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Playing The Football Exchange - What A Good Opinion and Market Savvy Can Yield...By Nelson Lardner

The game-within-the-game was in full flower this past weekend in the world's gridiron marketplaces. The kind of fast-and-loose stuff hardcore fans witnessed in recent days was typical of recent years' early season scenery, when openers aren't quite as sharp as they tend to be later on.

And you didn't have to wait long for the sparkling centerpiece either . . . which, of course, was the Navy-at-Rutgers ESPN extravaganza of last Thursday night.

You know the basic, preliminary drill - established, legitimate Top-20 outfit (the Scarlet Knights), entertaining respectable, well-coached, disciplined service academy (the Middies).

And don't neglect the vital, relevant secondary theme here: Most reputable front-row head coaches with an ounce of class in their being don't go out of their way to rub it in against game-but-outmuscled service squads. It just isn't done, don't'cha'know?

You get the picture. With Rutgers still on the ascendant, they were likely capable to win by about as much as they liked - except, given the bounds of good taste, they wouldn't be so crass.

So it became a numbers game, in more ways than one. And the numbers came up aces, since based on raw talent and home cooking, Rutgers is at least two touchdowns better than Navy in any impartial evaluation of circumstances and material/talent comparisons.

But the thing opened with Rutgers in the - 12 1/2 neighborhood . . . sooooo awayyyyyyyy we went.

The fundamentalists took the market in hand and quickly drove the number upward, cutting through the key-number "14" level like a hot knife through butter. And the momentum barely slowed, until, at midweek, there was a measure of sustained availability of +17s on Navy. And at that juncture, the technicians who were well-aware of Navy's historical resiliency as a dissed road dog under similar conditions stepped in --- as did the guys who laid the -12 1/2. And you'd better believe that that made for a hasty retreat from the aforementioned 17, back to just above two touchdowns. Late action on game day drove it back up to a (consensus) -16 neighborhood . . . and they're off.

And the thing went just as you'd expect . . . you could have plotted the three-plus hours on a cocktail napkin. The Knights cruised to a 24-7 halftime lead, kicked away from a 10-point- to a 24-point lead in the upper stretch in the fourth quarter, then restrained themselves from rubbing it in . . . bemusedly proceeding to watch Navy punch in the final score of the evening on the ground with seconds to play. 41-24, final, drive home safely . . . and as sweet a "side" as you'll ever see, so long as you anticipated the optimum buyback point after loading up at the bargain counter, early-on.

That's how the game SHOULD be played.

Two of Sunday's NFL Week One pro moves were solid examples of a market trend which has grown even more pronounced in recent seasons. We refer to games opening in the "pick" area in which one side has a logical "case" clearly superior to that of its opponent. Of course, we refer to the Houston Texans and the Minnesota Vikings.

It's self-evident that the pronounced early moves on those games was not driven so much by any epic love for the Texans or Vikings . . . but by justified revulsion at the thought of anyone risking significant Yankee dollars on their respective opponents - the Kansas City Chiefs or the Atlanta Falcons. Both games went to -3 in but a short time, and remained there for the remainder of the weekly business interval.

Blessed with a shrewd opinion and early access, a player could set himself up to buy back as much as he might have felt prudent at +3, after exploiting the early, weak numbers. Generally, having Herm Edwards as your head coach does not induce offensive improvement, and the Chiefs have scored a grand total of two touchdowns in this cycle - including the preseason! And say what you want about Michael Vick (and we have . . .), the guy has long been capable of torturing teams not blessed with overwhelming outside pursuit speed on defense. His replacement in Bucktown, Joey Harrington hasn't been able to get arrested in multiple attempts to beat the Vikings in Minnesota, and under his directorship, the Falcons managed but a field goal in their bad loss.

As noted, both of the aforementioned NFL games moved with blitzkrieg speed. In previous years, the short-number-to-3 trend has not been acted out with such marked alacrity. It's going to be a sustained point of interest this season if the linemovers-and-shakers sustain sufficient confidence in their judgments to power such moves so emphatically, so early in each wagering week.

Nelson Lardner

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