arizona can build and protect late leads from the line!

Let’s not ignore the huge edges Arizona had inside the arc, and on the glass. The Wildcats CRUSHED Utah in the muscle areas. The good news is that they won a game by 12 when they were outscored on treys by 24 points. That’s an 82-46 victory from scoring on 1’s and 2’s keyed by a huge rebounding edge. But, the low trey production under pressure could be a warning sign for March. If more balanced, Dance-caliber opponents are making treys while also disrupting Arizona’s offense…those late free throw parades won’t happen. 

Arizona moves to 12-3 on the season, with all three losses coming in the Bahamas (undefeated on the mainland!). The Wildcats are 6-7-2 ATS. Utah falls to 10-4, but is still profitable at 7-5 ATS. 

We close out Friday with Greg Peterson’s look at tonight’s action in the Big Ten. Yes, the Big Ten is playing on Friday nights this season!

College Basketball: “Running the Floor” with Greg Peterson
The Big Ten takes center stage on Friday as Wisconsin and Northwestern, two teams that made last season’s NCAA Tournament, are in action.

Wisconsin at Rutgers (7 p.m. ET on ESPN2)
Early Line: Wisconsin -1.5

Wisconsin hits the road to play a Rutgers team that appears to be a bit improved this season. The Scarlet Knights' record is 10-6 overall and 5-3 against the spread. Bettors seem to respect the lines that bookmakers have been making on Rutgers, as just one of its game has closed more than a point off the opening number since November 14.

Wisconsin, which has a 9-7 overall record, is 6-8 against the spread, covering three of its last four games. Power ratings seem to be downgrading the Badgers, as Wisconsin laid 5.5 points at home against Western Kentucky and Indiana in recent weeks after being a 3.5 point favorite in a home against Xavier on November 16.

This has the making of a slow, methodical game as Wisconsin is 350th out of 351 DI schools in possessions per game with 65.7. Rutgers is 201st in this category with 72 possessions per contest.

Despite defending fewer possessions per game, Wisconsin is giving up more points per game as Rutgers is giving up 0.868 points per possession, which is 9th in the country, compared to the Badgers' mark of 0.992, which is 135th nationally.

The Badgers do catch a break in that Rutgers' effective field goal percentage; which is a metric that counts 3-point baskets 1.5 times greater than 2-point baskets; is 43.6 percent, which ranks 342nd in the country. Rutgers' 3-point shooting percentage of 29.7 is 327th in the country, and it converts just 4.7 triples per game, which ranks 345th.

With both teams being far from offensive-orientated teams, it’s more likely that this game will come down to the closing minutes. The lined opened with Wisconsin as a 1.5-point favorite, and with how low scoring this game could be, every half point becomes magnified.

Northwestern at Penn State (8 p.m. ET on FS1)
Early Line: Penn State -6.5

Northwestern was ranked in the AP Top 25 to start the season, but has fallen out due to a 10-6 start. The Wildcats will look to pick up a road win against a 11-5 Penn State team that opened as the 6.5-point favorite in most spots.

Penn State has an interesting trend going in that all six of its lined home games have gone under. This is a bit puzzling as Penn State typically gets out to fast starts, scoring 43.1 points in the first half of its home games. With the closing total in these six games averaging 144.74, it shows that the scoring pace in the Nittany Lions games actually slows down, which makes getting off to a good start paramount for both teams.

That may not bode well for Northwestern, which has been outscored in the first half of road games by an average of 5.8 points. The Wildcats will need to have its free throw shooting percentage of 76.3 to travel. Penn State's opponents shoot 18.9 free throws per game, which should allow Northwestern to utilize that high efficiency at the line.

Penn State is good at controlling the action inside the 3-point line, getting 6.1 blocks per game and allowing opponents to shoot 44.2 percent on 2-point baskets. Both of these teams play a slower style as Penn State accumulates 73 possessions per game, which is 161st in the nation, while Northwestern is 255th with 70.5, indicators that both these teams try to work for good shots and are willing to use the full shot clock.

The market seems to be a bit befuddled by Northwestern. In its game against Brown on Dec. 30, the Wildcats were faded at some books and bet up at others. It was the same way when the team faced DePaul on Dec. 16 and when the Wildcats faced Purdue on Dec. 3.

Shopping for the best number in this game is important with the range of closing numbers that have been popping up on Northwestern games this season.

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If you have any questions or comments about anything in the VSiN universe, please drop us a note or leave a comment in the Facebook widget below. We’ll see you again Saturday with a special bonus report. Our expanded Wildcard Weekend stat previews continue with Buffalo at Jacksonville. Greg Peterson will provide a sneak preview of two Big 12 battles featuring ranked teams going head-to-head. 

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