How do you define a comeback season? To borrow from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart some 57 years ago, we know it when we see it. Everybody understands what a comeback is. It’s right there in the compound word. You’re coming back from something.
If you either didn’t play much, or didn’t play well, the year before, or for multiple years before, and you’re now having success — that’s a comeback. But there’s a lot of room for interpretation in terms of what type of comeback is most impressive.
The NFL is a physically taxing sport and players suffer major injuries all the time, so someone returning from a season-ending injury and playing at a level comparable to how he did before the injury, while impressive, is fairly commonplace. Numerous top pros do it every year. When the injury appears career-ending and even turns into something life-threatening, as was the case for 2020 NFL Comeback Player of the Year Alex Smith, that stands apart from the crowd and almost renders the quality of play irrelevant. But a standard ACL tear or broken wrist? The player should need to perform exceptionally well post-injury to earn CPOY honors.
Less common is the comeback whereby a player used to be good, then turned bad, and found a way to get good again. The comeback is more pure, more organic, more meaningful, perhaps. The player is making adjustments, improving mentally, conquering demons, etc. Not to diminish the work it takes to rehab from an injury, of course, but the pit that is failure is deeper and usually harder to climb out of.
And, by the way, he’s coming back from injury too — he started the season with a foot injury and then tried to play for a little while on zero fully functioning ankles. But more notable is the way he’s bounced back from an utterly horrendous season for the Phildelphia Eagles in 2020. An MVP frontrunner in 2017 until a late-season injury, he continued to mostly resemble a franchise quarterback the next two seasons, but the bottom dropped out last year. He posted a 41.9 QBR and a 72.8 rating, committing 21 turnovers in 12 games and getting benched before getting shipped out of town.
But he’s playing well again for the Indianapolis Colts — and getting better with each week. His rating is up 30 points over last season. He’s thrown just one interception against 11 TD passes. Universally given up on and ridiculed last December, he’s now a quarterback capable of leading a team to the playoffs again. That’s a comeback in every sense of the word.
Yet his CPOY odds are much longer than Dak Prescott’s (an overwhelming -300 favorite at DraftKings) and Joe Burrow’s (+800 at FanDuel). What have those two done in 2021? Pretty much exactly what everyone expected them to do once they were healed from last year’s season-ending injuries.
Prescott and Burrow have, to varying degrees, emerged as MVP candidates. Wentz would need 10 straight games of looking like prime Peyton Manning to enter that discussion. The only award he has a chance to win is Comeback Player of the Year.
But what he’s doing is more unlikely and arguably more impressive than what the other CPOY candidates are doing. Look, if Dak stays healthy and Dallas keeps winning, the award is going to be his. But if he slips up at all, maybe enough voters will take the time to think about what’s more rare to come back from: being carted off or being written off.
While we continue to ponder whether a 25/1 longshot dependent upon deep voter reflection is worth a wager, let’s take an early look at the lines and assorted betting odds and ends for Week 8:
The consensus lines
Most lines vary by half a point in either direction, with slightly different vigs from book to book, so it’s always advisable to price-shop at all the available mobile sportsbooks in your state. But here are the consensus (most commonly found) spreads for each of the 15 games in Week 8 (the Raiders and Ravens both have bye weeks):
- Packers at Cardinals (-6)
- Panthers at Falcons (-3)
- Dolphins at Bills (-13.5)
- 49ers (-3.5) at Bears
- Steelers at Browns (-3.5)
- Eagles (-3.5) at Lions
- Titans (-1.5) at Colts
- Bengals (-9.5) at Jets
- Rams (-14.5) at Texans
- Patriots at Chargers (-5.5)
- Jaguars at Seahawks (-3.5)
- Washington at Broncos (-3.5)
- Buccaneers (-5) at Saints
- Cowboys (-3) at Vikings
- Giants at Chiefs (-10.5)
Line move to watch
The biggest move of the week has already started (and possibly finished) for the Thursday night game — the unofficial Game of the Week, by the way — with the 6-1 Packers visiting the 7-0 Cardinals. Green Bay superstar WR Davante Adams is out due to COVID protocols, which has caused the line to jump from Arizona by 3.5 to Arizona by 6.
There’s also been some movement with Dallas at Minnesota, as the Cowboys opened as 1.5-point favorites and are now giving a full field goal. The opening line was apparently too low and the bettors hammered it.
So which line might still have some movement left in it? Keep an eye on Rams-Texans. After L.A. failed to cover against the Lions in Week 7, bettors might like Houston getting all those points at home and swing it from a half-point over two TDs to a half-point below. And if there’s positive news about Texans QB Tyrod Taylor’s playing prospects, the line might just shift a couple of points. The difference between middling veteran Taylor and overwhelmed rookie Davis Mills cannot be overstated.
Intriguing moneyline underdogs to consider
Bronze medal: (tie) Bears +160 (FOX Bet) vs. 49ers, Jaguars +160 (DraftKings) at Seahawks. Yeah, we’re giving you four ’dogs instead of three this week. These two have the same price against the NFC West’s two disappointments and we really can’t choose between them. The Bears actually have a better record than the Niners and should be feeling awfully disrespected to be getting points at home, while the Seahawks without Russell Wilson are capable of losing to anybody — even the Jags.
Silver medal: Washington +145 (Caesars) at Broncos. At the same price point as the Lions to beat the Eagles, we see a tad more upset potential here because Washington has twice found ways to beat subpar teams (Giants, Falcons) and the Broncos sure appear to fit that description. Detroit has come frustratingly close a lot this year, but we can’t quite say they’re better than 40% likely to get over the hump against Philly.
Gold medal: Packers +210 (FOX Bet) at Cardinals. This line started at +180 before the Adams news. That was a great number. This is still a good one. After this game, the Cardinals’ next four are against San Francisco, Carolina, Seattle, and Chicago. So if they beat Green Bay, that means they’re probably starting their season 12-0. I’m not sure I’m ready to live in a world with a 12-0 Cardinals team. Even without Adams, Green Bay has the pieces to knock them off their perch.
Textbook teaser candidates
Fans of the three-team (or more) teaser know what to look for: favorites of 6 or more who become very safe bets if you reduce the spread by about a touchdown. Here are this week’s options that fit the bill:
- Bills: Can tease down to -7.5 or -6.5 at home off a bye against the one-win Dolphins.
- Bengals: Can tease down to -3.5 or -2.5 at Mike White and the one-win Jets.
- Rams: Can tease down to -8.5 or -7.5 on the road against the one-win Texans.
- Chiefs: Can tease down to -4.5 or -3.5 at home on Monday night against the two-win Giants.
Pick three (or more), pick 6 points or 7 (or 6.5), and let the sweating of a +140 or so return begin. It’s probably worth paying for that seventh point this week — especially with the way the Rams needed you to go the full 7 to cover last week against the Lions. But we’re still a tiny bit nervous if Taylor plays for Houston or if the G-Men get a little healthier. We wouldn’t blame you if you chose to play it safe and just two-teamer it up with Buffalo and Cincy, paying for that seventh point to get to -6.5 and -2.5, respectively.
Most Valuable MVP bet
The deeper we go into the season, the harder it gets to find MVP value. But you can never go too horribly wrong risking a few bucks on a longshot. And at the moment, Bengals QB Burrow is the one guy at odds above 15/1 who might just be worth a flyer.
The sophomore signal caller, who, as noted at the top of this article, is the second favorite for Comeback Player of the Year, is 40/1 for MVP at FanDuel, BetMGM, and Barstool Sportsbook, among others. The Bengals are a surprising 5-2, tied for first in the AFC North, and Burrow is playing … fine. He’s not leading the league in any statistical categories, but his numbers are solid across the board. Most importantly, he’s improving from week to week.
So, this is a trajectory bet. If Burrow keeps getting better, as QBs often do once have they 10-20 games under their belt, and the Bengals, a team expected by most to finish last in their division, should happen to instead finish first, he has a chance. Add in the fact that they play the Jets this week and Burrow figures to pad some stats en route to running the team’s record to 6-2, and the time to bet him is now, not when he potentially drops to +2500 a week from now.
All that said, Tom Brady might still be the best bet on the board, as we’ve told you in this space most weeks. DraftKings still has him at +750 for MVP, trailing Kyler Murray, Josh Allen, and Dak Prescott. There’s no reason Brady should have longer odds than any of them. The Bucs are likely to finish with 14 or 15 wins and Brady is leading the league in yards and TD passes. And, remember, he’s twice the age of most of his competition for this award and hasn’t won it an overabundance of times relative to his general GOAT-iness. Voter sentimentality is his friend.
How did we do last week?
This column is not really about betting advice — it’s more an overview of the NFL week ahead and a collection of ideas to think about — but we may as well have some accountability. So …
Last week’s best call: We have two hands, so we may as well use ‘em both and pat ourselves on the back twice here. Our 10-point teaser suggestion on the Rams, Cards, and Bucs delivered, as did our silver medal moneyline underdog, the Titans — at a handsome +184.
However, we must bow to our colleague Jeff Edelstein’s +1987 lightning bolt of a parlay in his Friday Sports Handle column as a far superior call to anything this column offered. Check it out. (But watch the embedded video of Jeff at your own risk.)
Last week’s worst call: We didn’t screw up too badly anywhere, if we’re being honest. I mean sure, two of our three moneyline underdog recommendations lost, but they’re underdogs — you’re supposed to lose more often than you win. And both losers, the Broncos and Seahawks, fell just a field goal short. Frankly, we regret nothing.
- It’s time for the weekly update on the five-team division-winner parlay (Bills, Titans, Cowboys, Packers, Bucs) we offered up three weeks ago. It went from +246, to +160, to -103, and now you have to lay -123. Yes, the plan is to keep rubbing it in every week and make you feel bad if you didn’t bet it at the best price.
- And now let’s execute a quick ego balance: On the Gamble On podcast, I’ve been so horrendous this season at picking games against the spread that I tried a George Costanza do-the-opposite strategy last week. Naturally, I turned what would have been a respectable 3-2 week into a sad 2-3. And the Yankees have not offered me a front-office job. Total fail.
- As ESPN.com’s David Purdum wrote, the Bengals, Cardinals, and Raiders are all in first place in their respective divisions after each starting the season with the longest odds in those divisions. Arizona was +575, Vegas was +1800, and Cincy was +2500. None are close to sure things yet, however. In fact, the Raiders (+400) still have longer odds in the AFC West than the Chargers or the sputtering Chiefs, and the Bengals (+350) are tied with the Browns and looking up at the Ravens.
- Want to get even more pumped for Thursday’s Arizona-Green Bay showdown? Both teams are 6-1 against the spread this season. Something’s gotta give.
Photo: Stan Szeto/USA TODAY