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 Coming Downfall of Broadcast Television

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There have been some things that have been consistent in the average person’s life when it comes to entertainment. The theater has been around since the Greeks and Romans put plays on in their massive outdoor amphitheaters and musical concerts have almost the same longevity. The change has come in the way that those things – acting and musical performances, along with sporting events – have been delivered to the populace.

In the really “old days,” the only way to partake of these artistic or athletic endeavors was in a live setting. With the creation of radio, it became possible for people to join in on a concert or sporting event from several hundred, even thousands, of miles away. When television came along in the 1920s, the picture was added to the radio broadcast and became the preferred way for people to witness events from thousands, even millions (remember the moon landing in 1969?), of miles away. As technology improves, however, many of these avenues are becoming extinct or may become extinct over the next decade or so.

First to go was radio. The normal terrestrial radio – replete with commercials – lasted for over 100 years before the advent of satellite radio came along. At first, many said “I’m not going to pay for radio,” but, as time, technological improvements and personal choices came to the fore, people decided to pay for satellite radio. Today, SiriusXM and its array of channels challenge terrestrial radio across the board in the ability to deliver breaking news, sporting events and musical events and artists’ recent musical output. It doesn’t bode well for the future as more terrestrial radio stations become “automated” – basically eschewing live DJs for stale canned programming to reduce costs – and the satellite stations boom, basically destroying an industry 100 years or more in the making.

A similar situation is happening in the world of television. Just a little younger than the radio industry, television has been a staple of U. S. households since it was popularly mass-produced in the 1950s. Over the past 60-plus years, television has not only brought to those around the world important historical moments – the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the standoff at Tiananmen Square, the bombing of Baghdad in the first Gulf War – but has also brought hours of entertainment through movies, musical concerts, comedies and dramas.

Those traditions are quickly changing and nothing shows it more than the recent announcements from two powers in the television world, one a major network and one a cable powerhouse. It was announced on Monday that CBS Television Studios would be bringing a new entry into the Star Trek universe come January 2017. While not commenting on what tack the new series will take, it does have the power of Alex Kurtzman, who produced the 2009 theatrical version of Star Trek and 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, behind it.

The crossover of Kurtzman from the Big Screen to the Little Screen isn’t the important change, however. CBS has already stated that the premiere episode of the new Star Trek series would be broadcast on its regular network airwaves. Following that, the premiere and each new episode would be seen on CBS’ brand new on demand outlet, CBS All Access, and would not be broadcast on the traditional airwaves ever again.

After this announcement regarding the CBS/Star Trek partnership, it was announced on Tuesday that longtime cable television giant HBO and former The Daily Show front man Jon Stewart had joined forces for him to issue commentary during the upcoming 2016 Presidential campaigns. So what will be the name of Stewart’s new show that will premiere next year? It won’t be a show and it won’t be on HBO, fans; it will be “short form digital content,” or online efforts, with Stewart offering commentary that will appear over HBO’s on demand and streaming outlets HBO NOW, HBO GO and other arenas.

What do both of these legendary entries do? Sidestep the traditional broadcasting arenas in favor of online or “streaming” outlets, signifying that there is a coming downfall of broadcast television.

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Since the beginning of the 21st century, this transition has been pretty easy to see coming. Netflix wormed its way in with its creation in 1999, initially offering only DVDs to customers as an alternative to the “big box” movie rental outlets such as Hollywood Video or Blockbuster Video. Not only did Netflix crush those outlets with its business plan, they soon grasped onto the idea that they could do television just as well as the traditional broadcast networks. Such now-acclaimed dramas and comedies as House of Cards and the resurrected Arrested Development got their start in 2013 on Netflix and the acclaimed Orange is the New Black premiered in 2014. Since these and other shows premiered, Netflix has earned over 50 Emmy nominations and won 11 times.

After Netflix showed the way, there were many who followed. Hulu and Amazon Prime Video now have their own streaming video networks in addition to their usual movie rentals and they have made their impacts not only on broadcasting but on awards shows with their own original programming. Even the traditional networks, such as what CBS has done above, have entered into the digital arena.

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If you’re going to have the non-traditional broadcast sources, you have to have a way to get it to the people. With Roku, ChromeCast, AppleTV and software on the Xbox and PS4 video game systems, there are ways to use an internet connection to pretty much see anything that might appear on network television that same day or within a couple of days of a program’s original broadcast (if it is on the network’s digital outlet, then the next day). The combination of these internet streaming options plus the drive to sever the ties with cable could very well doom the traditional network outlets and cable television.

Cable television, as traditionally offered by Comcast, Time Warner and several other outlets, offers different packages for homes in their areas. Households can pay anywhere between $20 (for the barest bones package that basically only gives the local broadcast networks) and $300 (for every bell and whistle available, not to mention internet access and/or phone) for cable television programming. If people were able to make the choice to buy the channels that they like and want – say a Netflix here, an ESPN there, etc. – and pay drastically less than what they pay for cable, people will do that in a heartbeat.

Cable broadcasting will more than likely end when those device providers – Roku, ChromeCast and the others – start providing “bundles” of channels at a low price for their viewers (this might also be the saving grace of broadcast television in that they could negotiate rights, much like they already do with the cable companies, with the streaming providers). These “bundles” could offer local television station programming, a sports channel or two, a movie channel and a news channel for next to nothing. You could have a sports package, a movie package or a news package to go alongside the local channels that can be picked up with a digital antenna. Then there is always the fallbacks of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon that could bring the programming.

There is one problem that could be present for those looking for the utter devastation of cable. Live televised sports still provide the most viewers in television – look at the numbers for football’s Super Bowl or for soccer’s (the rest of the world’s football) World Cup. The individual leagues have been looking to this, however, and have come up with streaming options that could easily make their way to a streaming home.

Major League Baseball’s MLB.tv is something that is offered year round (usually using the feeds from the local team’s affiliate) and the National Football League recently broadcast one of their games between the Buffalo Bills and the Jacksonville Jaguars not only from London, the United Kingdom but also exclusively streamed over the internet. If the individual leagues can figure out a way to remove the broadcast networks from the equation and monetize their offerings, they will be the first to “cut the cord.”

And this doesn’t even add into the mix the expanding world of mobile programming, or watching traditional television on your cellphone…

The moves by CBS and HBO (and others, to be honest – the situation is rapidly changing) to bypass the traditional network broadcasting routine for straight-to-digital broadcasts signifies a seismic change, a strange new world for the future of television broadcasting. Will the other companies in the industry catch up? Will the cable companies be able to make adjustments in their offerings? Will the streaming channels and the devices that provide them take the idea of “cutting the cable” all the way to the logical fruition of cable’s destruction? The coming years will provide the answers.

Are You Ready for Some Football!?!? How About Fantasy, Sports Betting…

If you’ve been in a cave for the past six months, you might not realize that the National Football League is about to start its 95th season of action tonight. Over the next six months, the 32 teams in the NFL will battle it out for supremacy in what is the biggest professional sports league in the United States. It will also bring about more wasted time in with the activities of fantasy football and sports betting thrown into the mix.

It hasn’t exactly been the greatest of years for the NFL. The end of last season was scarred by “Deflategate,” the accusation that the now-Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (after one of the stupidest calls in NFL history by Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll) used deflated footballs to win the AFC championship over the Indianapolis Colts, and the resulting investigation. After a few months, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handed down massive fines against New England and, in his boldest move, suspended star quarterback Tom Brady for four games for his “part” in the scandal.

The “Deflategate” game continued through the summer and virtually up to tonight’s first event of the season, the tradition clash between the defending Super Bowl champion (New England, in this case) against a potential challenger to their crown (the Pittsburgh Steelers). After failed settlement talks, a judge stepped in and struck Brady’s suspension, allowing the four-time Super Bowl champion to start the season. All of this “action” off the field continued to hide the other issues facing the NFL, including concussion protocols, drug, alcohol and physical abuse situations from players and the problems with the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the league and the players.

The result of all this turmoil? Nobody is probably more ready for the season to start than Goodell.

Goodell is in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position in the NFL. He is hired by the owners to protect the integrity of The Shield, but it is tough to do that when the people who hired you fail to have your back. New England owner Robert Kraft came just short of demanding Goodell’s head on a truncheon over the “Deflategate” controversy and, if you add in the vehement anger of the players over some of Goodell’s decisions, you wonder why the man wants to continue as the Commissioner of the league. There is but one reason:  $44 million in salary paid by the league to Goodell in 2013; you can be sure that it hasn’t gone down because of his “bad leadership.”

Anyway, Goodell and the rest of the NFL would like you to know that the first game of the season is tonight. The Steelers come into Gillette Stadium to face the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots and Buffalo Wild Wings, Hooters and other sports bars across the United States will be bustling with activity (and just wait until Sunday, when those bars will explode). There are several ways to look at the game:  through the eye of Fantasy Football, through the world of sports betting and through the activity of being a fan.

The Thursday games, since the NFL expanded their schedule a few years ago to include at least one per week, have been plagued by many problems since they started (quality of the games, the quick turnaround from playing on the previous Sunday bringing the potential for more injuries, etc.). As a result, the Thursday game in all three scenarios is affected; fantasy players have to make sure their lineups are set (instead of waiting until Sunday), sports bettors have to take into account the short layoff in their bets and fans have a game to watch and a day still left in the working week, so they can’t stay up too late to watch whichever game is playing.

Since it’s the first game of the season, this Thursday’s tilt between the Steelers and the Patriots won’t be affected by any “short turnaround” curse. Fantasy players will definitely look to have certain players – Patriot players Brady and Rob Gronkowski on one side of the ball, Steelers players Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown on the other – in their lineups to get off to a good start for the weekend. Fantasy players will want to know that Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell won’t be in the lineup (one game suspension for marijuana usage from last season), but DeAngelo Williams, over from the Carolina Panthers, is a nice backup to have on the team.

Williams won’t be enough to pick up the slack on the scoreboard for Pittsburgh, however. Brady, after everything that went on with the “Deflategate” scandal, is coming out in “Fuck You” mode for the entirety of the season and that starts tonight with a whipping of the Steelers. The line on the game opened with the Patriots a 2.5 point favorite, but that was before Brady was cleared for the game. Now the line sits at Patriots -7, so it may be tempting to take Pittsburgh; keep away from that temptation, take the Patriots and give up the points but take the UNDER on the 50.5 O/U.

As far as being a fan, there’s no better time than the start of the season in any of the major professional sports leagues. Everyone starts out 0-0 and the hopes and dreams are there for every team to make the playoffs at the minimum and the Super Bowl at the max. With this in mind, I’ve looked it over and these are the teams that should make the playoffs for each conference:

NFC:  Philadelphia (East), Green Bay (North), New Orleans (South), Seattle (West) NFC Wild Cards:  Arizona, Dallas NFC Champion:  Seattle

AFC:  New England (East), Cincinnati (North), Indianapolis (South), Denver (West) AFC Wild Cards:  Pittsburgh, San Diego AFC Champion:  Indianapolis

Super Bowl 50 Champion:  Seattle

Maybe I’ll try to throw some picks your way over the coming four months (you know, if betting on games was LEGAL or something) and maybe we’ll check this out again come January 2016 when the playoffs roll around. Whether you’re a die-hard fan of the game, intoxicated by the fantasy aroma or have a few ducats riding on the game, the NFL is back and the game is on!

Fantasy Sports…It’s Skill! It’s All Skill!

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The upcoming National Football League season is nearly upon us and we all know what that means. No, it doesn’t mean 16 (or more, counting the playoffs) weekends of watching grown men pound each other into a stupor over an inflated pig’s external organ, trying to push through the armada defending a goal to score the ultimate victory. It means that we get to choose up players and try to prove to our friends and loved ones that we know more than even the best NFL general manager through the machination known as Fantasy Football.

Sure, there are other sports that have their fantasy seasons. The origination of “fantasy” sports can be traced back to the end of World War II, but many believe the true version of fantasy sports began with what was called Rotisserie baseball in the mid-1970s. Owners, playing through the entire season, would choose a roster of players from the actual Major League Baseball teams. The owners would then earn points on how their players performed and, at the end of the year, the champion would be crowned through who earned the most points. The idea of fantasy baseball took off in the early 1980s with players starting to pick up on the intricacies of the game and media outlets offering in-depth box scores on the games that were played (can you even imagine sitting down with a prehistoric computer – or, worse yet, a pen and paper – to compute the fantasy scoring for a league?).

If there was a major professional sport that thrived under the advent of Fantasy, however, it was professional football. With teams playing once per week, Fantasy players could choose up teams and compete against each other on a weekly basis rather than just the season as a whole. Although baseball might have borne the fantasy game, it was football that truly lit the spark.

In 2014, Vox.com estimates that the yearly revenues generated from fantasy sports was $1.4 billion in the United States and that is probably on the conservative end. Pro football heavily dominated the breakdown, generating over 36% of the action, while baseball took up the second place slot with almost 19% (surprisingly, auto racing was the third-most “fantasized” sport, according to Vox). The companies that were benefitting the most from the activity were such industry powerhouses as Yahoo!, ESPN and CBS, who operated their own fantasy leagues for both fun (re:  no cost) and for profit (entry fees paid back to players), not to mention the individual professional sports leagues operating their own Fantasy games.

2014 was also about the time that the phenomenon known as Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) came about full bore. With DFS, baseball now had its little niche in the fantasy world that had pretty much been taken over by professional football and other sports could pick up on some of the glory that the NFL got from its one game a week schedule. While DFS has been an activity that many have gotten into as an extension of yearly fantasy sports, it has also drawn the attention from law enforcement and the politicos.

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 was written to shut down the financing of online gambling transactions (think of online casinos, bingo and online poker), but there were several segments of the gaming industry that were excluded from the law. Horse racing (as a carrot to the horse racing industry in the United States), lotteries and fantasy gaming, then in its infancy online. With that carve out from the UIGEA, the DFS sites such as FanDuel and DraftKings are quite pleased to let everyone know that it is “legal” to play. Lawmakers will be rethinking this strategy but, with so many of the professional sports leagues and mainstream media involved in the game, it is highly likely they won’t touch it.

The reasons for fantasy sports – and horse racing along with it – receiving the legislative exemption is because many consider both activities to have a “skill” element that raises it above the bar of luck-based gambling (such as casino games that include poker). This skill element allows for a player, through knowledgeable study and examination of the variables of the game, to pick a better team (or a better horse) than someone who simply walks in off the street and tries to play the game. Which makes the results from my Fantasy Football draft on Sunday a good testing ground.

In previous years (and we’re talking for about a decade here), I pored over Fantasy Football magazines, ESPN.com, NFL.com and several other outlets looking for that edge in the fantasy game that would drive me to a championship. Alas, over the years I have only captured one championship, which pushes me to compete even harder and drink even harder when I’m sweating Marshawn Lynch having to make up a 25 point deficit on Monday Night Football. Those years I didn’t win, I would think that I had the “greatest team ever assembled” until they came crashing down in a heap at the bottom of the standings.

This year, I’d gone through the preparations but I’ve gotten a bit wiser about the proceedings. While I can research the players and teams from here until the Super Bowl, I am not Peyton Manning; I cannot have an effect on the outcome of the games because I am not out on the field performing the activity. Nowadays, I head into my fantasy draft looking to have fun and, if possible, win some extra cash, but not to put myself through Hell in doing so. Then the following happened, which is where the experiment will begin.

On Sunday, I was settling in to get ready for my Fantasy draft when my lovely wife said she needed to get some more clothes for her position as a professor at a major university. The best mall is a 45-mile drive from our home, hence we and our son hopped in the car and headed over to let her shop. After three-plus hours of shopping (and our son’s multiple rides on a carousel in the mall and ice cream bribery) and a dented credit card, we returned home with several outfits for her and me wondering how my Fantasy draft had gone.

With the fifth pick in the first round, I was able to pick up Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles through the auto-draft procedures (when someone isn’t physically able to make the picks, sites will pick the best available player for the absent owner) and it only got better from there. In Round 2, it was Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A. J. Green; Round 3 was a little weak in Chicago Bears wide out Alshon Jeffrey, but the next two rounds were golden.

Round 4 was nice in that it gave me a versatile but injury-prone running back in Jonathan Stewart of the Carolina Panthers, but it was Round 5 where I made my biggest steal. With a four-game suspension hanging over his head, everyone in our league had passed on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and my computerized picker was able to snap him up without hesitation. Even if Brady is out for those first four games (and after getting a solid backup in the Chicago Bears’ Jay Cutler), he’s worth having for that “Fuck You” mentality he’s going to have for the remainder of the season (and whenever he starts playing, he’ll have that “Fuck You” mentality after all he has been through).

Overall, the automated draft picked out a team (my team isn’t creatively named, the “Southern WarLordz” but it’s a visual image that is threatening) that looks to be pretty solid and, with Brady, potentially one with a sneaky chance of winning the title. If it is the case that I should win this year’s championship, then the bullshit of fantasy sports being a “skill” activity would be shot down as anyone who lets the auto-drafter pick for them isn’t using any skill at all in their attempt at winning. I guess we will see how it plays out over the season…in the fantasy world, at least.