The good folks at Lucky's Race and Sports Book in Nevada sent me their 2011 NFL title odds last week, and as I am wont to do, I began scanning the list to see if anything caught my eye.
The Colts, at 8-1, were the shortest price on the board as of Tuesday. That's reasonable, but it doesn't get the heart pumping. The defending Super Bowl-champion Saints? They're 10-1, as are the Chargers, one of the NFL's more talented teams. Both are reasonable gambles, sure, but neither would inspire me, were I to bet on pro football futures, to break into a dead sprint.
Down the list I went. The Packers are 13-1. Now that's interesting. The Eagles are 18-1. That's really interesting.
Then I came to the Houston Texans, whom Lucky's has installed at 20-1.
To me, that's a short price. I just don't think you can take just 20-1 on a club that went 1-5 against its division last season. Personally, I would demand closer to 30-1 or 40-1 before I would consider suggesting a bet on the Texans.
Then, it struck me: The Texans aren't a long shot anymore, and they won't be for several more seasons. Now, it's not so inconceivable that the Texans could make a Super Bowl. They were a franchise-best 9-7 a season ago. They played the Colts tough, losing by three at Indianapolis in November and blowing a big lead at home in the rematch three weeks later. The Texans' offense has a Pro Bowl quarterback (Matt Schaub), the AFC's best wide receiver (Andre Johnson) and a defense that significantly improved as last season progressed. This is a young, talented team.
Again, 20-1 doesn't represent exceptional value to me, but if someone excitedly waved a ticket with the Texans to win the Super Bowl in front of my face, I would smile and tip my cap, because they could very well make the postseason in 2010, and they have many intriguing elements. Less-sturdy bandwagons have been boarded more hastily and heavily.
What a team's Super Bowl odds ultimately reflect is how the team is perceived by the public. Oddsmakers have to find a price that attracts the proper amount of betting action. For instance, 2-1 on Indianapolis would do little but inspire guffaws, while 20-1 would inspire a flood of money.
In short, the Texans' place on Lucky's betting board, with only 11 teams with lower Super Bowl odds, is just another shorthand way to confirm how far they have come in recent years. They are playoff contenders.
Which makes how they react to losing Dunta Robinson, their most accomplished cornerback last season, something to watch in the weeks ahead after Robinson signed a six-year, $57 million contract with the Falcons on March 6. The Texans and Robinson could not come to terms on a long-term deal, and they decided that the cost of giving him the franchise tag for a second consecutive season (close to $12 million for one year) was prohibitive. Robinson never has made a Pro Bowl, and he had no interceptions last season, but the megadeal he garnered from Atlanta highlights how difficult reliable cornerbacks are to find. (The Falcons are 32-1 at Lucky's, by the way.)
The Texans hosted Patriots unrestricted free-agent CB Leigh Bodden earlier this week, but he re-signed with New England. Perhaps they will be players for other UFA corners, but Robinson and Bodden were the best of that group. What seems more likely is that the Texans draft a corner to join the competition for a starting spot opposite Glover Quin, who played well as a rookie. Fred Bennett, Brice McCain, Antwaun Molden and Jacques Reeves are the primary contenders for the other starter's role.
Perhaps the Texans are banking on one or more of the corners currently on the roster to improve significantly this season, or maybe they find another undervalued talent like Quin, who slipped to Round Four of the '09 draft. Whatever their plan, their pass defense likely cannot regress significantly if they are to harbor hopes of making the postseason for the first time. Houston was 18th in passing yards allowed per game last season and allowed opponents to complete 62.8 percent of their passes, 10th-worst in the NFL.
You can see where the Texans were coming from when they wouldn't sign Robinson long term — it wasn't as if they were playing great pass defense with him in the fold as it was. But at times last season, the Texans looked like they were finally ready to be a postseason contender. They took apart a good Bengals team in Cincinnati. They ripped off four straight wins to start the season, including very impressive wins vs. Seattle and at Miami. Most importantly, they twice stood up to the Colts.
I plan to get to Las Vegas this summer, as I always do, I'll walk into the sports books around town and check out the Super Bowl odds. I fully expect the Texans to be hovering around 20-1. They will be the sleeper team for plenty of folks. I won't have a dollar on them, but I will understand why others will be backing them. I will, however, be wondering if they can build off 9-7 without Robinson around.
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