Picking against point spreads is both a science and an art. While proficiency in statistical analysis never hurt anyone, oddsmakers are about as good as it gets when it comes to the numbers. So rather than strictly taking on the guys who make a living setting lines, using the market to get the best number is where the art comes into play.
Case in point: Monday night's Ravens-Cardinals game. After Arizona opened as a 7-point favorite, a steady flow of Cardinals money pushed the spread all the way up to 10. Naturally Arizona wins, 26-18, and the outcome of a wager depends on when it was placed. Getting the best number can turn losses into pushes and pushes into wins.
Of course, if there were a tried-and-true way of knowing when a point spread hits that sweet spot, then it wouldn't be an art. Monday's result, however, exemplifies one rule of thumb: If you like a popular favorite, play it early before the spread picks up steam (Arizona -7); if you like an unpopular underdog, wait for the line to peak and then pounce (Baltimore +10).
Strategically deciding when to strike is a powerful practice, as getting the best number can be more important than taking the right team. Ultimately, it can mean the difference between winding up in the red and turning a profit.
Teaser: New England -1.5 vs. Miami, St. Louis -2.5 vs. San Francisco
The Patriots spent most of last week favored by at least 8 over the Jets, so to find them laying less than that against a much more beatable opponent in the Dolphins was surprising. Miami's improvement under new coach Dan Campbell looks legitimate, though, so there's no rush to lay more than a touchdown against them. In their first test under Campbell against a good team the Dolphins may very well compete, but New England should prevail at home, making the teaser a fit.
A play on this week's biggest favorite rounds out the ticket, with the opportunity to go against the 49ers adding to the appeal. Rookie sensation Todd Gurley has single-handedly transformed the Rams' offense into something other than the league's worst. The real edge for St. Louis comes into play with its defense at home against Colin Kaepernick, who's been absolutely miserable this season against divisional opponents who know by now how to exploit his limitations. Hopefully he worked on his signature move this week in practice, because he wouldn't want to get rusty after not being able to use it this Sunday.
Dallas +7 vs. Seattle
The Seahawks were favored by 7 last week at San Francisco, so being favored by 7 at Dallas this week implies the 49ers and Cowboys are equal. Even with Tony Romo sidelined, Dallas is better than that and therefore shouldn't be getting a touchdown. The Cowboys' defense has steadily improved this season and, glaring off-the-field issues aside, takes a big step forward with defensive ends Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory finding their footing and fortifying the pass rush - something Seattle has struggled mightily to block.
Dallas is also in line for a step forward on offense. Matt Cassel showcased an ability to make plays last week that hadn't been seen from a Cowboys QB since Romo went down in Week 2, and he should tone down the mistakes as he develops a rhythm in the system. A reliable running back may have also finally emerged last week, with Darren McFadden showing the impressive form that can go a long way on the shoulders of a dominant offensive line. Further helping matters is the return of Dez Bryant, who adds a big-play threat to the receiving corps and if nothing else should largely keep Richard Sherman away from Dallas' other weapons.
If not for the recency bias resulting from a Giants kickoff return to edge Dallas last week and a field day for the Seahawks against lowly San Francisco, this line would be substantially lower. At a full touchdown, X marks the spot.
Pick of the Week: New York Jets -1.5 at Oakland
Fresh off a hard-fought rivalry game defeat in New England, this would normally be a letdown spot for the Jets. In this case, however, it's the Raiders who appear to be in for a letdown.
Last week's blowout win over the Chargers came off Oakland's bye week, giving them two weeks to prepare for a familiar foe and likely turn in their best performance of the season. While much improved from 2014, the Raiders looked better last week than they actually are, albeit with an assist from a free falling San Diego squad. Oakland's 3-12 record against the spread in their last 15 games following an AFC West win suggests a reality check is coming.
The Jets, meanwhile, outgained the Patriots in yardage last week and have done so against every opponent this season. Their defense belongs in the conversation with Denver's as the best in the league right now, and they shut down the run game as well as anyone. Making the young Raiders offense one-dimensional against a sound Gang Green secondary is a recipe for success.
Laying just a point and a half, an outright win most likely covers for the better team with the superior defense. These aren't the butt-fumbling Jets of yesteryear.
Week 8 Record: 2-1
Picks of the Week: 5-1