Line It Up: Someone Has To Win The NFC South, So Why Not A Longshot?

mariota falcons fumble

The NFC South is the worst division in football this year. But it may just have the best value of any division for wagering on a winner — provided you believe the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are who they’ve shown us they are through the first two-thirds of the season.

There’s a striking imbalance going on this season when comparing the divisions. The AFC East boasts a combined record of 29-15 and not a single team among the four has a point differential worse than plus-26. The NFC East has an even better combined record of 32-13. Every single one of the eight teams in those two East divisions is above .500.

But the NFC South? It’s putrid even in a non-relative sense. The entire division feels like it needs to be relegated.

The four NFC South teams are a combined 18-29. All four are below .500. All four have a negative point differential. Nobody has gone on a three-game winning streak yet this year. Two of the teams haven’t even experienced a two-game winning streak.

Here are the standings entering Week 13:

Tampa Bay: 5-6
Atlanta: 5-7
Carolina: 4-8
New Orleans: 4-8

The Bucs are a half-game up on the Falcons and 1.5 games ahead of the other two teams, and they have by far the most pedigree, having won this division last year and the Super Bowl the year before that. So it is entirely logical that they’re favored at the sportsbooks to win the NFC South.

But should they be this big a favorite? The best value available on the Bucs to win the division is -330 at FanDuel. Some books are trying harder to discourage wagering on Tampa, most notably PointsBet, which has them at -450. Are you sure you want to risk $450 to win $100 — or even $330 to win $100 — on a team with a 45-year-old quarterback who’s less mobile than ever (rushing yards this season: -6), a team that just lost Tristan Wirfs for at least a few weeks with a high ankle sprain, a team with the second-fewest points scored in the NFC, a team that has found a way to lose to the Panthers, Steelers, Packers, and Browns, a team that hasn’t beaten anyone by more than 6 points since Week 2?

These 2022 Buccaneers are mediocre at best.

Mediocre is probably good enough, though, to win this division. But what if they’re a couple of degrees below mediocre, as their performance through 11 games suggests may be the case? The other betting options are the Falcons at a high price of +750 (DraftKings), the Saints at +1000 (multiple books), and the Panthers at +1800 (PointsBet). Those are big numbers on teams that are all within striking distance.

Of the Bucs’ remaining six games, two are against teams that appear significantly better than Tampa is — San Francisco and Cincinnati — one is a road game in Arizona, and they have one game to go against each of their three division rivals. They’re home against the Saints and Panthers and finish the season in Atlanta. A 3-3 finish to land them at 8-9 seems the most likely scenario to project, and if they get to 8-9, Tampa probably prevails in the South.

But what if they keep stumbling? What if they drop two of those three divisional games? Then the door is flung open.

Atlanta can absolutely get to 8-9, particularly if you’re counting on them to beat the Bucs at home in Week 18. Carolina has two very winnable home games against the Steelers and Lions, and as awful as they’ve been most of the season, they’re not dead yet if it turns out they’re a half-decent team with Sam Darnold at the helm and can pull out road wins over the Bucs and Saints. And New Orleans, a major disappointment to this point in the season, still has home games against the Panthers and Falcons, is only a small dog this Monday night in Tampa, will probably be a small dog in Cleveland, and will only be a prohibitive underdog one more time, in Philadelphia.

Nobody except the Bucs has a realistic shot at a winning record. But all four teams still have paths to eight wins and a division title if one can emerge dominant in its remaining intra-division contests.

I have no idea which of the three longshots offers the best value. But I can tell you which NFC South contender has negative value at its current pricing, and that’s the Tampa Bay Bucs.

The Panthers are on a bye this week. The Falcons are short home favorites against Pittsburgh. All it will take is a mild upset win by the Saints in Tampa, and the whole division will suddenly be putrid with parity.

With that, let’s take a look at the rest of the opening lines and assorted betting odds and ends for Week 13.

The consensus lines

Most lines vary by half a point in either direction, with slightly different vigs from book to book, so it’s always advisable to price-shop at all the available mobile sportsbooks in your state. But here are the consensus (most commonly found) spreads for each of the 15 games in Week 13 (the Cardinals and Panthers are both off in the second-to-last bye week of the season):

Bills (-5) at Patriots
Steelers at Falcons (-1.5)
Packers (-2.5) at Bears
Jaguars at Lions (-1.5)
Jets at Vikings (-3)
Commanders (-1.5) at Giants
Titans at Eagles (-6)
Broncos at Ravens (-8)
Browns (-7) at Texans
Seahawks (-8) at Rams
Dolphins at 49ers (-3.5)
Chiefs (-2.5) at Bengals
Chargers (-2) at Raiders
Colts at Cowboys (-9.5)
Saints at Buccaneers (-3.5)

Line move to watch

Had I written this column on Monday as I typically do, I would have been wise to point out the ridiculous Seahawks-Rams opening line, which saw Seattle favored by as few as 4 points at some books against a Rams team that has no home-field advantage and has very few of its best players healthy and nothing left to play for but pride. But I missed my window. That line already moved to a more logical Seahawks -8.

So which remaining line is most likely to fluctuate? Gotta be Bears vs. Packers. When one starting quarterback is uncertain, the line has the potential to shift. When both starting QBs are questionable, forget about it. Will it be Justin Fields vs. Aaron Rodgers? Fields vs. Jordan Love? Rodgers vs. Trevor Siemian? Love vs. Siemian? If one team has its starter and the other doesn’t, this line figures to jump several points.

Intriguing moneyline underdogs to consider

Red Hot Rasky did it again last week, going 2-for-3 by hitting the Jags over the Ravens and the Browns over the Bucs, while getting unlucky not to score a clean sweep with the Pats over the Vikings. (The key to being a top-notch tout is to cry “unlucky” when something goes wrong while conveniently ignoring how Jacksonville and Cleveland were both every bit as fortunate to win as the Vikes were.)

Here are this week’s most underpriced underdogs, all three of which are absolutely, positively guaranteed to win (unless they don’t):

Bronze medal: Jets +140 (Betfred) at Vikings. Minnesota’s remarkable ability to make opponents lose games they have no business losing has to course correct at some point, right? Why not against the stingy Jets defense that’s now complemented by a quarterback who isn’t Zach Wilson?

Silver medal: Texans +270 (FanDuel) vs. Browns. Deshaun Watson is expected to start this week. Great news for the Browns, right? Maybe. He’s certainly a more talented quarterback than Jacoby Brissett, but he’s also likely to be rustier than the clown from the Simpsons. His off-field issues are bound to present a distraction all week. And maybe returning to Houston for his first game post-suspension won’t provide the friendliest confines. If ever there’s a game the Texans will ball out for, it’s at home against Watson and the Browns. Gotta like the +270 price here.

Gold medal: Titans +200 (BetMGM) at Eagles. The oddsmakers just refuse to take Tennessee seriously, and while they’re correctly the ‘dogs on the road against a 10-1 Philly team, have you seen what opposing running backs have been doing to the Eagles’ defense the last few weeks? And you’re making the team with “The Big Dog” a big ‘dog here? The price is right for the possibility of Derrick Henry bowling over a few defenders.

Textbook teaser candidates

Fans of the three-team (or more) teaser know what to look for: favorites of 6 or more who become very safe bets if you reduce the spread by about a touchdown. Here are this week’s options that fit the bill:

Eagles: Can tease down to pick’em or +1 hosting the consistently competitive Titans.
Ravens: Can tease down to -2 or -1 at home against the offensively offensive Broncos.
Browns: Can tease down to -1 or pick’em visiting the laughably lost Texans.
Seahawks: Can tease down to -2 or -1 on the road against the champs-to-chumps Rams.
Cowboys: Can tease down to -3.5 or -2.5 at home against the ready-to-roll-over Colts.

Pick three (or more), pick 6 points or 7 (or 6.5), and let the sweating of a +140 or so return begin. Week 12 was a lovely week for teasers. Week 13? There aren’t as many big faves to choose from. Still, leaving the Eagles-Titans game out of it, a tease of any other three — at the full 7 points to get you the hook in Cowboys-Colts — feels like a decent value play.

Gadget plays

Since I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the perpetual oddsmaker disrespect of this year’s New York Giants (disrespect that has since been validated) and hinted earlier in this week’s column at the constant underselling of the Titans, let’s bust out the first-ever “Line It Up” disrespect rankings. Honorable mention goes to the Lions, barely favored at home against the Jags, and the Raiders, underdogs at home against the Chargers immediately after beating the Seahawks on the road. Third place: the 9-2 Vikings, favored by just a field goal at home against the Jets (although I happen to prefer the Jets side of that line, so I’m guilty of disrespect also). Second place: the Titans, underdogs in Philly by just about the exact same spread the Packers faced last week. And this week’s winner: those ever-disrespected Giants, getting points at home against Washington. I mean, I get it — the Commanders are hot and the Giants aren’t healthy. But still, the degree to which the bookmakers don’t believe the G-Men are any good at all is astounding.
How fun on paper is the 4-7 Jags vs. the 4-7 Lions? Two young teams with likeable coaches and capable skill-position players, neither ready to admit they’re a year away from having an outside shot at contending. The points total is the second highest on the board this week, at 51.5. Win or lose, you’ll have a good time watching if you bet the over.
The schedule is absolutely loaded this week with games between potentially playoff-bound teams (Chiefs-Bengals, Bills-Pats, Vikings-Jets, Eagles-Titans), but for my money the most intriguing matchup is the Dolphins at the 49ers. Miami still hasn’t lost a game this year that Tua Tagovailoa started and finished. San Francisco has won four straight and is gathering a lot of steam to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Garoppolo vs. Tagovailoa isn’t quite Montana vs. Marino in terms of marquee value, but I’m nevertheless getting some nostalgic flashbacks. And if the Dolphins pull the mild upset, everyone sitting on a long-odds Tua MVP ticket can be forgiven for beginning to think about how they’ll spend the money.

Photo: Matt Pendleton/USA TODAY

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Author: Ryan Gonzales