Usually we reach Week 3 of the season and the bettors and NFL oddsmakers alike are trying to figure out who’s reached expectations, who’s under-performed and who’s been punching above their weight so far. The lines are generally fairly tight and it’s tough to pick a winner in most matchups.
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Not this season, and not this week. For the second time since Week 5 of the 1987 season, there will be two games that close with over 20-point spreads in the same week as the Cowboys host the Dolphins and the Patriots are visited by the Jets.
For context, 1987 was a strike year and replacement-level players were on rosters all across the league. The Joe Montana-led 49ers were 23-point favorites over the Falcons and the Cowboys were 21.5-point favorites hosting the Eagles. Unsurprisingly, neither of the favorites covered the huge number.
The highest NFL spread over the last decade came in 2013, when Peyton Manning’s 5-0 Broncos were 26.5-point favorites at home to the 0-5 Jaguars. The Broncos won that game but failed to cover.
Since 1987, there have been 11 spreads of 20 or more points. Of those 11 games, the favorite covered the spread only twice — in 2013 when the Seahawks defeated the Jaguars 45-17, and way back in 1991 when the dominant Bills beat the Colts, 42-6.
So historically the giant underdogs have been able to cover their spreads, this time around though I think it will be a different case.
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Will these be the highest spreads this year?
Probably not. The Patriots went off as 19-point favorites on the road in Miami last week. New England’s home turn against the Dolphins is Dec. 29, by which time Miami may not have enough players left to field a roster. One thing that could keep the spread in the teens is the Patriots possibly resting players, having secured a bye in the playoffs.
NFL picks won’t get easier than that one.
So why are the spreads so ridiculously high?
The NFL is a league that prides itself on parity, and the draft is supposed to create an even playing field so that no one team gets too far ahead or behind. The salary cap is in place to stop teams recruiting anyone and everyone they want, and to give the smaller market teams a chance to compete with the likes of the Cowboys and other teams with massive fan-bases.
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Exhibit A: The Miami Dolphins
For the first time in NFL history we have a team that is actively and brazenly tanking their season to get the No. 1 overall pick the following season.
Sure, the Browns were atrocious for years on end, but they were acquiring picks and cap space, all the time building their roster on defense ready for the 2018 draft. There they picked up their franchise QB and led to the summer of 2019, where they finally used some of the cap space they’d been saving for that very reason. Now they are set up to possibly take over the AFC North as the Steelers and Bengals have reached transitional periods in their franchises.
The Dolphins, however, have decided that the possibility of a 7-9 record for another year isn’t for them, and took the extreme decision to blow it all up. They’ve traded away anyone of value — Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills to the Texans for multiple first round picks; Minkah Fitzpatrick for a first-round pick from the Steelers — and they’re reportedly shopping running back Kenyan Drake.
As a result, they’re currently sitting with six picks in the first three rounds in next year’s draft, as well as freeing up a lot of cap space to attack free agency. It’s a bold strategy and they’re obviously hoping that Tom Brady finally retires at the Patriots and opens up the division for someone else to win.
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Exhibit B: The Jets
They arrive in Foxborough on their third-string quarterback after franchise signal caller Sam Darnold was ruled out with mono. He was replaced for six pass attempts by Trevor Siemian before he was sacked and tore ligaments in his foot. So it looks like Luke Falk will be starting for New York this week. The defense is hurting as well with CJ Mosley and No. 3 overall pick Quinnen Williams both sidelines for Week 2.
That game ended in an 18-point loss to the Browns, at home, whereas the Patriots come home after dismantling the Dolphins 43-0 last week and haven’t conceded a touchdown since the AFC championship game last season, having beaten the Steelers 33-3 in their opener this season.
Will the favorites cover?
There’s also good reason to think that the Patriots could, and probably should cover the spread. They have a record of 173-115-7 ATS since 2003. Four of those have been 20+ point spreads, and they failed to cover any of those games.
That’s one of the reasons I actually think the Cowboys have a better chance of covering than the Patriots do this weekend. They’ve played well so far and, as shown by last week’s dismantling by the Patriots, the Dolphins are a stinking mess at the moment. The Jets game is an in-division matchup and, while they’re struggling for health at the moment, they’re also not fully tanking their season. Yet.
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