Gambling on sports

19 Oct

I don’t think there are enough blogs about sports, so sometimes I will talk about sports.

Last night’s 49ers/Seahawks games featured one of the most amazing endings I’ve ever seen. Some people might hear that statement and immediately agree. But I think most people who watched the game would think I was crazy for saying so.

This was a boring football game. Two mediocre quarterbacks and two good defenses playing on a short week of practice. With a minute left, the 49ers were leading 13-6. The Seahawks had the ball at their own 4-yard line. It was 4th and 17. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson threw a pass to a receiver who was juuust short of a first down. On the play, the Seahawks were called for a chop block in their own end zone. This would result in a safety, and make the score 15-6.

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh had two choices: take the penalty, the two points, and have the Seahawks kick off; or decline the penalty and take the ball at the Seahawks 20. Normally, this is sort of a moot point. No matter what decision Harbaugh made, the 49ers were going to win. The game was, for practical purposes, over.

Jim Harbaugh is intense

While Harbaugh was making his decision, the referees decided to review the play to make sure that the Seahawks hadn’t gotten a first down on the pass. During the commercial, a thought came over me: I wonder what the line is? I checked. 49ers -7.5.* Holy shit. I read today that there was something like $200 million in action on the game in Vegas. Imagine the joy of people betting on the 49ers. To cover a spread on a penalty that results in a safety in the last minute? That has to be one of the most unlikely endings in the annals of gambling. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. If this had happened on 3rd down, or if the Seahawks had gained another six inches on the play, the decision is easy: take the penalty. If only it were that simple.

*For all of my readers inexperienced in picking NFL games against the spread, this means that if you bet on the 49ers, they had to win by 8 or more points for you to win the bet. A 49ers loss or win by 7 or fewer and you lose.

The safe decision is to decline the penalty, take the ball, and win 13-6. That’s what Harbaugh eventually did. Taking a knee up one score is safer than risking an onside kick up two scores. But to take points off the board is almost unheard of. Sometimes teams will take a safety on purpose late in the game when they’re ahead, in order to avoid a blocked punt. This was the inverse of that situation.

That 4th and 17 becomes, in retrospect, one of the NFL season’s most dramatic moments. 49ers bettors went from a sure loss to a miraculous cover to giving away the cover all in one play. I’ve never seen anything like it. I probably never will again. I’m glad I don’t bet on football.

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