Friday, Jan. 13, 2012 | 2:05 a.m.
NFL divisional playoff lines
The Tim Tebow fascination knows no bounds.
A poll released by ESPN Thursday named Tebow the most popular athlete in America. That’s something Las Vegas sports book operators already knew based on the giant betting handles attached to every game Tebow and the Broncos have played in recently.
“Make no mistake about it: He’s created a ton of action,” said Jimmy Vaccaro, director of Lucky’s sports books. “I certainly welcome him because he’s a polarizing figure. He creates a lot of excitement. He’s the story, and that’s always good for the books.”
Tebow leads Denver into New England Saturday night in a game that should account for the highest volume of money wagered during the divisional weekend of the NFL Playoffs. The Broncos are installed as 13.5-point underdogs.
Sports books have printed more tickets on the Broncos so far. But they’re braced for the possibility of Patriots money flooding in over the next coupe days.
It’s been hard to project who the public would support in any given Denver game since Tebow took over the starting quarterback job in week seven of the season. Bettors haven’t taken an overwhelming pro- or anti-Tebow stance. It’s alternated.
They were hesitant to back a Tebow-led team at first, according to Wynn sports book director John Avello, before jumping on board in a major way as the Broncos went on a six-game winning streak.
A crushing 41-23 defeat in Denver’s first meeting with New England last month gave bettors pause and increased the amount of wagers against the Broncos.
“Forget about handicapping the Denver Broncos,” Avello said. “Through the course of the season, it’s become about handicapping Tebow personally. Can he get the job done? That’s what they’re asking.”
Avello chuckled when asked whether any other athletes fell under that distinction. He’s seen it plenty of times with quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but that’s different.
Those two are perennial All-Pro quarterbacks who routinely break records and rank near the top of the NFL in every statistical category. Tebow, on the other hand, has completed only 46 percent of his passes this season and comes in 28th out of 34 quarterbacks in passer rating.
“When it’s Manning or Brady, I understand,” Avello said. “But when it’s a guy who doesn’t have the typical quarterback skills, it’s a little harder to understand.”
Avello loves watching Tebow, but believes all the hoopla has caused the Patriots line to be lower than it should be. He thought New England was truly a 15- or 16-point favorite over Denver.
But plenty disagree. Most shops opened New England at 14 and adjusted after an early surge of Denver support.
“Some sophisticated guys thought the number was too high,” Vaccaro said. “There was money on the Broncos right away.”
There’s an undeniable case to be made in support of Denver. The Patriots haven’t covered a playoff-game spread in exactly five years. The last time came when they beat the San Diego Chargers 24-21 as five-point underdogs on January 14, 2007.
New England is 0-6 against-the-spread in the postseason since then, according to the sports betting database at covers.com, and also weren’t overly reliable for bettors this season.
Tebow has led Denver to a 7-5 record against-the-spread since he took over as the quarterback. During the same span, Tom Brady has only gone 5-6 versus the Vegas number for the Patriots.
Tebow himself was surprised to learn the Broncos were such long shots.
“The cool thing about that is maybe a bunch of people will win some money betting on our side,” Tebow told ESPN.com.
What Tebow probably doesn’t realize is how much money he cost bettors last week when Denver played the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh -8 was a popular bet all around town and sports books were in trouble with the amount of teasers and parlays they would have to pay out if the Steelers won.
But a valiant effort that saw Tebow score three touchdowns, including an 80-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas to end the game in overtime, and throw for 316 yards put those concerns to rest. The 29-23 Broncos upset victory gave sports books one of their most positive results in recent weeks.
“It saved the weekend for us,” Vaccaro said. “We were really rooting for them.”
That’s more proof that Las Vegas isn’t exempt from the Tebow obsession sweeping the rest of the nation. Oddsmakers are as pleased about his presence as everyone else.