Steve O'Rourke: Plenty of teams seeking home comforts heading into week five of the NFL season

19 min

By approximately 3pm Sunday afternoon, NFL twitter was bemoaning both the quality of a London game and the referees in charge of the Saints and Dolphins. An hour after that, it was full of Jay Cutler memes and it was as if week three, and the protests taking place during the playing of the US national anthem, never happened.

As for the action on the field, Miami will be one a number of teams hoping that a return to familiar surroundings will also prompt a return to the win column, especially after scoring just six points in their last eight quarters of football.

But how important is home field advantage really?

Given that each team plays a maximum of eight regular-season games at home, and the turnover on NFL teams can be so big, from a gambling perspective it can’t be just a matter of taking home wins and losses.

This year, for example, the home side has won 55.7% of the 61 games that count — two games were played at a neutral venue and one wasn’t played at all. That’s broadly in line with the last five seasons when the home side has won 723 of 1267 — excluding the 13 international games — or 57%

Last Sunday at Wembley was anything but a home advantage for the Miami Dolphins.

But what does that really tell us, nothing much more than the fact the home side is likely to win slightly more often than a coin flip. How does that impact your gambling?

Well it doesn’t really. But taking their points differential into consideration can.

The league average home field advantage (HFA) is 2.64 which is why the home team is often calculated -3 with the line is built from there. For the past few months, I’ve been working on a project that records the last ten years of results in the NFL, broken down by home and road results, points differential, day and time of games and the travel involved before the game. It’s not quite finished yet but, thankfully, Bill Barnwell over at ESPN has already worked out the HFA part.

It should come as no surprise that the Seattle Seahawks and their 12th man were top the pile, with a 5.1 HFA, nearly twice the league average. The Packers (4.7), Ravens (4.6) 49ers (3.8) and Bills (3.7) round out the top five.

The noted ’12th man’ at Century Link Field is a very real home advantage for the Seattle Seahawks.

17 teams fall under the 2.64 league-average with Tampa Bay (1.1), Kansas City (0.9), Oakland (0.8) Washington (0.7) and Miami (0.7) propping up the table.

There’s a lot more to it of course, if you’re so inclined you can take the data and work out an individual west coast team’s record when playing early games on the east coast or in prime time at home and see if there’s an edge to be found there. But I guess the key is that there’s always data behind the data.

Sky Game 1 – Carolina Panthers @ Detroit Lions – Sunday 6pm

The Lions have a home field advantage of 3.5 points but the Panthers didn’t care much for the Patriots HFA last week when they went into Foxborough and accounted for the defending Super Bowl champions.

The week four results mean that both teams come into this game 3-1 but Detroit can feel hard done by; a questionable call in the closing seconds against the Falcons denying them a perfect record to date.

Matthew Stafford, the subject of many of his own memes when he was handed the biggest contract in NFL history before the season started has been more than adequate to date, throwing for 887 yards, seven scores, and one pick while posting a 95.9 passer rating, well in excess of his career average 87.1.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) has been his consistent best through four weeks.

But his team didn’t score in the final 23 minutes against the Vikings last week and had only one possession that gained more than 35-yards — an 82-yard drive that resulted in a field goal. Instead, it was the Lions defense that got them the win; forcing fumbles on consecutive Vikings drives which accounted for the other 11 of their 14 points.

Despite the fact they have given up an average of 17.5 points per game to date, the Detroit defense ranks in the top-10 of Football Outsiders Defensive DVOA and has been particularly effective against the pass.

That will come in particularly handy against a Carolina offense that struggled over the course of the first couple of weeks but really found a groove against the worst defense in football last week. After throwing for just 167 yards, three picks and no touchdowns against the Saints in week three, Cam Newton had over 300 yards and three scores through the air against the Patriots.

There are slight concerns about Carolina’s defense, however. After conceding just six points in their opening pair of games, they have shipped 64 in the past two — admittedly against two of the best quarterbacks the game has ever seen in Drew Brees and Tom Brady, but neither was working with a full complement of receivers.

The Lions are only -2.5 point home favourites in this game and I think part of that is recency bias — the Panthers did just beat the defending champions — but some of it is a hangover from last season when Detroit pulled so many wins out of nowhere. However, I just feel they’ll get the better of Carolina in this one. I think both teams will find the end zone too, something like 27-24 to the home side, so I’ll also be taking the over (44).

Sky Game 2 – Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys – Sunday 9.25pm

Over the past three seasons, Dallas has consistently been in the top-10 in terms of time of possession, controlling the ball for most of the game in each case — 31:23 (2016), 31:07 (2015) and 32:13 (2014). This served not only to help the team close out games as their opponents couldn’t get back on the field, but it also helped to mask what many, including me, felt was a defense that could be attacked.

This year, only nine teams have had the ball on offense less than the Cowboys’ 28:24 per game and it’s starting to show in their results, giving up 42 points to Denver and another 35 to the Rams in their two losses so far. In fact, if you exclude the excellent display against the Giants in their opening game, Rod Marinelli’s defense is giving up more than 31 points per game since week two.

The deadly duo of Zak Prescott and Zeke Elliot will look to cause the Packers Defense untold trouble on Sunday night.

That is not Super Bowl winning form but, if you delve a little deeper into the numbers you can see that Dallas’s problem could be easily fixed if they could up their time of possession by even 10% as they’re actually giving up fewer points per drive (1.72) this season, than they were last (1.82). Going three-and-out on 21.2% of their offensive drives this year — compared to 19.1% last season — doesn’t help either.

Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers under center is not a team that has worried too much about time of possession — though they do rank seventh this year — as number twelve is usually there at the end to bail them out of any jam.

There was no better example of this when Rodgers and Jared Cook combined for a clutch sideline pass that set up a 51-yard field goal to seal a 34-31 win and sent the Packers to the NFC Championship Game when these two last met.

This hasn’t been a vintage Green Bay year by any measure — the overtime win against the Bengals somehow marked Rodgers’ first-ever extra-innings victory — but they still find themselves 3-1. That loss comes against the 3-1 Atlanta Falcons though, so Packers fans will know the importance of getting a win this weekend when it comes to home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Cowboys are 2 point favourites in this game, and while it’s always tempting to take Aaron Rodgers with the points, it’s worth remembering the Packers are 5-13 as road dogs dating back to 2013. For the reasons outlined earlier, I’m much happier taking the over (51.5) than either team in this one.

Steve’s Pick – Kansas City Chiefs @ Houston Texans – Monday 1.30am

Beating a divisional rival by a whopping 43 points is one way to get people to stand up and take notice of your team, and that’s exactly what Houston did last weekend when they outplayed the Titans in all facets of the game.

The undoubted star of the show, however, was quarterback DeShaun Watson who — fresh from donating his first game cheque to three NRG Stadium employees who suffered at the hands of Hurricane Harvey — completed 25 of 34 passes for 283 yards, four touchdowns, and an interception.

Oh, and he added another 24 yards and a touchdown with his legs. That’s impressive by any standards and the former Clemson quarterback is making a mockery of teams who decided he wasn’t a franchise quarterback at the top of this year’s NFL Draft despite dominating at the college level with 10,168 passing yards, 1,934 rushing yards, and 116 total touchdowns.

Deshaun Watson has been a revelation in his past 3 games posting some gaudy numbers.

All that said, I’ve no clear idea of what this Houston team is. I mean, is it the team that scored 20 points in its first two games or the one that scored 90 in the last two? Is it the team that gave up 65 points combined to the Jags and Patriots or the one that held Tennessee and Cincinnati to 23 points combined?

Inconsistency is not something you can accuse the NFL’s last undefeated team, the Kansas City Chiefs, of. They’ve also been fun to watch and provided an all-time top-five backdoor cover when Justin Houston picked up a loose ball after Washington had attempted to lateral their way to the endzone on Monday Night Football, giving his team a nine-point victory when, with four seconds remaining, they were just three points up and not in possession of the football.

However, as good as they’ve been to date, there comes a point when Kansas City’s injury problems will catch up with them. They lost star defensive back Eric Berry in the opening game and an injury to right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif on their opening drive against Washington means the Chiefs are now without all three of their starting interior linemen.

And this week their backups face JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus a trio that, on paper at least, should give most starting offensive linemen nightmares even if their sack numbers are not quite what you’d expect this year.

Kansas City are 1.5 point favourites but I’m going to side with Houston here, not just because injuries eventually have to count for something with the Chiefs but because I think the Texans might have a really special player in DeShaun Watson. I’m also quite confident this will be a high-scoring affair so I’ll be taking the over (47).

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