One of the hottest teams in the NFL — a league with one undefeated team in mid-December — is the San Diego Chargers. The leadership of quarterback Philip Rivers has been impressive.
Rivers and the Chargers will be involved in one of today’s most important games as the Cincinnati Bengals visit San Diego. At stake is the No. 2 seed in the AFC, a first-round bye in the playoffs and home-field advantage should these teams meet a month from now.
The Bengals have been a major surprise team in the NFL this year, staging a complete turnaround and handling AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the process.
But the Bengals are entering a huge game with heavy hearts following the death of wide receiver Chris Henry on Thursday. Henry was on injured reserve and not with the team, but he was well liked in the locker room and his death has taken an emotional toll on Cincinnati.
The Chargers are favored by 61/2 to 7 points at Las Vegas sports books, and the question must be asked: How might Henry’s death affect the Bengals’ performance today?
In early October, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s wife died, and three days later the Bengals won 17-14 at Baltimore. Zimmer was presented the game ball after the upset win. This is clearly a tight-knit group that might rally around one another rather than suffer through a distracted performance.
“The news of Henry’s accident didn’t have any impact on the wagering line,” Las Vegas Hilton sports book director Jay Kornegay said. “No one has any way of knowing what the Bengals’ reaction may be.”
Another key AFC game with wild-card ramifications sends the Miami Dolphins to Tennessee, a 31/2-point favorite.
The Dolphins refuse to go away, and other than hitting a speed bump at Indianapolis two weeks ago, the Titans have been a handful. This game features two teams that no one wants to play now or in the near future.
“The number, with home-field advantage thrown in, is telling you these teams are inseparable,” Las Vegas Sports Consultants odds director Tony Sinisi said. “The overwhelming bromide in the NFL is turnovers decide football games. If you can predict which team wins that battle, then more power to you.”
Last season, one of the most profitable angles from start to finish was playing against West Coast teams crossing three time zones to play games on the Eastern seaboard. Arizona, Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle went 3-18 last season when accruing frequent-flier miles.
That trend has not carried over to this season. In a much smaller sample, the west-to-east sojourn has reaped positive rewards for the visitors, who have gone 5-2 straight up.
The task could be a bit more daunting for the Cardinals and 49ers, who are dealing with a short work week after playing Monday night.
The 49ers face a severe test at Philadelphia, which is in a three-way dogfight in the NFC East. The Eagles are 8-point favorites.
The Cardinals have the luxury of visiting Detroit. If Daunte Culpepper is running the Lions offense instead of rookie Matthew Stafford, an Arizona victory seems to be a virtual certainty, with the spread being the great equalizer. The Cardinals are 12-point favorites.
“This is a constantly evolving sport,” Sinisi said. “There is no Rosetta stone that can help us magically decipher the way these things will play out. There were two constants in this town. Play the over in the NHL All-Star Game and play against the West Coast teams traveling east in the NFL. Not this year. Maybe it’s a good thing there is no hockey all-star game because of the Winter Olympics.”
As we followed the bouncing and at times disappearing line for the Indianapolis-Jacksonville game Thursday, the question of resting starters proved to be as confounding for the bettors as it was for the oddsmakers and bookmakers.
The Colts went for it, despite all their machinations during the week, and pulled out a 35-31 victory.
The scenario will repeat itself for the next two weeks, once New Orleans secures home-field advantage and Minnesota becomes resigned to its playoff destiny as the NFC’s second seed.
The Vikings can most certainly rest some key players, including quarterback Brett Favre, as the allure of an unbeaten season does not concern them.
Brian Blessing, project manager for Las Vegas Sports Consultants, can be reached at email@example.com. Hear the LVSC oddsmakers on Sportsbook Radio, weekdays at 3 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM) and Sirius 98.