Notable Bets: The remaking of the Saints-Broncos point spread

Broncos quarterbacks, from left, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien and Drew Lock can't play Sunday. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Around 4:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, sportsbooks began taking the line on the New Orleans Saints at Denver Broncos game off the board. The betting action was being halted 24 hours before kickoff.

The Broncos had a quarterback situation. To be more specific, they didn't have any quarterbacks.

The Saints were around 6-point favorites when news began to trickle out that all the quarterbacks on Denver's active roster were headed into quarantine and potentially out for Sunday's game.

Chris Bennett, sportsbook manager at Las Vegas-based Circa Sports, had noticed other bookmakers taking the game off the board on his odds screen. Bennett pulled the game down at Circa at 4:40 p.m.

"We're conditioned now," Bennett said. "You see that happen, and you just assume there's some COVID news out there."

The guessing game between bookmakers and bettors began. What should the new point spread be? How much was the entire Denver quarterback rotation worth to the line?

Inside Circa's trading room, the oddsmaking staff started tossing out potential new lines if the Broncos didn't have a real quarterback available. The suggestions ranged from Saints -10.5 to -17.5.

At 6:12 p.m., ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that all the quarterbacks on the Broncos' roster were ineligible to play against the Saints after being deemed high-risk. Third-string quarterback Jeff Driskel tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.

At 6:22 p.m., Circa put up the first new line on a game that now featured a team without a legitimate quarterback. Circa hung Saints -13.

"The number we hung originally was the average of seven or eight of us throwing numbers out there," Bennett said. "I knew the spread was in double digits, but I wasn't really sure what side of 14 it should be on."

For about an hour, Circa's line was the only one on the game in town, and it triggered a flurry of bets -- every single one of them on New Orleans.

These weren't max bets, but there were dozens of them. In the first 30 minutes after Circa reposted the line, more money was bet on the Saints-Broncos game than had been bet on Browns-Jaguars all week. (Granted Browns-Jaguars wasn't exactly attracting massive betting interest in Las Vegas, but still.)

By 7:30 p.m., the line had grown to Saints -14.5, and the betting flurry subsided as more sportsbooks put the line back on the board.

New Orleans kicked off as a consensus 17-point favorite, the second-biggest spread of the season. The Saints won 31-3.

Bennett said the oddsmaker who made the Saints -17.5 had subsequently been promoted.

Here is this week's edition of Notable Bets, our weekly look at the storylines coming out of the sports betting world:

NFL

• Leading up to the early kickoffs on Sunday, four teams had attracted greater than 80% of the money bet on the point spread of their games at William Hill U.S. sportsbooks around the nation: the Giants, Raiders, Dolphins and Cardinals. Only the Dolphins covered the spread on another rough day for the betting public.

• The Giants were one of the most heavily bet teams of the entire season at Cincinnati on Sunday. At William Hill books, 98% of the point-spread money was on the Giants in a game that attracted more money than any other early kickoff. The Giants won but failed to cover the 6.5-point spread in a 19-17 victory. Bengals quarterback Brandon Allen, stepping in for injured starter Joe Burrow, capped a seven-play, 72-yard drive with a touchdown pass to Tee Higgins with 2:33 left.

"The Giants game was a monster decision for us," Tom Gable, sportsbook director at The Borgata in Atlantic City, N.J., told ESPN. "We had a lot of Giants money coming in all week, even as the point spread kept creeping up. The backdoor cover by the Bengals was huge."

• BetMGM reported taking multiple six-figure bets on the Raiders, who were heavily backed and closed as 3.5-point favorites over the Falcons. Atlanta won 43-6.

• Jeff Stoneback, director of BetMGM sportsbooks in Nevada, said the only two early games his shops suffered losses on were the Bills covering the spread in a 27-17 win over the Chargers and the underdog Titans' 45-26 win over the Colts.

"Real good morning," Stoneback said as the late-afternoon games were finishing. "We're probably going to give it all back [this afternoon]."

Stoneback didn't give it all back though, thanks to the Buccaneers rallying for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to cover the 3.5-point spread in a 27-24 loss to the Chiefs.

• The Sunday games that attracted the most money at sportsbook PointsBet: Bears at Packers, Chiefs at Buccaneers, 49ers at Rams.

• "Morning was very good," John Murray, executive director of the SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, told ESPN. Murray pointed to the underdog Patriots' 20-17 win over the Cardinals, in addition to the hometown Raiders losing at Atlanta, as the catalysts for the book's successful early slate. "The afternoon wasn't as good. We got beat up on the Saints, but we came out a nice winner overall for the day."

• The total on the Saints-Broncos game dropped from around 43 to 36 after the quarterback news broke. PointsBet reported a surge of bets and money on the over at the new total. The Saints' 31-3 win stayed under the total.

• Before kickoff of the prime-time game on Sunday, PointsBet reported that the point-spread bets were evenly distributed between Chicago and favored Green Bay, but the Bears had attracted four times as much money. "Our bigger players are on the Bears," Patrick Eichner, PointsBet communications director, told ESPN.

A bettor at a BetMGM sportsbook in Nevada placed a $100,000 money-line bet on the underdog Bears at +320.

The Packers won 41-25.

• The Thanksgiving slate, which was reduced to two games between teams with losing records, attracted significant betting handle. DraftKings said more than three times as much money was bet on the Houston-Detroit and Washington-Dallas games this year compared to the three Thanksgiving games last year. Some of that increase can be attributed to DraftKings operating in a few more states than last year.

PointsBet compared the betting handle on Houston-Detroit and Washington-Dallas to how much is bet on a standalone Monday night game.

The handle would've been much greater if Baltimore-Pittsburgh hadn't been rescheduled. William Hill said the prime-time games on Thanksgiving were the most heavily bet games of the regular season the previous two years.

• The Steelers were consensus 10-point favorites over the Ravens as of Sunday night. That game is scheduled to be played on Tuesday. The forecast in Pittsburgh calls for snow and winds in the 14 mph range. The total was sitting at 41.


College football

• Alabama opened as a 25-point road favorite over LSU at Circa Sports, the first U.S. sportsbook to post weekly college football lines. In the past 40 seasons, no defending national champion has been as big an underdog as the Tigers this week against the Crimson Tide, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Auburn, in 2011, was the only other defending national champ to be a 20-point-plus underdog in a game.

Within an hour of posting Alabama -25, the line had been bet up to -28.

• Other notable opening lines via Circa Sports:

Clemson (-21, 63.5) at Virginia Tech
Ohio State (-24, 62.5) at Michigan State
Florida (-18, 62.5) at Tennessee
Syracuse at Notre Dame (-32, 52.5)
Texas A&M (-4, 56.5) at Auburn

• Updated odds to win the national championship via the SuperBook (as of Nov. 29):

Alabama 10-11
Clemson 5-2
Ohio State 7-2
Notre Dame 14-1
Florida 18-1
Texas A&M 40-1
Cincinnati 50-1
USC 80-1
BYU 100-1
Coastal Carolina 1,000-1


Odds and ends

College basketball: San Francisco upset No. 4 Virginia, as a 15-point underdog, on Friday. At William Hill sportsbooks, 97% of the point-spread money was on the Cavaliers.

Tyson-Jones: The betting handle on the bout between Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. eclipsed seven figures at DraftKings, according to sportsbook director Johnny Avello.

DraftKings reported taking a $10,000 bet on Jake Paul to defeat Nate Robinson (Paul won), and a $2,500 bet on Tyson (fight was ruled a draw).

The Match III: Avello compared the betting handle on the golf match featuring Charles Barkley and Phil Mickelson versus Peyton Manning and Stephen Curry to how much is bet on a NASCAR race. "It was no Masters, but it was decent," Avello said.

Barkley and Mickelson, who were the underdogs, won.


Three questions with ...

... Harris Poll CEO Will Johnson.

The Harris Poll recently surveyed 2,022 U.S. adults about the growing American regulated sports betting market. CEO Will Johnson participated in an email Q&A with ESPN about the results.

Q: What stood out or really surprised you from the poll results?

A: "How quickly COVID-19 is propelling sports betting into the mainstream. A third of all sports gamblers only began betting on pro sports since the pandemic hit last March. And half say they're watching sports they didn't watch before the coronavirus shut things down, though football is still their favorite."

Q: The buzz word coming out of leagues and sports betting operators is "engagement." Do the poll results reflect an increase in "engagement" from bettors?

A: "They're smart to be buzzing about engagement. Two-thirds of all bettors say they watch more games or events since they started wagering on them, and three-quarters say they enjoy watching sports more when they've got money on the line. They also bet a lot. A third say they wager on sports at least once a day."

Q: As sports betting expands across the nation, many people felt bookmakers would be inundated with action on the home teams week after week. What did the poll results reveal about America's love of the home team?

A: "Winning a bet easily tops a win by your home team. Seventy percent of sports gamblers say they'd bet against a favorite team for a chance to win a bet. One other thing about bettors: Most of them think sports gambling is less risky because they're skilled enough to beat the odds. For many, this is all about the money."