Odds are Las Vegas bookmakers have a good handle on NFL playoff games

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- SUNDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2017: Los Angeles Rams running back Lance Dunbar (25) sc
Rams running back Lance Dunbar (25) scores a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers in the second half on Sunday.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Quarterback Andy Dalton won’t be participating in the NFL playoffs next week, but his 49-yard touchdown pass on fourth and 12 in the final minute Sunday gave the Cincinnati Bengals a surprising victory over the Baltimore Ravens that changed the fate of five teams.

And sent the sportsbooks here into a tizzy.

With eager gamblers already lining up to place wagers, oddsmakers thought they had a handle on what the betting lines would be for the first week of the playoffs — until Dalton’s pass scrambled the plans.

Suddenly, the Ravens were out of the postseason, the longshot Buffalo Bills were in, and the projected pairings were shuffled.


“When that play went down, I can’t tell you the things that were said in our room because they’re unprintable,” said Jay Kornegay, boss of the Westgate SuperBook.

Amid the chaos, Kornegay and his staff of four essentially called an audible. They searched for new data, exchanged opinions, crunched new numbers and, within 10 minutes of the final relevant snap of the regular season, had lines for next weekend’s four NFL playoff games added to the more than 1,000 point spreads already on their boards.

The Rams were made 6½-point favorites against the NFC defending champions Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night at the Coliseum; the Kansas City Chiefs were favored by eight points over the visiting Tennessee Titans; the Bills were eight-point underdogs to the host Jacksonville Jaguars and the New Orleans Saints were favored by 6½ points over NFC Central rival Carolina Panthers.

The only jostling to those original figures has been half a point back and forth in the Rams’ and Jaguars’ games because Westgate has accepted a handful of individual bets on those games that exceeded $10,000, Kornegay said.


Setting the line for a postseason game can start simply. For example, Kornegay said, oddsmakers “don’t need to look in a gnat’s rear,” to know the importance of playing at home.

“It’s standard to give the home teams three points,” he said, “but it’s certainly depending on the team they play.”

The Rams are one of the teams that can jumble that standard.

“We just know everybody’s going to bet the Rams,” Kornegay said. “The public loves the Rams. They love high-scoring offenses.”

Bettors also have long memories, and they know the Falcons were 7-9 against the point spread during the regular season.

“They’ve underachieved,” Kornegay said of the Falcons. “The only big question about the Rams is the big stage, but we don’t think it’ll be too big. They’ll handle it all in stride, and they’re really well coached.”

The Minnesota Vikings are favored to win the NFC and become the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. The defending Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots are 2-1 favorites to repeat.

While bookmakers set odds designed to attract relatively equal wagering on each side of any game, bettors strive to identify any mistakes in the spreads.


One big gambler leaned back comfortably in a leather chair Sunday, eyeing several big-screen televisions from one of eight VIP booths inside the Superbook.

Alex Weinberg, an accountant from Grand Rapids, Mich., who is a weekly visitor during NFL season, quickly identified the Bills as his best play of the next week, even after Kornegay had said the Buffalo-Jacksonville matchup was likely to be the least bet of all the games.

“They’ll lay an egg because they have a quarterback not capable of scoring,” Weinberg said of Jacksonville.

Kornegay considered the Jaguars a comfortable favorite because of how their defense grades in his personal power-rankings program that considers voluminous information.

Another important factor is quarterback play, and it would seem that Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, with his Super Bowl experience, might give his team a boost over the Rams and second-year quarterback Jared Goff, who will be participating in his first playoff game.

Weinberg doesn’t see it that way.

“Goff’s not a young quarterback when you consider he’s been in a pro set since Cal. … Now he’s got great receivers and a great team and I think they’re going to stomp ’em,” Weinberg said.

Of Ryan, Weinberg said, “When the money’s on the line, he doesn’t deliver.”


Kornegay said Goff might be he most compelling player of these playoffs.

“There have been many young quarterbacks who had tremendous regular-season stats,” Kornegay said, “and then as soon as they get to the postseason it’s a different story — the pressure, the intensity, how teams adjust to them.

“They’ve looked so great, the highest scoring offense; those teams do OK in the playoffs. But once they start playing the premier teams, the adage of ‘defense wins championships,’ is a little concerning if I was a Rams fan. Not that their defense is horrible. It’s halfway decent. But while everyone likes to look at the dynamic offense, those dynamic offenses … when they go on the road, it’s a little different. Young team, young quarterback. It’s certainly something to be concerned about because it’s an unknown what you’re going to get out of a player like [Goff].

“That’s what’s so great about this. It’s not easy to predict. We love parity. Parity’s our best friend.”

Kornegay’s job is to position his operation to profit not only from losing bets, but also from the “juice” — 10% from each winning wager.

In seeking to split the betting, his team considers a vast variety of factors. For example, since Kansas City plays at an especially raucous stadium, Kornegay said the spread was inflated to eight points because “it takes a lot for the average fan to bet Tennessee on the road in the playoffs.”

Carolina’s unpredictable showings made them the underdog in New Orleans, even if quarterback Cam Newton directed the Panthers to the Super Bowl two years ago.

“Sometimes they look like they’re a really good team,” Kornegay said. “The next week, they look like they’re putting 50% in.”

Solving the gambling riddle, Weinberg said, requires “discipline, focus, seeing all the nuances” — even the weather.

He laughs at how sportsbook chatter can lead a room to a union of losing bets.

“A lot of guys think they’re wise guys,” Weinberg said. “When you hear those guys who are partying and drinking, go the other way.”

Twitter: @latimespugmire

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