The NFL has a funny way of making analysts, prognosticators and, yes, even oddsmakers look a little silly. With the parity in the league and a salary cap, nearly every game not involving the Carolina Panthers could go either way.
In its NFL preview issue, Sports Illustrated nailed five of the six AFC playoff teams, incredibly enough. But one of those playoff teams, the New England Patriots, was predicted to go 10-6 and land a Wild Card berth. In the NFC, it was another story for the magazine. They left the NFC East champion Eagles, NFC North champion Bears and NFC South champion Falcons out of the playoffs. And then there is the prediction that is almost too hard to believe. Sports Illustrated picked Carolina to finish 10-6 and reach the playoffs. They could expand to an 82-game regular season and Carolina would not win 10 games. The Rams were predicted to finish dead last in the league at 3-13, but now St. Louis is one game away from the playoffs. The 49ers were predicted to win the division, but they just fired their head coach.
Of course, Sports Illustrated is not alone. Predicting the NFL involves a lot of guesswork these days. In the preseason many lauded teams like the Cowboys and Vikings as teams to beat in the NFC and instead they became teams that everyone beats. The Steelers were supposed to struggle with an aging roster and a suspended quarterback. The Chargers were supposed to run away with the AFC South. The Kansas City Chiefs were supposed to be focusing on the NFL draft right about now, not a home playoff game.
Oddsmakers always tend to be ahead of the curve when it comes to setting lines, but even they are not immune to the NFL. Looking back at lines earlier this season reveals some interesting lines that may have made sense at the time, but right now look downright ludicrous.
To open the NFL season the Minnesota Vikings headed to New Orleans in an NFC Championship Game rematch. The line closed at New Orleans -4.5 and it looked good at the time with the Saints only winning by five. However, knowing what we know now about Minnesota that line would likely be over a touchdown.
Perhaps the most laughable Week 1 line in retrospect is Cincinnati at New England. The Bengals, who just won their fourth game of the season last week, headed to New England as five-point underdogs. The Patriots would jump to a 24-3 lead on their way to a 38-24 lead. If that line were set today the game would likely have resulted in a push because New England would have to be favored by two touchdowns. The line remained low because of the optimism around Cincinnati, a division winner a season ago that just added Terrell Owens. And the last time we saw New England at home they were busy being embarrassed by the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs.
Even when the lines look extremely off, in hindsight they still make sense for that week sometimes. In Week 1 Arizona was a three-point favorite at St. Louis. After watching Arizona play 15 games this season we know they should not be favored against anybody, especially at St. Louis, a decent team in an awful division. The Rams should have been favored by six or seven in that game although in the end Arizona came out on top, 17-13. San Francisco was one of the most overrated teams in the league in August and that showed with their line at Seattle in Week 1 when the 49ers were three-point favorites. They were beaten badly in a 31-6 blowout at Seattle. The Seahawks should have been favored in that game by 4.5 to six.
Two primetime games in Week 1 showed how Las Vegas misjudged a few teams, much like the public did. The Cowboys were 3.5-point favorites at Washington. While the Redskins fell on their face too, the Cowboys should never be giving points on the road and that game should have been a ‘pick’. And then on Monday Night Football, the San Diego Chargers were curiously only four-point favorites. Most of the public jumped all over the Chargers. Sixteen weeks later it is pretty evident the Chargers are nowhere near as good as everyone thought and the Kansas City Chiefs are nowhere near as bad as everyone thought. With this game being in Kansas City the Chiefs should have been favored by three to four points.
Looking back at these lines gives good insight in just how difficult the oddsmaker’s job is in Week 1. You can pinpoint a couple games each week where the lines were off by quite a bit, but never as many as in Week 1. The biggest problem oddsmakers run into in the early season is identifying bad teams. It is rare to see a team pegged as a heavy favorite in the first week of the season. Oddsmakers are reluctant to be giving more than seven points to any team considering nobody has played a real game yet. The biggest favorites were only giving six points in the opening week. Compare that to the rest of the season when double-digit spreads are common.
Looking back to Week 1, Carolina (+5.5) at New York Giants and Cincinnati (+5) at New England should both have been double-digit underdogs. The best way to take advantage of early-season guesswork by the oddsmakers is to identify the truly awful teams in the league and take advantage of the small lines because they only grow as the season moves forward.