As NFL shills used to say, even the worst teams can win on any given Sunday. And that’s also true for the worst gamblers. The point spread is so good that luck can trump sagacity at a frightening rate. A player might decide to return an interception for a meaningless (hah!) touchdown as the clock expires. You bet the Packers because there’s no way the Vikings can stop Aaron Rodgers — no way, that is, except by hurting him.
Beware of karma, even though it’s nothing more than superstition. You don’t write in the “W” until the word “final” is engraved in stone.
Now for some more practical advice, courtesy of two guys who, in their own and quite different ways, taught me how to handicap the NFL. The first was my friend Pockets, who was a shrewd gambler and a somewhat successful operator of his own telephone service.
The word “somewhat” is not meant to denigrate Pockets, who, 40 years later, is still my pal and, as Mike Pence would say, lodestar. He sold good advice at a fair price. The modifier is necessary, however, because he had an intractable aversion to telling lies.
If Pockets gave out three picks and two of them won, he’d tell his clients and prospective customers that he had been lucky to escape with any wins at all. I worked for Pockets in the glory days of the telephone advisory service, an era that ended not long after the internet began. Later, I worked for the Southern Swami, mostly churning out over-under picks. The Swami was the Dixon to Pockets’ Mason.
Given the same outcome, The Swami would lament the poor luck that kept his picks from sweeping, and go on to record a telephone bit promising to bury the bookies (of which he was one) in the coming week. Sometimes he would employ the last resort of desperate hucksters, which was the assertion that he had deep-state operatives planted in NFL locker rooms. The operatives, he would claim, had given him confidential information about who was hurt and which players might not be inclined to give a full effort on Sunday.
Eventually, he traded his tout service for a stay in the retirement capital of Kansas. After his stay in the town of Leavenworth, he became a Wall Street banker, probably because it was the only profession even shadier than that of the gambling tout.
As usual, however, I digress. It was another boss of mine, Neggy, who had an uncanny knack for losing week after week, year after year. Which brings me, fully circled, back to Pockets, who had taught me that almost no one can pick the winner 60 percent of the time, but that there those gifted with the knack for losing that often.
Back in the fall of 1992, Neggy called me one day with the bile of panic welling deep from within his entire being. Neggy had hired me to write an obscure kids’ show, a task which any number of the higher apes could have performed quite adequately.
I’m pretty sure, however, that my real function was to provide him with decent NFL picks. On this particular Friday, Neggy was planning to slip away to Vegas for the weekend with some friends who made their livings as door-to-door Bible salesmen. (They were, of course, atheists.) He told me that he needed to clear a thousand dollars, or, as put it, “I gotta clear at least a G.” Hipster talk.
I gave him three picks, knowing that he was a big player and would make his nut if two came through. Sure enough, two of my picks won. I figured I was in for a little gratuity on Monday. But when I walked into the office, he looked up at me and simply glared.
“Last time I listen to you,” he said.
“What are talking about?” I said. “The Vikings covered easily. The Niners had it wrapped up in the third quarter. I lost the Bears bet, but only because they missed that 29-yarder.”
Without even giving me another glance, he said, “Yeah, but that’s the one I went heavy on.”
“Neggy,” by the way, is short for “negative indicator.” Whenever I needed help from someone with a gift for being wrong, I turned to him. And on Monday, when we discussed his losing pick, I was always sure to be solicitous. The loss was invariably the fault of a corrupt referee or a coach’s stupidity.
Sadly, after a Super Bowl weekend which cost him his Escalade, wife and girlfriend, the Negster found religion, joined AA and swore off gambling. Today he’s living in a retirement community in Naples, where he cheats at gin rummy and sells junk bonds on the side. I’m happy for him, of course, but it’s always hard to lose such a good friend.
Now for the picks:
Kansas City at Pittsburgh: Big Ben turned into Ben Worthlessburger on Sunday as he slipped on the greasy, rain-slicked Cleveland turf, tossed three picks, and turned in a QB rating of 60.5. Thanks largely to him, the Steelers hocked up a 21-7 lead and went 30 minutes without scoring. Now, KC wasn’t as good as that 38-28 victory over the Chargers might have seemed; the Chargers had 541 net yards to 362 for KC. James Connor had a big day on Sunday, but I still think that the absence of Bell is a problem.
Steelers 24, Chiefs 23 — KC +4 for $40
New England at Jacksonville: With Leonard Fournette gone for most of the game, the Jags’ offense produced 13 points vs. the Giants last week and scraped up 305 yards from scrimmage. Of course, it’s the defense that matters. And I suspect the defense, which allowed just 18 points a game last year, will be in a high state of rage after the Pats defeated them 24-20 in the AFC championship game in January. My guess is that if Fournette plays he won’t be at his best, because we all know how those hammies can destroy an entire season for that first round fantasy pick who’s never hurt enough to sit out and never healthy enough to play worth crap.
Jaguars 20, Patriots 17 — Under 45 for $40
Seattle at Chicago, Monday Night: With Khalil Mack on one side of the ball and Mitch Trubisky on the other, my lips are smacking, which is a habit I’m trying to cure. I know that just because the Bears were under in 12 of 16 games last year, it doesn’t follow that the offense will be that bad again. Same for the fact that Chicago went under in 9 of 10 non-divisional games last year.
Bears 21, Seahawks 17 — Under 43 1/2 for $40
My bankroll now sits at $1,077 after I went 2-1 last week, while my bitter rival, Colton Molesky, is at $923. For in-depth analysis, snark and the bitterness that will almost certainly burgeon in coming weeks, check out our Minnesota Line podcast.