The NFL playoffs are not to be trifled with. This is when handicapping is supposed to be its most difficult. Point spreads, so often soft and questionable during the season, get tighter than the space between Jayson Williams and his attorney.
It's a consequence of the information marketplace. Because of the virtual world, it is virtually impossible to be interested in a team and not know every detail about its performance. You can find out total yards allowed per game, and if those yards come on rushing plays, passing plays, first downs, third-and-10 or longer, in-routes, post routes, draws or because the linebacker secretly lusts after the safety's wife and takes a dive on plays up the middle.
Bookmakers have all this at their disposal, too, plus they are as immersed in the psychology of NFL teams as coaches themselves. And there is one more factor: They know you.
Point spreads are a brilliant psychological barometer, giving a numerical take on the public's perception of a team. And at this point in the season, bookmakers find comfort in knowing exactly how you, Joe Square, view every single team. They know you watched the Cowboys destroy the Eagles on national television. They know you will always bet the Pats and the Packers -- two of the most wagered-upon teams in football. They know you'll fade the Jets on the road. They have a season's worth of trend data backing up all these presumptions that they, literally, bank on. "It's a comfortable feeling that we know what the public is going to bet," says Hilton bookmaker Jay Kornegay. "We can foresee what kind of money we are going to see this weekend."
Hear that, people? Bookmakers can see into the future. They know what you are going to do before you do. No wonder their lines are always so close to the final score -- they're like Nostradamus.
In fact, the lines are so good in the postseason, wise guys have a hard time finding any value in them at all. Earlier this week I was talking to Fezzik -- the two-time defending champ of the Hilton's handicapping Super Contest, which means he is the best football picker in all the land right now. He said, at that moment, the only game that really piqued his interest was the Eagles plus-4 against the Cowboys. Truth is, sharps don't necessarily bet every playoff game. And they'll pass completely if they don't like what they see. That's what makes them wise guys with a bankroll instead of degenerates looking for winning tickets on the floor of the Riviera.
Given his degree in pop psychology, I asked Kornegay to break down the games this weekend, from a betting perspective. Here's his take: