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Beware extreme spreads

Even football fans who don’t wager seem to be curious about the most extreme of point spreads. The sky-high — or, mile-high — number for the Jacksonville Jaguars’ game at Denver on Sunday is attracting a variety of interested parties, including national media sources.

The Broncos are 27½-point favorites, and the price might rise, so will it be the biggest spread in NFL history? The line is 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 Mort Olshan founded The Gold Sheet.

It has been awhile since we have seen an NFL price so high. To put the magnitude of the Jacksonville-Denver number into 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, 67 NFL-AFL games, including this weekend’s game, have had point spreads of 20 or higher.

Well more than half of those — 37 — were concentrated into five expansion-influenced seasons in the years of 1966, ’67 and ’68 and 1976 and ’77, when first- or second-year teams in Atlanta, Miami, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and Seattle accounted for the bulk of those big numbers. Interestingly, those 20-plus-point underdogs stand 34-30-2 against the spread since 1957.

Of the few most recent examples of 20-point spreads, all involved the Bill Belichick-coached New England Patriots, including three games late in their undefeated regular season of 2007, when oddsmakers had no choice but to inflate numbers after the Patriots routinely were dismembering opposition.

But Belichick failed to cover any of those spreads of 20 or more (versus the Eagles, Jets and Dolphins). Since 2007, the only other 20-point number involved New England again, against a Peyton Manning-less Colts side in 2011. The Colts were 0-11 for that Dec. 4 clash but scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to easily cover in the Patriots’ 31-24 win.

Those four spreads involving New England are the only 20-point numbers since the 2001 season, when the Super Bowl-bound St. Louis Rams laid 20 against coach George Seifert’s woeful, 1-15-to-be Carolina 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 over the past six decades. Not until Dallas entered the NFL as an expansion team in 1960 did we witness a spread crack the 20-point barrier. That year, coach Tom Landry’s winless (but once-tied) newcomers were 22-point ’dogs at Chicago and covered in a 17-7 loss but were not as close when getting 20 points at Green Bay in a 41-7 loss.

New, ragtag Atlanta and Miami franchises accounted for seven of the 12 spreads of 20 or more in 1966, while the wretched 1-12-1 New York Giants of the same season, who set a then-NFL record for most points allowed in a season, twice were underdogs of 20 or more. The Giants covered on both occasions, including as 26-point ’dogs at Cleveland, a game in which New York blew a 33-14 lead en route to losing 49-40.

Long before Manning’s passing exploits, coach Ray Malavasi’s lowly 1966 Denver team in the AFL twice was a ’dog of 20 points or more.

In fact, expansion Atlanta holds the distinction of being the biggest underdog in NFL spread annals, getting 28 points — at home, no less — against Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts on Nov. 13, 1966.

The Falcons, still winless at 0-8 in their maiden voyage, recently had been on the wrong end of some frightful beatings, including as 27-point ’dogs in a 56-3 loss at Green Bay. Meanwhile, the Colts were an acknowledged powerhouse of the era. But there was no point-spread drama in that ’66 game as the plucky Falcons forged a 7-6 lead at halftime before succumbing honorably 19-7, easily covering as the NFL’s biggest-ever underdog.

For big underdogs, no year was quite like 1968, when not only 11 of them received 20 points or more but two of those won outright — and only two other 20-point ’dogs have won outright in the past 57 seasons. More incredibly, those two results came two weeks apart against the same team, none other than quarterback Joe Namath’s eventual Super Bowl champion New York Jets.

Indeed, Namath was the key component in those hard-to-believe results, tossing five interceptions (three returned for touchdowns, by Tommy Janik, Butch Byrd and Booker Edgerson) in a 37-35 loss at Buffalo on Sept. 29 in what would be the Bills’ only straight-up win of that season.

Lightning struck again two weeks later at Shea Stadium, when Namath tossed another five picks as a 22-point underdog Denver side pulled a 21-13 shocker. Although the nondescript Broncos of that era curiously were tough on the Jets, beating them in 1967 and 1969 as well, that Denver win as a 22-point ’dog still qualifies as the biggest pro football upset since TGS began to publish. Interestingly, a review of notes on the ’68 Jets kept by Olshan found the words “Watch Namath Parties” next to the log entries of both the shocking Buffalo and Denver defeats.

All of which has promptedcurious observers to speculate about what might have been going on in 1968, especially considering some other irregularities and shocking 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.

Those are topics, perhaps, for future discussions.

Las Vegas handicapper Bruce Marshall is editor of The Gold Sheet (goldsheet.com).

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