Odds go out the window for unpredictable NFL playoffs

LAS VEGAS (AP) The playoffs are here, and nobody seems to know what to make of them.

Not fans of the NFL, where the usual suspects are a bit suspect this time around.

Not in this city's sports books, where five teams are essentially co-favorites to win the Super Bowl.

''It's kind of like in the Tour de France where you have a lead pack,'' said Jay Kornegay, who runs the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook. ''It's a wide-open affair as some of these elite teams have struggled down the stretch.''

After a season where parity reigned in the NFL, the postseason is shaping up much the same. Some of the dominant names of the past are in the hunt, but this could be one of the most unpredictable playoff mixes in recent years.

Three teams - the Patriots, Cardinals and Panthers - are 9-2 co-favorites at the Westgate to hold the Lombardi Trophy aloft in California next month. Two more - the Seahawks and Broncos - are just behind at 5-1.

Add in the Pittsburgh Steelers as an 8-1 pick, and essentially half the playoff teams are thought by oddsmakers to have a decent shot at becoming Super Bowl champs.

''It's getting to the point where you can't separate these teams anymore, especially the top five or six,'' said Jimmy Vaccaro of the South Point hotel sports book. ''There was a big falloff late in the season with the Patriots and Packers, which left room to move up. It's not a slam dunk for anyone this year.''

If any other evidence is needed of playoff parity it's that the two lowest-seeded teams are considered more than just live dogs for the title. Not only are Pittsburgh and Seattle ranked higher by oddsmakers, but it didn't take long after odds were posted Sunday for both teams to get action from bettors.

At the South Point, there was action on the Steelers right away, while at the Westgate bettors quickly jumped on the Seahawks, pushing them from 3 1-2-point to 5 1-2-point favorites at Minnesota.

''It's unique that the No. 6 seed in both conferences would be favorites over the 3rd, 4th and 5th seed in each conference,'' Kornegay said.

At the Westgate, the biggest early bet came on Arizona to win it all at 9-2 odds, a wager that will pay off in six figures if the Cardinals prevail. Not getting as much love is Carolina, which hasn't been a betting favorite even while almost going undefeated in the regular season.

The Panthers were undervalued by bookies most of the year, going 11-5 against the spread on the way to a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. That is due largely because they lack the kind of marquee value bettors find in teams like New England and Seattle.

''If the Patriots or Seahawks had the same type of results as the Panthers, they would both be clear favorites to win the Super Bowl,'' Kornegay said.

One thing bettors and bookies seem to agree more on is that Houston isn't going to make some kind of miracle run through the playoffs. The Texans face the longest odds at 60-1, and are 3-point underdogs at home against Kansas City in their playoff opener.

''I'm not even sure the general public knows the Texans are playing,'' Kornegay said.

Bookmakers don't really care who wins, though they do have some favorites for business reasons. Teams like Denver and New England always get good action, and Arizona could boost ticket revenue just because the Cardinals are relatively close to Las Vegas.

Last year, Nevada's 187 sportsbooks took in $115.9 million on the Super Bowl, but won just $3.26 million. It was the second-highest revenue for the game, a number that is expected to be surpassed this year.

''I think it's going to be the most interesting Super Bowl we've seen in 15 or 20 years,'' Vaccaro said. ''The Patriots and Packers are yesterday's America's team, like the Cowboys used to be. But we'll get more action because there are teams in there that haven't been there before. There's some great story lines for this one.''


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