2015 NFL Postseason Picks, Conference Championships: My First Super Bowl Bet and What is the “Back Door?”

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We’re only two weeks away from the 50th rendition of what was originally called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, meaning we have a whole afternoon of football this Sunday to decide the two teams that will represent the conferences that have descended from the lineage of that first game. Now the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference make up the National Football League and the Super Bowl has become a cultural phenomenon, nothing like that first game that was played so long ago. It makes you think back about your first experiences with the game…

My first experience with betting the Super Bowl came when I was in the Marines in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Chicago Bears had dominated everyone that year, coming to the Louisiana Superdome to take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX with a swagger that everyone knew was just going to crown them the champion. Thus, many were trying to find angles to bet the game and a gunny I worked with found one with me. He wagered that the Bears’ RB Walter Payton would fumble within his first ten carries for $20, a bet I willingly picked up knowing Payton’s abilities to protect the ball.

Gathered around the Enlisted Club at the Marine Barracks, we started watching the game and, sure enough, Payton would fumble on his ninth carry of the game. As I handed over the $20 to the gunny, I asked him how did he know such a bet was going to come through. He replied that, knowing how many times Payton had carried the ball since his last fumble and knowing his fumble frequency (how often he fumbled the ball), his computations were that Payton was due for a miscue such as that. And that, my friends, was my first experience with statistical measurements being used against me in a betting atmosphere.

Which brings us to something that has saved my…let’s say account…on a couple of occasions over the past couple of weeks, having a “back door” cover bets. The “back door” cover is one that comes through after it is previously thought that the game is a foregone conclusion. All we have to do is look at two games over the past two weeks to see perfect examples of this type of action.

In the National Championship game, Alabama scored with only 1:07 left in the game to take a 45-33 lead over Clemson, which was more than enough to cover the seven-point spread that the sharps had put out against the Tigers. Within 55 seconds, Clemson drove the length of the field to score a touchdown to bring the score to 45-39 and, after kicking the extra point for the 45-40 final score, had achieved the “back door” score that shifted an estimated $10 million in bets from one side (those that had chosen Alabama -7) to the other (Clemson +7).

It happened again last weekend in the Pittsburgh Steelers/Denver Broncos game. The Steelers, a 7.5-point underdog in the game, were down 10 points with 53 seconds to go in the game. Driving mightily, the Steelers drive stalled out and, knowing that one of their two scores needed to be a field goal, sent kicker Chris Boswell onto the field. His third field goal of the day made the score 23-16 – bringing the score under the spread – and, after the onside kick failed and a kneel down by Broncos QB Peyton Manning, another few million dollars shifted hands (by scoring a field goal, it also kept it under the O/U, another good thing for me especially).

These “back door” covers are lovely when they work in your favor (you know, if you’re in an area where you can bet on these types of events), but they are the most gut wrenching thing that can happen when it works in the other direction. To have a sizeable bet turn on a simple play that has no ramification on the overall game is perhaps the most indignant situation a bettor can find themselves in. This is why the late, great Yankee catcher Yogi Berra probably said, “It isn’t over ‘til it’s over” rather than anything associated with baseball.

(Home team in CAPS, picks in bold)

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

New England Patriots (-3) vs. DENVER BRONCOS; UNDER 44.5

There is a myriad of reasons that I would rather see the Denver Broncos defeat the New England Patriots on Sunday, but the problem is that they are all sentimental ones. This will probably be the last time that Peyton Manning will have a shot at the Super Bowl – if he plays next year, it is going to be with a team that has far less talent and far less chance at getting to this pinnacle of success. The general arrogance of the Patriots, head coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady do not lend themselves to being the team that is “liked” (as a fan of the New York Yankees, trust me, I know how this looks). Finally, it would be great to see Brady pout his way off the field – as he is wont to do when he loses – and Manning be able to graciously say “you know, he’s one of the greats, he’ll be back here” despite the fact that Brady’s only a couple of years younger than Manning.

Here’s the problem:  the Patriots are in much better shape, health-wise, than the Broncos. Despite backing into the home-field for this game, the Broncos are just too beat up to do much with it against a Patriots team that used the last few weeks of the regular season to get some guys rested up. Instead of having to fight to the end just to win their division (as the Broncos did), the Patriots were able to rest some players, lose their final two regular season games against divisional foes YET STILL GET THE #2 SEED after winning their division. Now that they’re in the AFC Championship Game, that’s where they will see it will pay off.

The Patriots won’t dominate this game by any stretch of the imagination, but they will do just enough to be able to cover the spread and punch their ticket to try to defend their Super Bowl title. Because of the weather conditions, however, it isn’t going to be an offensive showcase. Take the Patriots, give up the points and go with the UNDER in a game that is looking to be 24-17.

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Arizona Cardinals vs. CAROLINA PANTHERS (-3); UNDER 47

Strangely enough, these two teams met last year in the playoffs. This time around, however, it is for the NFC Championship, a much different circumstance than that game last year.

Last year the Cardinals, a team that was down to its fourth quarterback after starting QB Carson Palmer and his backup Drew Stanton were knocked out for the year three-quarters through the season, limped into Charlotte for the Divisional Round of the playoffs and put up next to no effort against QB Cam Newton and the Panthers. The depleted Cardinals were only able to generate 77 yards of offense, lost the game 27-16 and had to be left wondering what might have been without the rash of injuries that beset the team.

Flash forward to…well, tomorrow, and they might get their answer. The Cardinals are healthy this year and it shows. Palmer and the Big Red Machine have the best offense in the NFL and can strike through the air (2nd in the league) or on the ground (8th in the league) The problem is they are running into a Panthers team that is also markedly improved over the team that went 7-8-1 in the league last season, starting this season 13-0 before finishing the year with the best record in the NFL at 15-1. Their offense is nothing to sneeze at (11th overall in the NFL) and their defense can also stop someone (6th in the league).

The Panthers have been able to prepare for playing on the cold grounds of Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, where Winter Storm Jonas has just ravaged the area (and weather on Sunday could play a factor). The Cardinals, on the other hand, barely got into town on Friday night and may have had the chance to have a walkthrough on Saturday as North Carolina isn’t used to having to deal with winter weather. Due to the travel issues and the cold weather game (remember, Arizona is a dome team), I am taking the Panthers here, but it is going to be a defensive fight and way UNDER the O/U.

Last Week:  5-3
Overall:  53-37-5

Remember how we were talking about the “back door” above? That Steelers “back door” was the game that gave me a winning weekend. Without that field goal, it’s just another “meh” 4-4 slate that helps nobody but the cage collecting the juice. With only four potential bets this weekend, it would be great to sweep the board.

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The Insanity of the College Football Bowl Season

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If we’re stuck in the middle between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it must be time for the college football bowl season to begin. Every college football conference has completed their championship games and, for those that are at the upper echelons of the college football world, they can prepare to play for the National Championship. Beyond those three games – this year consisting of the Orange Bowl and the Cotton Bowl (both on December 31) and the National Championship Game (January 11) – there is an overabundance of games to be played.

In 2014, the college bowl season consisted of 35 games, meaning that 70 teams went to a bowl game from the 128 schools that make up the Football Bowl Subdivision (or FBS, which is different from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), the playoff system that the remainder of the collegiate football world plays under). There was plenty of fear in 2014 that there wouldn’t be enough qualified teams to play in the bowl games – to be “bowl eligible,” a team had to win six games from their 12-game schedule – but the final week of the season provided enough teams with a qualifying victory to fill out the schedule. Having faced the potential of not getting qualifying teams, you might have thought that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body of collegiate athletics, would want to keep down the number of bowl games moving into the future. If you had that thought, you would be wrong.

For 2015, a grand total of 41 bowl games (including the National Championship Game) will fill the television screens of virtually every channel on the cable dial, more than double what existed only 20 years ago. Instead of barely finding 70 qualified teams to play in these games, now there was the necessity to add 10 more to the list. With new regulations instituted in the offseason – including the fact that FBS teams could not count victories against FCS teams towards their six-win qualification level – the NCAA did come up short in having enough teams qualify for bowl eligibility. Rather than admit that there were too many bowls, you know what the NCAA did? Granted “waivers” to teams to allow them to count wins against FCS teams to reach the six win mark or use “academic performance criteria” to allow for five win teams to play in a bowl. This is why you’ll see a 6-5 California team in the Armed Forces Bowl (despite one of their wins coming against Grambling) and a 5-7 Nebraska team in the Foster Farms Bowl against UCLA.

So if there aren’t enough teams to qualify to play in these bowl games, why are there more being created as we speak (it is reported that a new bowl game in Austin, TX, will join the ranks in 2016)? While the schools don’t make any money out of the trips to a bowl game, the bowls themselves and the NCAA are stripping every dollar they can out of the system.

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Although you might be surprised by this, the colleges and universities that go to these bowl games many times do not even turn a profit for playing in their respective bowl. It may be an honor to be invited to the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl (yes, that actually exists), but the schools have to get their personnel to the game. It costs major moolah for a university to load up planes with the team, cheerleaders, band, coaching staffs, athletic department personnel and college leadership – and this doesn’t even count in the appropriate equipment for the team – and get them to the stadium. In many cases there are media requirements, meaning the teams have to get there days before the game starts. This adds in hotel expenditures for everyone you just flew out to the Big Game.

If that wasn’t bad enough, here’s where we get into perhaps the biggest crime that the bowl games perpetrate on the colleges and universities. Besides having to round up the troops and get them to the game, the schools are then handed a block of tickets and told to sell every single stub to their fans. These ticket blocks sometimes are as large as 20,000 tickets and, if a school fails to sell every ticket, then the school has to buy whatever remaining tickets are left. This can total, in some cases, up to $500,000 per school by itself.

CollegeBand

If the schools aren’t making any money out of these bowl games, then who is?

The answer is virtually everyone else that isn’t involved with playing the game. The businesses that are the “sponsors” of the particular bowls can receive a market value (in advertising) several times larger than what the sponsorship fee cost. Even Bitcoin sponsored a bowl game last year (the Bitcoin Bowl used to be the St. Petersburg Bowl in 2014; Bitcoin didn’t come back in 2015 for a sponsorship of any bowl game), reaping some benefit from the deal because they are associated with the teams involved and the pageantry of the college bowl season.

Then there are the bowls themselves. Considered “non-profit organizations” because they are supposedly set up for a charitable cause, the bowls are a virtual gold mine of revenues. According to Yahoo! Sports, the Sugar Bowl in 2014 held $12.5 million in cash reserves, $20.8 million in publicly traded securities and actually doled out to their Chief Executive Officer a $600,000 a year salary. That’s a pretty big chunk of change to have sitting around for simply throwing a football game on New Year’s Day.

The conferences themselves are raking in the money. The major conferences – the Big 10, the Big 12, the PAC-12, the ACC and the SEC – reap $50 million; smaller conferences who are a part of the college bowl parade get upwards of $15 million (depending of the number of teams they have in the mix). The College Football Playoff adds in another $40 million for the conferences, meaning that #1 Clemson, #2 Alabama, #3 Michigan State and #4 Oklahoma earned another block of cash for the ACC, the SEC, the Big 10 and the Big 12.

Finally, there are the television networks. For broadcasting the College Football Playoff, the monolithic sports channel ESPN paid $7.3 BILLION in 2013 for the broadcasting rights until 2025. Before you feel too bad for ESPN (they have been laying off people of late to trim spending to be able to pay sports licensing fees), they are expected to have revenues of $10 BILLION over that timeframe. This isn’t even counting the other 38 games that make up the college bowl schedule nor the networks (Fox Sports, CBS Sports and NBC Sports and their affiliated cable outlets), which could run into the billions in their own right.

This is the insanity of the college bowl season. Despite the claims that a playoff system like the one that is operated in FCS would “impact the academic pursuits of the athletes” (a bullshit statement because it seems to work fine for the FCS schools), the NCAA is looking to maintain as much control over the schools – and control over the money – as possible. The bowl system is not there to reward the schools and the players for having a successful season, it is a blatant money grab by a system that maximizes every dollar by not having to share it with those who are the product on display.

It isn’t like these games are actually any good, either. In some cases, the teams are playing as much as a month following the last serious game speed contact they participated in and the rust shows in the teams’ performance on the field. The players – some with potential dreams of NFL glory, some just looking to finish their collegiate careers and move on into normal life – play with little to no passion for the game. Thus, you see final scores in the neighborhood of 52-49 or 56-53…there is absolutely ZERO defense played because no one, whether a blue-chip NFL prospect or a grinder on the line looking to complete their degree, wants to be injured in a game that means little to their own personal bottom line.

Much like years past, I will probably watch the College Football Playoff games, but I won’t be watching the Lysol Tidy Bowl live from Savannah, GA. There will be plenty of college basketball to watch (and there’s another money grab by the NCAA, but I digress) that will be much more entertaining than a 70-66 college football game. It just a further example of the insanity that has become college athletics as a whole and, in particular, college football.