The NFL is back! It’s a great punting sport, and Matchbook has put together a helpful little betting guide for those new to the sport.
My chief piece of advice in contributing to the column was basically to ignore what your eyes tell you.
It’s very easy to watch a team dominate one week and assume they’ll do the same the next, but game-plans, match-ups and the bounce of a ball are so important in the NFL that teams look completely different week-to-week.
No single stat tells the whole story, but a good starting point is yards-per-play differential. If a team is net positive here, there’s’ a good chance it will soon be reflected in the W/L column.
Of course that’s no help for Week 1 because no games have been played, and I know a lot of stats-led bettors like to start cautiously in the early weeks of a season. Mark Stinchombe for instance has talked about not betting full stakes until Week 5 of the Premier League, but I’m happy to jump straight in with NFL, not least because the bookmakers are also feeling their way without season-long stats for their models and they can make some glaring mistakes.
For instance the Bengals went off as road favourites in Dallas early last year, before the market realised the Cowboys were a genuine juggernaut, so there are opportunities to be had.
Likewise, there are only 17 games in the entire season, so if you’re waiting for bulletproof stats, they are literally never going to come.
The Jags to roar this week?
So on to Week 1. A good place to start is last season’s stats and teams that under or over-performed their base metrics. And the matchup in Houston jumps off the page to me because we have an under-performer going head-to-head with an over-performer.
Houston last year were arguably one of the worst division winners in history. They had a -49 point differential despite winning 9 games, giving them a Pythagorean win expectation of 6.5 wins. Pythagorean are based on point differential and wins have proven historically to be a better predictor of future wins than the actual record.
In fact, Houston posted the fourth-worst point differential for a team with a winning record since 1989, and historically these teams have regressed in the following season. Per ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, the 10 winning teams with the worst point differentials declined by an average of 1.8 wins the following season, while teams that exceeded their Pythagorean expectation by two to three wins, as the Texans did, declined by an average of three wins.
And the team hasn’t changed significantly this year, with just Tom Savage replacing the ineffective Brock Osweiler.
Consider that the Texans, who know Savage better than anyone, were so impressed by him they traded two first round picks this spring to draft his replacement in the form Deshaun Watson.
Of course, they should have a full season of JJ Watt, but the defense was already top 10, so the marginal improvement is limited.
So we have an overrated Texans squad, going up against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were unlucky to finish 3-13 last year, posting a point differential of -82, good for a Pythagorean expectation of 5.9 wins. The reason they under performed their point differential by almost 3 full wins was their record in one-touchdown games which was 2-8.
Per Barnwell again, the Jaguars are one of 68 teams between 1989 and 2015 to post a winning percentage of .200 or below in one-score contests. That “inability to win” was proved to be simply bad luck in the next season, as those teams improved by an average of three full wins the next year.
I think the Jaguars are maybe a point worse on a neutral field, and giving the Texans 2.5 points for home field (more on this next week), we come to my calculated line of +3.5, around 2 points short of the current market number of +5.5.
So I’d be a Jaguars backer on that alone, but there are more factors to consider here. Firstly Hurricane Harvey has been ravaging Houston for the past week or two, and without getting flippant about a genuine natural disaster, it has affected Houston’s preparation, forcing them to cancel their last preseason game and even prompting talk of moving this game to a neutral venue. I have no idea how to quantify the impact of that, but I can’t see how it’s anything but a negative.
Another positive factor is that underdogs in divisional games with low totals have historically been a profitable proposition, as the points are relatively more valuable, while familiarity and coaching helps neutralise the talent gap.
Here’s a Bet Labs system which focuses on road underdogs in games with low totals, after having had a bad season the year before.
Teams that fit that criteria (i.e the Jaguars) are 428-343 (55.5%) ATS, since 2005.
In the same game, the Under 40 looks a strong bet, with two top-10 defences and two teams that don’t want to put the ball in the hands of their quarterbacks.
Jacksonville head coach Doug Marrone told reporters this summer he would try and help his beleaguered quarterback Blake Bortles by running the ball frequently. In fact, he said: “For me, I like to run the ball every play”. I think we see a lot of failed runs, a lot of moving clock and a lot of punting this weekend.