LAS VEGAS (AP) -The guys in the back rooms who make the numbers seem a bit confused by this one, though they're hardly alone. The Arizona Cardinals haven't made it easy for anyone in their improbable run to the Super Bowl.
The Cardinals will be underdogs against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that much is certain in the sports books that line the Las Vegas Strip. No surprise there, because Arizona has been the dog in all three of its playoff games after sputtering badly late in the regular season.
The NFL will have you believe it doesn't matter because there is no such thing as a connection between the league's popularity and the ease with which you can bet on a game. The league and the television talking heads who understand what side their bread is buttered on will pretend that there is no such thing as a point spread on the biggest game of the year.
on everything from the opening coin flip to the eventual final score. Millions of Americans will have a financial stake in the game, whether they wager online, in a Vegas sports book or simply buy a square or two in the pool at their local bar.
I don't bet on sports, mostly because I'm lousy at picking winners, but a friend of mine risked five bucks in August on a 50-1 shot that the Cardinals will win the Super Bowl. Those odds weren't bad, but bookies thought so little of Arizona that even when the Cardinals made the playoffs you could still get 35-1 on them winning it all.
Fortunately for the bookies, my friend's bet was about the norm. Bettors didn't wager serious money on the Cardinals, even at longshot odds, because they had no idea going into the playoffs that Kurt Warner would play like he did earlier in the season, Edgerrin James would get a chance to run the ball, and Larry Fitzgerald would stake his claim as the best wide receiver in the league.
That combination, along with an underrated defense, was good enough to win three playoff games and get the Cardinals in the Super Bowl for the first time in their history. And what a miserable history it has been, stretching from the team's formation in 1898 in Chicago to its current location in Phoenix, where before this year the Cardinals had one winning season in 21 years.
There was never any reason to believe Arizona could actually make it to the Super Bowl. History shows that perennially bad teams tend to revert to doing bad things (see Chicago Cubs) when the pressure is on because they don't know how do anything different.
But now the Cardinals are in, and with two weeks to kill before the game we turn to the bookies to figure out just how bad they will get beaten by the powerful Steelers. That's a task the oddsmakers undertake with varying degrees of success for every NFL game, but it becomes more important in the big game when almost everyone but Roger Goodell has a bet down.
Last year the bookies didn't do too well, losing money in Las Vegas after making the New England Patriots prohibitive 13.5 point favorites over the New York Giants. That didn't mean they thought the Patriots were two touchdowns better than the Giants, only that they figured bettors would overwhelm them with money on the Patriots unless they put up a big enough spread to get money back on the underdog.
``The Super Bowl is a different animal,'' said Jay Kornegay, who runs the sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton. ``The so-called public money overruns the professional plays because so many people are betting. So we have to make a line that reflects public opinion, not necessarily the strength of the two teams.''
The problem is, even the bookies can't figure out the Cardinals. Are they really a solid playoff team, or are they closer to the team that got blown out in three of their last five regular season games?
The consensus in this gambling town is that Arizona is somewhere in between, with the Steelers settling in as a 7-point favorite in most sports books. It's a safe number, designed to attract both those jumping on the Cardinals bandwagon and those who figure the Steelers will have no trouble winning by more than a touchdown.
Figure in the over-under of 47 total points and you can even come up with a final score - Steelers 27, Cardinals 20.
That would cost my friend the $250 he would make if the Cardinals won the Super Bowl, but that's the life of a big gambler.
I'm recommending he protect himself by betting it all on the Cardinals to win the opening coin toss. As lucky as they've been so far in these playoffs, that may be as close as you can get to a sure thing.
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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org
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