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Anatomy of a Monday-Nighter - The More Things Change . . ....By Nelson Lardner

Those consultants of tea leaves who conjure up each NFL season's Monday Night Football schedule aren't perfect. But they gamely attempt to isolate their share of games in which the matchups and/or circumstances just might evolve into something explosive, i. e. "good television".

Going into this season, it seemed unlikely that this past Monday evening's Cowboys/Bills presentation was going to be "one of those games".

But never underestimate. By the time the first quarter was half-over - when Tony Romo threw the first of his five interceptions to George Wilson for a wrong-way touchdown - even the casual fan could see that this presentation was something that could "get good".

Surely, anything resembling a good game was no finger-snap to anticipate, on the surface. The Cowboys were 4-0, going in, scoring tons of points (151, to be exact) during the opening quarter of their season. Meanwhile, the Bills, playing a rookie quarterback (Trent Edwards) and enduring enervating injuries, especially on defense, came in 1-3, their lone win being their home win over the almost-as-downtrodden Jets.

Off their 38-10 and 35-7 crushings of the Bears and Rams on preceding weeks, 'Boys were destined to be hefty favorites in this spot - even in Buffalo. The game broadly opened -10, danced around that number most of the week, then surged past -10 late in the wagering session as the adoring Cowboy adherents who emerge like 17-year locusts whenever the franchise is flexing its muscles came out to play, embracing the visiting favorite at whatever silly numbers were available.

The folks who open for business and accommodate those who desire involvement in this thing we do, especially each autumn, live for this kind of game: high-profile . . . and featuring one-sided action on what has long been the WRONG side of this broad scenario, historically speaking.

To say the Cowboys have opened this season "hot" would be a gross understatement. Jerry Jones' bunch has gotten off to a splendid start, a frequent hallmark of an eventual Super Bowl participant.

The Bears broke from the gate in much the same style in 2006, running five straight off the top, including a 37-6 thrashing of the Seahawks and a 40-7 whalloping of these Bills. The Bears then visited Arizona as eleven-point favorites on a Monday night, and endured a horrid first half before rallying spectacularly to nip the Cards 24-23 at the wire, inspiring Denny Green's notorious "They are what we thought they were" press conference which marked the beginning of the end of that veteran coach's stint in the desert.

The parallel is eerie . . . almost uncanny. But the end result shouldn't be overly-surprising. This is PROFESSIONAL football. These guys don't get bonuses for running up scores. Good coaches with top teams want to steer through the season on as even a keel as possible, looking to peak in January - and no earlier, unless necessary to survive and advance. It may give an owner jollies to see his team go on a dominating rampage in September or October, winning by lopsided scores while keeping mistakes to a bare minimum. But those who have looked at all too many team logs over the years know that no NFL team is going to go on an unchallenged rampage through an entire season, without at least one dip in the road. You can't maintain peak form forever (as good as they are, even the Patriots will eventually discover this for themselves). The season's too long, and the multiple forces working in concert towards competitive league balance are too powerful, for any overwhelming power display to sustain for any extended period.

The nation's accountants were going to clean up under Monday's scenario, and they did. On a stand-alone Monday nighter? Goodness gracious. Many outlets leaked towards -11 - or even higher - late. Yet some greedheads in the biz embraced practices that would have embarrassed Ebenezer Scrooge. Multiple Vegas sources confirm that at least one book repeatedly noted for sharp practice were offering Dallas at over and above -11. Yet, folks who approached asking to play the Bills at parallel posted numbers were told that it wasn't available.

To them.

Heads I win, tails you lose. Class . . . with a capital "K". 11-10 isn't strong enough for some of these characters?

The soul of the game is to consistently honor a posted number, within an establishment's posted limits. Any house who consistently finds themselves unwilling to observe that homily on a sustained basis is in the wrong business.

Outside such isolated gross aberrations as the 2005 NFL season, during which favorites clicked at an absurdly-high rate, leaving many amateurs to enjoy the use of books' money for a few months, the structure of the league schedule typically assures that the judicious taking of points in optimum situations is the way to survive, if not prosper. Meanwhile, the public cannot resist jumping off the cliff with such pieces as Monday's Dallas folly ("They have MUCH better players! They just HAVE to win, don't they?"), providing the nation's accountants a hefty cushion to soften the blow of an occasional winning week for Joe Public.

Of course, there are types who actually laid the prevailing price with Dallas on the MONEY line on Monday night. Under the scenario in effect, they were luckier than someone being dealt a royal flush in video poker. But most probably thought they were making a great, "safe" bet.

About as safe as walking around your typical urban slum at 3 AM on a moonlight night, it was. But you can't tell them, that . . . which is why most sufficiently-capitalized books somehow manage to go on and on. Things aren't always as they appear on the surface.

Nelson Lardner

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