The betting public is seizing the opportunity to grab the Denver Broncos and the points tonight when they visit the New England Patriots in Foxboro.  Can Matt Cassel and the Pats make the line hold up?

The 3-2 New England Patriots must have a lot of brand appeal. That’s about the only reason for them to be 3-point favorites on Monday Night Football against the 4-2 Denver Broncos.

This is not the Patriots team of 2007. This year’s model is missing two important features: Tom Brady and Asante Samuel. Without Brady, the Patriots (2-3 ATS) have gotten replacement-level production from their replacement QB, Matt Cassel: three touchdown passes and four interceptions with a 78.1 passer rating. Cassel looked adequate as a management-style pivot earlier in the season, but the more he’s been called upon to throw the ball, the worse the results have been.

Cassel has lived under the microscope since Brady went down for the year with a blown knee. Samuel’s offseason departure to Philadelphia was a non-event by comparison, but the Pro Bowl cornerback is sorely missed in New England. The Patriots have the No. 26-ranked pass defense in the league at 7.1 net yards allowed per pass attempt. That’s up from 5.3 yards in 2007, or fifth overall.

This is a clear and imminent threat to a team that is about to welcome Jay Cutler and the Broncos to Gillette Stadium. Cutler has developed into one of the truly elite quarterbacks in the NFL. He’s thrown 12 TD passes with five picks for a rating of 94.8. Cutler’s only been sacked twice this season, compared to 19 times for Cassel. Putting Cutler behind center against New England’s secondary is like putting Georges St. Pierre in the Octagon against Regis Philbin.

Sure enough, the betting public is loading up on Denver, both against the spread and the moneyline. It looks like the bookmakers are trying desperately to hold the betting odds at three points; most of them have moved the juice instead, giving as high as +103 for New England. That’s consistent with the moneyline’s shift from Patriots -165 to Patriots -145.

Credit the betting public for seeing an opportunity and jumping on it. Monday night’s matchup has gotten a lot of attention, with respected pundits in agreement over the disparity between Denver’s offense and New England’s defense. But is this, dare we say it, a trap game? The Broncos are 1-4-1 ATS after going 5-11 ATS both last year and the year before. They have not been consistent moneymakers like New England (10-6 ATS in 2006 and 2007).

This is purely hypothetical, but if a book is anticipating a New England cover, you can understand the reticence to come off the magic number of three and get more people to bet on the Patriots. Roughly 15 percent of games over the past five seasons ended with a 3-point margin of victory. Two weeks ago, Denver beat Tampa Bay 16-13 but dropped the cash as a 3.5-point home chalk. Millions of dollars can and do change hands on these half-points. A bookie can bend to market forces without breaking by tweaking the juice instead.

We can play Is it a Trap? at home by snooping around the betting reports and getting a sense of who the sharps are picking – the best handicappers can sniff out danger. There was some early support for the Patriots when the line opened last Monday before the Denver tide came rolling in. The market also showed an uptick for the Pats after Sunday night’s Seattle-Tampa Bay game came to a merciful conclusion. It’s harder to divine the betting patterns for a Monday night game, but these pockets of New England cash intrigue me.

The total for Monday night’s game is 48½ points, which is up from 46. We could follow this trap hypothesis even further and look at the classic favorite-over parlay; the market reports showed early and possibly sharp cash on the under at last week’s open. In this case, though, sharp might just be another word for contrarian. All the football Xs and Os point to a Denver victory, and I personally don’t think New England’s positive betting numbers project very well given the loss of Brady and Samuel.