By Mike Wilkening
Cold, Hard Football Facts Oddsmaking Analyst (@mikewilkening)
I’ve covered pro football oddsmaking for the better part of a decade and do not recall a regular-season point spread drawing the sort of attention the Jaguars-Broncos line has garnered.
As of this writing, Nevada sportsbooks had made the Broncos anywhere from 27- to 27.5-point favorites against Jacksonville on Sunday.
There are various estimates as to whether this could be the biggest NFL spread of all time. Frankly, I’m not confident making a definitive statement on the subject. After all, point spreads are market prices, and the betting market outside of Nevada, Delaware and the major online sportsbooks is essentially the black market.
Who knows what sort of line inflation can occur in such situations?
Anyways, let us say with confidence that the Broncos are one of the biggest NFL favorites in history. So let’s talk turkey: do you trust Denver or Jacksonville more to cover a number of this magnitude?
I’ll defer to the Cold, Hard Football Facts experts for an outright pick on the game. Instead, let’s lay out the case for both teams to cover:
The case for the Broncos (-27)
1. The Jaguars are extraordinarily feeble. They have already lost two games by 28 or more, with a third loss by 26 points.
2. The Broncos have scored at least 37 points in every game this season, while the Jaguars have scored nine points or less in 3-of-5 games. The back-of-the-envelope math suggests Denver is quite capable of at least getting in range of clearing this high point spread.
3. The Broncos are averaging around 34 points in the first three quarters. For purposes of covering this number, that is very important. The Broncos could very well rest starters if they get a comfortable lead. If you are laying the 27, you are hoping Denver clears the number before Peyton Manning exits the game. Once he’s out of the game, who knows what could happen?
4. On the other hand, it’s quite possible the Broncos would fare just fine with Brock Osweiler closing out the game. To wit: With the Seahawks leading Jacksonville 31-7 in Week Three, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll pulled starting quarterback Russell Wilson for Tarvaris Jackson with a few minutes left in the third quarter. With Jackson in the lineup, Seattle would go on to outscore Jacksonville 14-10 to finish out the game. The final score: Seattle 45, Jacksonville 17 — a 28-point win.
5. The Broncos’ defense, which struggled in a 51-48 win at Dallas last Sunday, would figure to be sharper in Week Six.
The case for the Jaguars (+27)
1. The Broncos are 18-4 in Manning’s time as starter, but just three of those wins have been by 28 points or more.
2. With Blaine Gabbert out with a hamstring injury, Chad Henne will start at Denver. Henne is more accurate than Gabbert and throws fewer interceptions. In short, Henne is more likely to string together a few time-consuming drives than Gabbert.
3. If the Broncos get a big lead, coach John Fox could very well begin to rest starters as a matter of prudence and courtesy.
4. The Jaguars set season-highs in yards (365) and points (20) in the Week Five loss at St. Louis. The return of wideout Justin Blackmon added a little more playmaking punch to an offense that sorely needed it.
5. If I really liked Denver on Sunday, I would be afraid — perhaps illogically so — of the Jaguars playing with pride and passion on account of the game being billed as a mismatch.
6. The Broncos’ goal (winning the game) is not at all aligned with the handicapper’s goal (covering this gigantic spread). These priorities mesh well with smaller point spreads. For instance, a team favored by two points can win on a last-second field goal and please both the home fans and countless bettors. In this case, though, how are the Broncos incentivized to do anything but win the game and move onward? If the Broncos happen to roll to a 44-0 win, great. If they win 24-3, avoid injuries to Manning and other key players and prevail with absolutely vanilla schemes on offense, defense and special teams, even better.
7. The Jaguars may not have to play all that well to cover the spread, while any missed scoring opportunity for the Broncos could spell doom from a covering standpoint.
The reasons to like the Broncos are straight-forward. I could have written down "Peyton Manning" and been done with it. I mean, let's be real. Ultimately, hanidicapping this game could be that simple. You know it and I know it.
The reasons to prefer Jacksonville, meanwhile, are rooted in all of the factors that could conspire against Denver, including that pesky game clock. If Denver is only up 7-3 at halftime . . . well, good luck covering the 27.
A good start will be key for the Broncos. The Patriots, you may recall, did not come close to covering a 25-point spread against the Eagles in 2007, managing just a 31-28 victory.
At halftime, the Patriots were up just three points.
In an even wilder case, the Bengals — underdogs of 23.5 points — led the 49ers 8-7 after two quarters in 1993. Eventually, the Niners pulled away, but only to a 21-8 victory.
Some may take the points with the Jaguars and root for the clock. Of course, if the Broncos score on their first three drives and lead 21-0 early in the second quarter . . . well, you tell me — are you siding with the clock, or are you siding with Manning?
Note: Historical point spreads are from Marc Lawrence's 2013 Stat and Log Book and Jim Feist's 2000 Football Workbook.