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War of Attrition

The fact that the NFL is making annual inroads in the UK, with another regular-season game, Simon Noble wonders whether we have to make room for an alternate definition of football.

It’s been 10 years now since Londoners cheered home-grown American football as the London Monarchs unsuccessfully tried to win over the capital to the delights of the Gridiron. Sadly the pioneering team folded in 1998, and the entire NFL Europa league belatedly followed suit last summer. There is, however, still a place for American football in the UK, and that place is Wembley Stadium.

The New Orleans Saints and the San Diego Chargers will do battle at Wembley on October 26. This will be the third regular-season NFL game held outside of the United States and the second at London’s rebuilt sport’s Mecca.

In last year’s International Series, the New York Giants defeated the Miami Dolphins 13-10. The typical late-October day in London turned into an unusually soggy NFL game: only the seats are covered at Wembley, not the pitch. Slippery conditions allowed the Dolphins, who were 0-7 (zero wins-seven defeats) at the time, to stay competitive with the 5-2 Giants, and easily covered the +10.5-point spread.

The discrepancy in talent between the two featured teams should not be as blatant this time. Although the Saints are coming off a disappointing 7-9 campaign (6-10 against the spread or ATS), better things are expected in 2008. The Saints are favoured to win the NFC South division at 2.240, and Pinnacle have set their predicted total of regular season victories at 8.5, with the over seemingly more likely at 1.654 with the under at 2.370.

The Chargers are pointed even more firmly toward a division crown, priced 1.270 on Pinnacle’s NFL futures market to repeat as AFC West champions. Pinnacle have their total season wins set at 10.5, with the over priced favourite at 1.565, while the odds on their producing under 10.5 wins set at 2.610. This team has momentum on its side; San Diego swept its last six regular season games to finish the 2007 campaign at 11-5 straight up (SU) and ATS. Then the Chargers ploughed through the Tennessee Titans (+10.5) and the defending Super Bowl champion, the Indianapolis Colts (-10.5), before falling to the New England Patriots (-14) in the AFC Championship Game.

Despite losing, San Diego still covered the spread in that one, losing by nine points, 21-12 in a match-up where their three most important offensive weapons were playing injured. Quarterback Philip Rivers (knee), running back LaDainian Tomlinson (knee) and tight-end Antonio Gates (toe) have had ample time to recover during the summer layoff, and should all be in form well before visiting Wembley.

Injuries told the larger part of the story for last year’s Saints. Once running-back Deuce McAllister was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, New Orleans was in trouble. Reggie Bush, the exciting tailback, who won the prestigious Heisman Trophy for college football players in 2005, had a very poor year for the Saints. Bush scored only six touchdowns (TDs), running for an average of 3.7 yards per carry and catching 73 passes for 417 yards. Tomlinson, by comparison, scored 18 TDs on 4.7 yards per carry, with 60 catches for 475 yards. And those numbers were down from 2006, when Tomlinson won the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award.

New Orleans’ problems were most obvious in the running department. However, the defence was even worse. The Saints allowed 388 points last year, or 24.25 per game. Only seven teams in the 30-team NFL were worse. New Orleans was especially bad at covering the opponent’s top wide receiver. The man who received the most criticism? Cornerback Larry David, who signed a four-year contract with the Saints, after winning the Super Bowl with Indianapolis the season before.

David will have some help this year. Randall Gay, who won a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots in 2004, has also signed a four-year contract with New Orleans. Yet there is concern that Gay is not the player he once was, after missing parts of the 2005 and 2006 seasons to injuries. He came back last year to play every game for New England; with fellow cornerback, Mike McKenzie, recovering from knee surgery, the pressure is on Gay to deliver.

The Chargers’ defence, meanwhile, was ranked fifth overall in efficiency and second against the pass, which is New Orleans’ strong suit. Perhaps the Saints should pray for some of that rain.

Players to Watch

New Orleans Saints

Quarterback (QB) Drew Brees: Made the Pro Bowl (the NFL’s annual All-Star game) twice, in 2004 with the Chargers, and 2006 with the Saints.

Running Back (RB) Reggie Bush: One of the NFL’s least efficient tailbacks in 2007. Also missed the last month of the season with a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

Wide Receiver (WR) Marques Colston: Had a good sophomore season (98 catches, 1,202 yards, 11 touchdowns) despite assorted injuries and being the focus of opposing defences.

Tight End (TE) Jeremy Shockey: A four-time Pro Bowler with the Giants, picked up via trade, to take pressure off Colston. Caught only three touchdown passes last year, after seven in each of 2005 and 2006.

San Diego Chargers

Quarterback (QB) Philip Rivers: Originally drafted by the Giants, but was immediately traded to San Diego with two more draft picks for Eli Manning. Made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2006.

Running Back (RB) LaDainian Tomlinson: Considered one of the greatest all-around tailbacks in NFL history, along with Barry Sanders. A five-time Pro Bowler who scored a record 31 touchdowns in 2006 and passed for two more.

Tight End (TE) Antonio Gates: The team’s leading receiver with 75 catches last year for 984 yards and nine TDs. Considered the best catching tight-end in the league; made four Pro Bowls.

Cornerback (CB) Antonio Cromartie: Led the league with a franchise-record 10 interceptions, and ran a missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown. Made the Pro Bowl in his first full season.

Know Your... Betting on the NFL

Bookmakers typically offer two-way NFL betting on Sides (handicaps), Totals (under/over) and the Moneyline (outright winner), all of which relate to the outcome of the game. These bet types are standard across the betting industry, and you’ll find bookmakers on both sides of the Atlantic regularly offering NFL markets priced to between 105-112 percent.

The Moneyline

The Money Line (ML) is a popular bet that offers odds on either side simply winning the contest by scoring more points than the other team. The ML is the most accessible bet for newcomers to the sport if they’re familiar with soccer betting. The only difference being that they don’t need to worry about the dreaded draw.

The Spread

This is the most popular bet in America on the NFL. As in any two-way contest, opposing NFL teams will vary in strength to some degree. To effectively counter the perceived bias in abilities, sportsbooks offer a ‘point spread’ or ‘handicap’ to level the playing field. The spread is factored into the final score to determine the event’s outcome for the purpose of settling the bet (which might be different from the actual result).

Using last year’s Superbowl, the wagering options offered were "New England Patriots -13.5" or "New York Giants +13.5". A wager on New England would have paid if the Patriots won by 14 or more points, and similarly a wager on New York would have paid if the Giants had won the game, or lost by less than 14 points.

In the event, those who bet "Giants +13.5" won their bets, with the Giants’ three-point margin of success (17-14) and the spread, which already gave them a 13.5-point start. The term used to describe this is ATS as it went against the perceived outcome for the game on all known probabilities.

Totals

Totals bets are a popular alternative to ’pointspreads’ as the focus is not on finding the winner of a particular event but predicting the outcome of how many combined points will be scored by both teams during the game including any OT played.
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