Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009 | 2 a.m.
A major undercurrent of the football betting season has been driven by the notion that the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the NFL has not been bigger in recent memory.
Every season yields a couple of teams that are clearly superior and a couple that are clearly inferior.
This year, however, bettors and oddsmakers say, the difference appears more extreme.
When the talent gap grows so large, the theory goes, it becomes difficult for oddsmakers and the betting public to settle on a proper point spread in games involving the superior or inferior teams — or both at the same time.
Historically in the NFL the point spread — in tandem with the ballyhooed concept of parity in the league — has served as a pretty good equalizer, resulting in poor teams’ ability to cover the spread at a reasonable rate.
At some point, though, it becomes a correct betting strategy to “pile on” by betting against the league’s worst teams regardless of the spread and by backing the league’s best teams at the window no matter how high the betting line.
The conventional wisdom among bettors suggests we might have reached that point this year.
Perhaps a bit surprisingly, so does an objective look at the numbers.
Normally I’d be inclined to dismiss this kind of “wisdom” as a symptom of sports gamblers’ deep-rooted tendency to overemphasize what has happened recently rather than taking a long-range view.
But so far this NFL season, it looks as if the conventional wisdom is right.
The time-tested method to test claims that parity is dead, or the worst teams are completely hopeless even after taking the point spread into account, involves looking at teams’ net point differential — the difference between the number of points they have scored and allowed. (Note: Any pushes, and Monday night’s result, are disregarded in point-spread records.)
This season, the New Orleans Saints own the league’s best point differential at 16.5 points a game (165 net points, or 369 points scored and 204 allowed, in 10 games).
The Minnesota Vikings (with a point differential of 12.6 points a game), New England Patriots (12.6) and Indianapolis Colts (10.9) round out the top four.
The Saints’ figure of 16.5, if they keep it up for the entire regular season, would rank No. 3 in the past 20 years. Only the 2007 Patriots (19.7) and the 1999 St. Louis Rams (17.8) rate higher in that span.
In fact, only five other teams in the past 20 years finished the season with higher figures than the Vikings and Patriots have compiled so far this year: the 2001 Rams (14.4), 1998 Vikings (16.3), 1996 Green Bay Packers (15.4), 1994 San Francisco 49ers (13.1) and 1991 Washington Redskins (16.3).
At the other end of the spectrum, the Rams this season own the NFL’s worst point differential at negative 15.2 points a game (negative 167 net points, or 130 points scored and 297 allowed, in 11 games).
The bottom four also includes the Cleveland Browns (negative 14.3), Oakland Raiders (negative 13) and Detroit Lions (negative 12.9).
The Rams’ figure would rank No. 4 on the most dismal list in the past 20 years. It was exceeded only by the Lions last year (negative 15.6), the 2000 Browns (negative 16.1), and the 1990 Patriots (negative 16.6).
And only four other teams in that 20-year span have posted a worse number than the Browns have this season: the Rams last year (negative 14.6), the 2000 Arizona Cardinals (negative 14.6), the 1991 Colts (negative 14.9) and the 1990 Browns (negative 14.6).
More significantly to football bettors, this year’s clearly superior and clearly inferior NFL teams have shown their true colors with their records against the point spread. The Saints, Vikings, Patriots and Colts have compiled a 26-13 record against the point spread (67 percent), with the Rams, Browns, Raiders and Lions going a collective 17-25 against the spread (40 percent).