Steve O'Rourke: Winter weather means forecasting NFL games can be a tricky proposition

17 min

Each week, after I write my Matchbook column, a couple of things happen. Firstly, a number of people share the article and say nice things.

This makes a welcome change from people calling me an idiot or telling me I hate their team which usually comes with the territory of writing about the NFL on the internet.

The other thing that happens is I get a number of DMs from people telling me what games they’ve already backed for the week ahead. This is constantly a source of surprise for someone who usually leaves it until Saturday or Sunday to make my bets — unless a really attractive line has appeared in the meantime (like the Dallas one I’ll discuss later).

One reason I leave it so late, particularly at this time of the year, is the weather. A perfect example was in week eight when a number of games — all of which were played on the east coast — were adversely affected by monsoon-like conditions. This storm was only flagged as being as bad as it would turn out to be late on Friday, early Saturday for punters on this side of the Atlantic but five games suffered as a result.

The Falcons trip to New Jersey to face the Jets in week 8 was played in monsoon type conditions.

But what are the key things to know about bad weather if it does affect a game you want to gamble on?

Firstly, the research shows that home teams are a good moneyline bet when the temperature drops. Indeed, the home side wins just over 72% of the time straight up when the thermometer hits 0 or below; and come it at about 55% against the spread.

Interestingly, if you’re really looking for an edge, teams that normally play in a dome traveling to cold weather stadiums only win about 20% of games, compared to 37% of ‘warm weather’ teams making the same journey.

It’s also worth noting that games go under at a rate of about 57% when the cold bites.

Conversely, wet weather — rain or snow — is actually something that underdog backers can look out for with nearly 57% of underdogs winning in those conditions against the spread since 2013. However, if it rains, don’t assume the game will go under, it actually works out about 50-50 as tricky conditions often lead to mistakes on defense.

Wind, however, is ideal for anyone seeking to take the under as passing is a lot trickier when gusts are blowing. When the wind blows at 24-32kph — 15-20mph in old money — passing efficiency decreases by 0.5 yards per attempt and, with teams running the ball more, they score at a slower pace. Likewise, in the wind, underdogs win at a 57% rate against the spread, compared to 50% in general.

Game 1 – Minnesota Vikings (6-2) @ Washington Redskins (4-4) – Sunday, 6pm

One team that no longer has to put up with bad weather is the Minnesota Vikings. Having played in some of the most infamously cold games of all time, the Vikings moved into their fancy new US Bank Stadium home last season. Coming in at a cost of a whopping $1.1 billion, the stadium will host Super Bowl LII next February and Minnesota have shown glimpses this season they could feature in that game despite playing with, technically, their third-string quarterback for most of the year.

Just like everyone was expecting, the Vikings are leading the NFC North with a 6-2 record — two games clear of the Lions and Packers — but they come off their bye week facing four road games in their next five. It starts with a trip to FedEx Field to face a Washington side with a second-string offensive line and Minnesota will, once again, lean on a defense that is third in yards — allowing 282 per game — and fourth in scoring — giving up less than 17 points per game.

The Vikings Defense has been the bedrock for their winning record this season.

The most impressive stat, however, is that the Vikings have allowed only one team — the Bucs back in week three — to throw for more than 300 yards on them so Washington will need to establish a ground game this week.

That’s not ideal given that just nine teams are averaging fewer rushing yards than Washington’s 3.8 per carry. Part of that is to do with the fact they have a beat up offensive line, with four of their five starters missing last Sunday’s win over the Seahawks to leave them at 4-4 and still in the race for the NFC East.

As gutsy as that win was, they can give thanks to Blair Walsh for missing three very makeable field goals. They can also thank the NFL’s 13th ranked defense, in terms of Football Outsiders Defensive DVOA, which kept the Seattle offense to zero points until the fourth quarter — their only score up to that point was a safety. There’s something a bit Jekyll and Hyde about Washington though, they have wins over Seattle and the Rams, but almost lost at home to the 49ers. That’s something to keep an eye on.

In all but one of their games, the Vikings have given up 19 points or fewer and have only scored more than 30 themselves twice. Even with the points total at 42.5, I’ll be taking the under in this game. In terms of the line, Minnesota are one-point favourites and, coming off a bye against a beat-up offense, so I’m backing them all day.

Game 2 – Dallas Cowboys @ Atlanta Falcons – Sunday, 9.25pm

As much as I’ve been on Atlanta offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s back this season, you can have the best play-caller in the world and they can’t scheme for Matt Ryan missing a wide open Julio Jones for a sure-fire touchdown or Jones dropping a certain score in the end zone late on, both of which happened against Carolina last week. Everything that could go right for the Falcons offense last year did, and they’ve regressed to the mean this year. It happens.

As certain teams — including the Saints and Carolina in their own division — are starting to pull away in the NFC, there appears to be just one wildcard available for Atlanta to aim for and, to have a chance at that, they really need to put together a string of wins. However, with games against the Cowboys, Seahawks, Vikings and Saints in their next five, they’re going to have to go about it the hard way.

The tandem of OC Steve Sarkisian and QB Matt Ryan has failed to gel so far for the Falcons.

Dallas have bounced back from two close losses with three big wins over San Francisco, Washington, and Kansas City, the latter a much more dominant win than even the 28-17 scoreline suggests.

The continued will-he-won’t-he-play off-the-field drama surrounding Zeke Elliott doesn’t appear to be affecting them as much as it did earlier in the season, but it is on defense they have really impressed.

Football Outsiders rank the Cowboys as just the 25th best defense in the league, but the return of linebacker Sean Lee has coincided with their winning streak and shows just how important the All-Pro player is. The two Dallas losses came as he sat out with a hamstring injury and are the only times this season that America’s Team have given up more than 19 points in a game. This match-up marks the start of three games in 12 days that will define the Cowboys season and keeping Lee on the field will be crucial to winning them.

The Falcons, despite having lost four of the last five are three-point favourites — presumably this is to do with Elliott’s status being up in the air. Whether he plays or not, I’m all over Dallas in this one. The points total, 50.5 is just about right so I’ll be leaving it alone.

Game 3 – New England Patriots (6-2) @ Denver Broncos (3-5) – Monday, 1.30am

A quarter of the way through the season, the Patriots were struggling at 2-2, having lost both games at home and barely survived a shootout with the Texans, while the Broncos were 3-1 with two divisional wins and a victory over the Cowboys to their name. Since then, New England has not lost a game and Denver hasn’t won one. As contrasting fortunes go, that’s about as stark as it gets.

For Denver, they have lost the last four by a combined 72 points, giving up an average of 31 per game which shows that, while a lot of their issues are on offense, the defense can’t get away without some reproach.

That said, switching from Trevor Siemian to Brock Osweiler is not a move any head coach can make and expect to keep their job at the end of the season.

Osweiler was atrocious against the Eagles last week, completing just 50% of his passes for two interceptions and a touchdown and even that makes his performance sound better than it was.

For the Patriots they are once again relying on their 40-year-old, five-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback to lead them through the season. Despite his advancing years, Brady is the number one ranked quarterback through nine weeks by Pro Football Focus, with the same analysis site also showing him to be the best QB in the league under pressure with a passer rating of 101.7.

After being among the worst in the league the first few weeks, the Patriots D have improved over their past four games — giving up just 12.75 points per game — but it’s worth remembering those games were against teams with a combined record of 13-20.

The Broncos are in desperate need of a win and it’s worth remembering that three of their four losses came on the road, but the Patriots are justifiably seven-point favourites and that’s where my money will be going. At 46, I’ll also be taking the over on the points total as New England could run up a score just like Philly did last week.

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