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October 9, 2013
By Bruce Marshall
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MILE-HIGH NUMBER IN DENVER
Much like the handful of vegetarians among the thousands who tune into the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island every 4th of July, just to see how many franks can actually be devoured by Joey Chestnut, even football fans who don't wager seem to be curious about the most-extreme of point-spreads. Such as this week's sky-high, er, mile high, number for Sunday's Jacksonville at Denver game. We've already fielded numerous calls and inquiries for information from a variety of interested parties, including some national media sources, all asking basically the same questions. Namely, how high will the Jags-Broncos number be posted? And will it be the biggest point-spread in NFL history?
Well, we'll see what transpires with the price as the week progresses, but it looks like the number on Jacksonville-Denver is going to be in the same ballpark as some of the biggest pro football spreads, at least as recorded in our point-spread archives that date to 1957, when the legendary Mort Olshan founded The Gold Sheet. Early betting in Las Vegas suggested as much, as a handful of sports books posted a preliminary number on Jaguars-Broncos even before last weekend's games. Initial pricing by Jay Kornegay at the LVH Super Book had Denver laying between 26 and 26 ½ with more than a week to go before kickoff at Sports Authority Field. Our TGS ratings had projected the Broncos to be 27-point favorites, which indeed puts Jacksonville-Denver in contention for biggest point-spread honors in NFL history (or, at least since 1957).
And we might not be finished with big numbers this season, although we don't project any future prices to be quite as high as Jags-Broncos. Yet if performance patterns don't change, there's a likelihood Jacksonville could be a 20+-point underdog again (best chances vs. the 49ers in London, and road dates at the Colts and Texans), while the Seahawks could also project into that sort of range as a favorite for a couple of late-season games at Century Link Field. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Still, while the Jags-Broncos impost is not entering previously uncharted waters in pro football point-spread annals, it has been a while since we have seen an NFL price so high.
To put the magnitude of the Jacksonville-Denver number into some perspective, we'll use the rare 20-point line as a barometer. To illustrate how unique those heavy spreads are in pro football, since TGS began publishing in 1957, there have been 35 complete seasons without a line of 20 or more. Overall since 1957, there have been 67 NFL-AFL games (including the upcoming Jacksonville-Denver clash) with point-spreads of 20 or higher. Interestingly, well over half of those (37) were concentrated into five expansion-influenced seasons in the years of 1966-67-68 and 1976-77, when first or second-year teams in Atlanta, Miami, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, and Seattle accounted for the bulk (but not all) of those big numbers. (In case you're wondering, 1967 expansionite New Orleans, a fairly competitive outfit in its nascent era, wasn't a 20-point dog in either its first or second seasons.) Interestingly, those big 20+-point underdogs stand 34-30-2 vs. the number since 1957.
Of the few most-recent examples of 20+ spreads, all have involved Bill Belichick's Patriots. Including three games late in their undefeated regular season of 2007, when the oddsmakers had no choice but to inflate New England's numbers after the Patriots were routinely dismembering opposition. But even that powerhouse New England side was not able to overcome the sorts of premiums that oddsmakers eventually heaped upon it, as Belichick's team failed to cover any of those three 20+ spreads (vs. the Eagles, Jets, and Dolphins, all in various form of disarray that year). Since 2007, the only other 20+ number involved New England again, this time against a Peyton Manning-less Colts side in 2011. Much like the results of the games with over-adjusted prices in 2007, the Patriots also couldn't cover that one against Dan Orlovsky-led Indy. The Colts were still a winless 0-11 straight-up at kickoff for that early-December clash, but would score 21 unanswered points in the 4th Q to slip in the back door with plenty of room to spare in a 31-24 New England win...but a clear Colts cover.
Interestingly, those four spreads involving the Patriots are the only 20-point numbers since the 2001 season, when Mike Martz' Super Bowl-bound Rams laid 20 against George Seifert's woeful, 1-15-to-be Panthers, who were on the short end of a 48-14 beating.
Our research has unveiled various interesting tidbits about pro football point-spread history and the biggest numbers over the past six decades. In fact, we didn't even see a pro line of 20 or higher in our first three years of TGS publishing (1957-59). Not until Dallas entered the NFL as an expansion team in 1960 did we witness a pro spread crack the 20-point barrier. That year, Tom Landry's winless (but once tied) newcomers were a 22-point dog at Chicago and covered handily, losing just 17-7, but weren't as close when they got 20 points at Green Bay, losing 41-7 to Vince Lombardi's eventual Western Conference champs.
As mentioned previously, the bulk of the 20-point spreads have occurred in expansion periods, most notably in the late '60s and mid '70s. New, ragtag Atlanta and Miami franchises accounted for 7 of the 12 spreads of 20 or more in 1966, while the wretched 1-12-1 NY Giants of the same season, who would set a then-NFL record for most points allowed in a season (501, playing only a 14-game slate!), were twice underdogs of 20 or more. Though Allie Sherman's G-Men did cover on both occasions, including as a 26-point dog at Cleveland, a game in which New York actually blew a 33-14 lead. (Those were the same Giants on the losing end of the highest-scoring game in NFL history, when Otto Graham's Redskins dropped a72-41 bomb in then-called D.C. Stadium.) Ray Malavasi's lowly '66 AFL Denver team was also twice a 20-point or more dog.
In fact, expansion Atlanta holds the distinction of being the biggest underdog in NFL spread annals, getting a whopping 28 points (at home, no less) against Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in an early-November 1966 game. Those Falcons, still winless at 0-8 in their maiden voyage, had recently been on the wrong end of some frightful beatings, including as a 27-point dog in a 56-3 loss at Vince Lombardi's Packers. Meanwhile, the Colts were an acknowledged powerhouse of the era. But there was no point-spread drama in that '66 game; in fact, the plucky Falcons forged a 7-6 lead at halftime before succumbing honorably, 19-7, easily covering as the NFL's biggest-ever underdog.
There was no year, however, for big underdogs quite like 1968, when not only 11 of them received 20 points or more, but also two of those won outright; only two other 20+ dogs have won outright in the past 57 seasons! More incredibly, that pair of results came two weeks apart against the same team...none other than Joe Namath's eventual Super Bowl champion New York Jets!
Indeed, Namath was the key component in those hard-to-believe results, tossing five picks (three returned for TDs, by Tommy Janik, Butch Byrd, and Booker Edgerson) in a 37-35 late-September loss at Buffalo in what would be the Bills' only straight-up win of that season. Lightning would strike again twice two weeks later at Shea Stadium, when Namath tossed another five (!) picks as a 22-point underdog Denver side, playing minus star RB Floyd Little and top WR Al Denson, pulled a 21-13 shocker. Although the non-descript Broncos of that era were curiously tough on the Jets (beating them in 1967 and '69 as well), that Denver win as a 22-point dog still qualifies as the biggest pro football upset since we began to publish. Interestingly, a review of notes on the '68 Jets kept by TGS founder Mort Olshan found the words "Watch Namath Parties" next to the log entries of both the shocking Buffalo and Denver defeats.
All of which has prompted some curious observers to speculate about what might have been going on in 1968, especially considering some other irregularities and shock results that season (including the Jets-Colts Super Bowl), plus Namath's subsequent brief "retirement" related to his partial ownership of the Bachelors III nightclub. Topics, perhaps, for future discussions.
Following are the biggest pro football point-spreads since TGS began publishing in 1957:
1966-Baltimore (-28) 19, Atlanta 7
1966-Green Bay (-27) 56, Atlanta 3
1966-Oakland (-261/2) 31, Miami 17
1966-San Diego (-26) 44, Miami 10
1966-Cleveland (-26) 49, N.Y. Giants 40
1968-Oakland (-26) 13, Buffalo 10
1976-Pittsburgh (-26) 42, Tampa Bay 0
Following are the biggest pro football point-spread upsets since TGS began publishing in 1957:
1968-Denver (+22) 21, N.Y. Jets 13
1967-Minnesota (+20) 10, Green Bay 7
1968-Buffalo (+20) 37, N.Y. Jets 35
1974-San Diego (+20) 20, Cincinnati 17.