This NFL Season is Hard to Figure Out
by Trevor Whenham - 10/19/2006
The last few minutes of last Monday's game when Chicago stormed back to beat Arizona was one of the craziest and most unbelievable things I have ever seen in all the time I have been watching football. Chicago was a 12.5-point favorite, so the betting outcome had been determined long before the game ended, but the last Chicago touchdown did push the total over the 40.5 number. With five minutes left in the game, people who had taken the under would have already been counting their money. It was a bizarre end, but it seems appropriate in what has been a bizarre season so far.
Every season has some outcomes that make you scratch your head, and this year is definitely no exception. Jacksonville completely confounded Pittsburgh in a shutout, then kept the Indy offense in check. Those two performances earned them a reputation for having a staunch defense, and they were given an O/U of 33.5 against Washington, one of the lower totals we have seen all season. The Jags promptly went out and allowed 36 points in a 36-30 overtime loss. The Jets are another team that has had people scratching their heads. They were perceived by most people going into the season as a troubled team with serious offensive problems, but then they came out and averaged 24 points a game in their first four games behind a reborn Chad Pennington, and covered three of their first four games, all as underdogs. Given that Jacksonville's defense was suddenly vulnerable, a lot of people finally decided to believe in the Jets and their ability to stick close to the Jaguars, so many took New York as a 7-point dog. They lost 41-0. There have been other confusing teams - Seattle, Buffalo, Arizona - that have surely caused people headaches.
On the surface the season has been remarkably, almost unbelievably consistent. Of the 87 games played so far in the regular season, favorites are 44-43 ATS. It couldn't possibly be more consistent after six weeks - a dream for bookmakers. The way we have gotten to this even point, though, has been far from a smooth ride. In the first week of the season the underdogs covered 11 of the 16 games. All sorts of guesses and theories popped up as to why this had happened and how the league as we know it had changed. The very next week the favorites covered 11-of-16 games, and everything was back to a perfect balance. That same thing has happened twice more, though - favorites covered four times in week three and 10 times in week four, 10 times again in week five and just four times last week. On average, half of the games have been covered by the favorites each week, but in reality there hasn't been a week yet that has been even close to that. Trying to figure out which way the see-saw is going to tilt on any given week seems to essentially be a guess at this point.
The situation gets even more bizarre when you look at outright wins. In week five, 10 favorites won, but 13-of- 14 favorites were outright winners. On the next Sunday there were 12 games played, and the underdogs covered eight and won six of the games outright.
Over the course of the season, the over/under has been just as consistent, with 42 games going over the number and 41 going under (four games have ended up right on the number). In the first week it didn't look like it was going to be like this at all - 12-of-16 games went under, leading to nightmares about a season of low scoring, defensive snooze-fests. The middle weeks were split fairly evenly, and then two-thirds of the games went over this past week.
As a general rule I tend to stay away from games with spreads bigger than a touchdown, figuring that a team can win handily and still not cover the spread. That satisfies them and frustrates me. It turns out that so far this season I have been missing a bit of an opportunity. The favorites in games with spreads of more than a touchdown so far this season have covered 12 times in 20 opportunities, for a 60 percent clip. The dogs won both such games in the first week, so the team that was supposed to win easily has done so in two-thirds of the games since then. One team that isn't doing their part to keep up to this trend is the undefeated Indianapolis Colts. They have been favored by more than a touchdown three times in their first five games, and they have only covered one of them. The two that they haven't covered have been their last two times out, including their game against Tennessee, which they won by one point after being favored by 17, the biggest margin of the season so far.