Picking NFL win totals is a four-month grind

DEL MAR, Calif.

A racetrack nestled next to a beach is blanketed by blue skies. It’s a setting made for a painting, and if there is a gambler’s paradise, this is it.

This is where you win or break even. For casual horse players, there are no lost days here.

The inevitable bad beats and losses don’t sting as much at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, where the vibe is positive and it’s easier to focus on the beautiful girls and the bright side.

Every gambler has been to the dark side. Football betting, for as much as we look forward to it, takes us there occasionally. Losing five straight games can seem like the end of the world.

But this is August, the beginning of the year on the betting calendar, and the NFL preseason is at the starting gate.

Horse racing and football provide adrenaline rushes of different kinds. The races can present long-shot payoffs (the Pick Six pool here hit $1.32 million on Wednesday) and instant gratification, with bets decided in two minutes. A football game can be a three-hour grind.

Wagering on regular-season win totals is a totally different story, a roller-coaster ride extending for four months. Yet, sometimes, the payoff is worth the wait.

Jim Murray, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Los Angeles Times, filed his last column from the Del Mar press box in August 1998. Murray always penned winners.

The past two years, I wrote this NFL win-total column from the same press box. The results were mostly positive — 7-1 in 2012 and 3-3 last year — so I’ll stick with what worked.

My three losers last year were Baltimore, Chicago and Dallas. I bet all three teams to go over 8½ wins, and all three lost on the final Sunday of the season to finish 8-8. That’s the wrong side of a photo finish.

This is not an exercise in instant gratification. Here are seven win-total plays — using the best available lines from the CG Technology, LVH, South Point, Station Casinos and William Hill sports books in Las Vegas — that should pay off in the distant future:

▶ Carolina Panthers (Under 8½, minus-140): Everything went right for the Panthers in the final three months of last season, as they won five games by four points or fewer to overachieve at 12-4. Now it’s back to reality, and probably 8-8. Cam Newton’s progress will be slowed by an inexperienced group of receivers. The theory is Carolina is descending in the NFC South, and Tampa Bay is rising.

▶ Cincinnati Bengals (Under 9, plus-105): The Bengals, 11-5 last season while going 8-0 at home, are due to fall back to the pack in a more competitive AFC North. I’m not a big believer in quarterback Andy Dalton. The departure of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is a negative.

▶ Dallas Cowboys (Under 8, minus-180): After three consecutive 8-8 finishes, the Cowboys are riding a lame horse in a high-stakes race. Tony Romo, a 34-year-old quarterback returning from back surgery, is not at full speed. The offensive talent around Romo is top notch. But a major problem is Dallas’ defense, which was bad last year and will be worse without Sean Lee and DeMarcus Ware.

It could get ugly early, with the Cowboys facing San Francisco, New Orleans and Seattle in the first six weeks. Dallas is more likely to be a six-win team than a nine-win team.

Sharp bettors have been pounding this play. The “under” was minus-110 two months ago and is as high as minus-220 at the LVH now, so shop for the best price.

▶ Detroit Lions (Under 8½, minus-125): Raise your hand if you were impressed by the coaching hire of Jim Caldwell. Seeing no hands, let’s move on. The Lions have finished over .500 only once since 1999.

Matthew Stafford is a mediocre quarterback, period. He has two career wins against teams that finished the season above .500. Detroit finishes the season with road trips to Chicago and Green Bay, and the Packers are 8-2 in the past 10 games against the Lions.

▶ Green Bay Packers (Over 10½, plus-115): It’s intimidating to bet over a total this high, but nine teams won 11 or more games last season, and the Packers rate as one of the five strongest teams in the NFL with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. Rodgers is set for a monster season, and Green Bay’s defense is definitely improved.

The bad news is the Packers probably will be 0-1 after their Sept. 4 trip to Seattle. The good news is they should dominate the NFC North.

▶ New Orleans Saints (Over 10, minus-110): Excluding the 2012 season, when coach Sean Payton was suspended, the Saints have been consistently excellent, winning either 11 or 13 games in four of the past five years. And going 8-0 at home for the second year in a row would certainly help.

If quarterback Drew Brees is his usual self, don’t expect this team to slip, because coordinator Rob Ryan has toughened up the defense.

▶ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Over 7, minus-140): The Buccaneers have attracted sharp money since this total opened at 6½ in May. New coach Lovie Smith is building a dangerous defense, and veteran quarterback Josh McCown, who was outstanding last season for the Bears, is surrounded by weapons and should be a big success.

The results will be official on Dec. 28, and expect a few photo finishes.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.