It was a good start to the NFL season for this column as the Jags won outright as a 5-point underdog and the under also hit. The Jags winning outright was also a nice reminder that any underdog worth backing on the handicap is usually worth backing on the moneyline, especially when 7 points or less, as the spread only comes into play in around 17% of NFL games. The spread has been even less relevant in recent years as scoring (and thus volatility) has trended higher.
In fact, I would argue bettors as a whole tend to underestimate volatility, particularly in the two US sports I mainly bet on – NFL and MLB.
This season, for instance, I have been betting baseball favourites on the -1.5 handicap rather than the moneyline, after I saw some research suggesting it was the better long-term play and it has indeed proven to be. I’m confident it’s a similar story in NFL, where bettors get fixated on the spread as an accurate predictor of the margin of victory. I think there’s some ‘anchoring’ at play here, as we see that number all week and get convinced the final score will be in line with that. As a result, I would be backing alternative handicaps and totals where possible for some odds-against pay-outs – providing you can find them on exchanges, as the bookmakers like to charge some hefty margins.
In line with that, I’d always recommend paying odds-against where possible rather than paying extra juice for a lower handicap. I.e. I’d prefer -7.5 at 11/10 rather than -7 at 5/6.
Of course, there are charts to help you to work out the exact value of these numbers, but as a general rule, plus money is better, and some alternative handicaps or totals are also great value.
But zooming into Week One, the story for me was the lack of scoring, with unders going 10-5 overall and 10-2 on Sunday, with the two overs both helped by two pick-6’s apiece.
And although we are of course wary of overreacting to small samples, the suppressed scoring may not be a one-week fad.
I saw some interesting research by Sports Insights suggesting that just backing first half unders in the first month of the season returns a 4.5% ROI. Their reasoning is that having fresh players disproportionately benefits the defense, where pass rushing and run defending is the most energy-sapping part of the game. Likewise, I’d guess that offenses could still be getting into a rhythm, with timing and familiarity much more important on that side of the ball.
That system applies throughout September, and while I wouldn’t back it blindly, it has me looking for under spots, and I’ve backed three for Week Two.
First is under 43.5 in Titans/Jaguars, where we are going back to the well with the Jaguars defense. The Jags had the third youngest defense last year when it ranked 9th in DVOA. That core group will have improved naturally, while it has also added Pro Bowl talents in AJ Bouye and Calais Campbell – who himself accounted for four of Jacksonville’s 10 sacks on Sunday.
To add to that top-10 unit, Jacksonville ran the ball 62% of the time in situation neutral contexts (game within one score) on Sunday, the highest in the league.
It suggests coach Doug Marrone is sticking to his “run the ball every down” motto from the offseason, so an elite D and commitment to the run game has me thinking this line is about 3 points too high.
The second total I’ve backed is under 43 in Carolina/Buffalo. This one is more about Carolina, although Buffalo is also an under squad in my opinion with a heavy run focus after trading away top receiver Sammy Watkins.
Carolina is a strong under team for me, not least because Cam Newton is still nursing his throwing shoulder back to full health after surgery in the offseason and the team is trying to limit how many hits he takes by targeting quicker throws.
Per Bill Barnwell: “Newton’s average pass traveled just 8.4 yards in the air, way down from the 10.2 air yards he averaged per pass between 2015 and 2016. Newton was inconsistent throughout the day and didn’t quite have the sort of otherworldly zip he used to get on those slants and dig routes, but he was certainly functional.”
To me, it seems Cam is going away from his strength – those deep bombs – and towards shorter (less efficient) passes which will also keep the clock moving and eliminate explosive plays.
The other side of the ball the defense also appears back to its elite self, almost shutting out the 49ers. Per NFL analyst Gregg Rosenthal: “If the Panthers didn’t have to play NFC South offenses six times a year, they would be my darkhorse pick to finish the season No. 1 overall in points allowed.“49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer didn’t know where the pressure was coming from on Sunday because it was coming from everywhere. The Panthers have an incredible depth of defensive line talent that can win one-on-one matchups, and they often did it all at once in San Francisco.”
Finally, I fancy under 43 in Chicago/Tampa Bay. The aforementioned freshness for D and lack of rhythm for O will be particularly applicable for TB having sat out last week, while the hype over the addition of DeSean Jackson is overblown, given that number one wide outs moving teams hurts the old team more than it helps the new team (per Football Outsiders).
The bigger angle here is the Bears.
That defense was underrated last year and did a great job stifling the Falcons on Sunday except for one blown assignment on an 88-yard touchdown.
Cut that mistake out and they win the game and hold the Falcons to 16 points. On the offensive side, they are going to run run run. Top receiver Kevin White was injured Sunday and is out for the season, joining another top receiver Cam Meredith on the shelf.
It means 2nd year running back Jordan Howard is going to be the focal point of the offense and we could see a lot of 4 yard runs and running clock. Sounds underwhelming.
Next week, we’ll take a closer look at home field advantage. Good luck to us all!