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Best of Bob Owens

Bob Owens Handicaps the Division Championships

15 January 2002

Last week my only play -- Philadelphia -- easily handled Tampa Bay, to win a net of 2 units. I'm happy I resisted the temptation to wager on the Jets and the Dolphins, as both went down.

Many bettors crave "action," the more the better. They just can't have fun unless they've bet the board. But, to me, the only fun is winning, long run if not short run. And you just can't do that by betting every game posted, even in the post-season.

That said, I do have bets on all four games this week. Consistency, old Mr. Emerson once wrote, is the hobgoblin of little minds. So I'll be broadminded and stick one unit on each game, and trust that Ralph Waldo will compel his transcendental spirits to smile on my play.

Philadelphia +2.5 over Chicago.

I sort of dislike going against da Bears, since in preseason I made them one of my four teams to significantly improve their prior year's record. (Two of the eight I so selected over the past two years went on to win the Super Bowl, so parity-ridden is the NFL nowadays.) But I think Philly can prevail here.

Chicago is a funny team: great against the rush, poor versus the pass, but tops in the league in points allowed. (Philly is second.) They boast the best young linebacker in football, but have a mere remnant of a passing game. They won't be able to toss that rock against the solid Eagle secondary, which will allow Philly to load the box to stop the run.

This is not to dis Chicago, which seems to be riding Destiny's wings this season, somehow pulling out tough games, just getting it done when they had to. But two of their three losses were to Green Bay, and in those games two of the Packers skill players stepped up big.

In one, Green Bay QB Favre exploded, passing for over 260 yards. In the other, their RB, Ahman Green, had a track and field day. (In that game the Pack had two defensive line starters out with injuries.) In QB McNabb, Philly has kind of a combination of Favre and Green, a shifty, nifty passer and runner who keeps defenses off balance. And McNabb will have to carry the offensive load if the Eagles hope to move on.

Both teams are defensive tigers. But Chicago is only 3-3 SU vs. teams that finished in the top 12 in total defense, while Philly is 6-0 SU in that department. Finally, the Eagles are 7-1 ATS on the road, so a hostile environment poses no particular problem.

New England -2.5 over Oakland.

The Raiders finally won a game, against what Dan Fouts said were a travel-weary Jets team. Even so, Oakland gave up 24 points, and were about to surrender even more points when time expired. That marks the third straight time the banged-up Raider defense has given up 23 points or more.

The New England offense got an upgrade when Tom Brady took over at the QB spot, but I'd guess the Pats will win this one by relying heavily on RB Smith. Let him pound the line, and execute some play action off the threat. The Raiders are now vulnerable high and low.

For Oakland to win they'll have to score at least 24 points, and that's doubtful. True, the Patriots do not excel in defensive stats, except of points allowed, around ninth in the NFL. This means that they bend but don't break, playing tough in the red zone. They do seem a bit soft vs. the pass, not a good thing against future Hall of Fame receivers like Oakland's Jerry Rice and Tim Brown.

But Patriot head coach Bill Billichek is one of the shrewdest defensive minds in the game. I believe he will fashion some packages that will bewitch and befuddle the Raiders, a team that lost the only game they played this season in cold weather.

Pittsburgh –5 over Baltimore.

Well, yeah, the Ravens are boasting that they are indeed just like last year's Super Bowl winner, and defensively they may be, stomping Miami last week, 20-3. But the Steelers aren't the Dolphins.

Pittsburgh allows only around 75 rushing yards per game, average. (I use stats only through the first 15 games of the season, as the final game is usually meaningless and played by subs, or by players more interested in their upcoming vacations than the game at hand.) Miami permits some 40 yards per game more on the ground than do the boys from Steel City, and so Baltimore ran wild last week.

So how does Baltimore figure to score points? With Grbac, their ineffective QB? He has a lot to worry about, since the Steelers are the leading sack squad in the league. Will the Ravens score off turnovers? Maybe, but you can't figure it, as Pittsburgh has a much better turnover ratio.

The Steelers average about 170 yards per game on the ground, easily the best in the league. And their QB, Stewart, is one of the great comeback stories this year: under control, and making few mistakes.

Pittburgh's kicker has had problems this season, but so have the booters of their opponents, making only around a third of their field goal attempts. Maybe it's something about Heinz Field.

During the season Baltimore did beat Pitt by 3 points at Heinz Field, and the Steelers returned the favor in Baltimore, winning by 5. It may seem like the five-point spot is too much, but if the home team can put up 20 points, maybe even 17, it should be enough to get the job done.

Green Bay +10 over St Louis

When the Rams acquired top free agent defensive players off-season, and then supplemented that haul in the college draft, I tabbed them for an easy glide to another Super Bowl ring. I haven't necessarily changed my mind, but I was surprised to see them lose two games, and in the TWA Dome at that.

John Madden thinks the only chance Green Bay has to keep it close is to get into a shootout, score points in bunches, because they won't be able to stifle the great Ram offense. Big John knows pigskin, but I gotta respectfully differ. The Packers can't win, and probably not even cover the 10, if the ball is sailing all day.

Let's look at those two Ram losses, to New Orleans and Tampa Bay. In both, the St Louis running game was bottled up, and the defensive line put great pressure on Warner, who tosses a lot of interceptions -- New Orleans picked off four.

That's what Green Bay has to do to stay with the Rams. With their top defensive lineman, Brown, now healthy (he had a terrific game vs. the Niners last week) they are definitely capable of it. They are also one of the league leaders in QB sacks.

The Packers also must take some risks, selling out on occasion to make big plays. As Tampa did when they blocked a St Louis punt, which turned out to be a game winner.

They must stop Marshall Faulk, and then harass Warner into errors. Of course, no one stops the Ram QB: he had 291 passing yards in the loss to Tampa, and 385 in the loss to the Saints. But the Rams running backs in those games got less than 60 yards. That's the formula for Green Bay to stay close, and I doubt there is any other.

Ten points strikes me as a lot to lay against a club that won 12 regular season games in a division that contributed three playoff teams. Because the Rams, with their marquee players, are now a "public" team, as Dallas and San Francisco were in past decades, the linemakers tend to add a few points to their number, to encourage bets on the underdog.

Consider that in the five games this season where St Louis was made more than a touchdown favorite against a team that to that point had a winning record, they could only go 1-4 ATS. And, of course, none of those teams that beat the spread against St Louis had quite the winning record that the Packers sport.

One unit on each play, no more. And I sure hope those damn hobgoblins don't get me.

Bob Owens
Bob Owens has been a freelance writer for 20 years, authoring numerous articles on sports and betting. In the late 1980s, he was an advisor on betting and promotions for the Caliente bookmakers in Mexico. He's based in San Diego.
Bob Owens
Bob Owens has been a freelance writer for 20 years, authoring numerous articles on sports and betting. In the late 1980s, he was an advisor on betting and promotions for the Caliente bookmakers in Mexico. He's based in San Diego.