Strange NFL Trends
by Trevor Whenham - 11/16/2006
Think about how you handicap the NFL. You probably watch the games, read some stats, follow what the press is writing, track injuries, and figure that all into your decisions. In the end, though, it often all comes down to a gut feeling. Behind those feelings are often assumptions based on the impressions we hold about teams. Speaking for myself, some of the assumptions I was operating under this year weren't entirely accurate, which could explain some of the regrettable picks I have made. Here are some strange truths about the NFL this season that may change how you look at things:
Some bad teams aren't so bad - If you have seen Oakland, Tennessee or Buffalo play you know that they aren't very good. San Francisco and Cleveland are only slightly better. Those five teams have combined for a less-than-stellar 14-31 record, and eight of those wins came from the 49ers and Browns. Against the spread is an entirely different story, however. The teams are a combined 24-21 ATS. In other words, you could have made money, if only a little, by blindly betting a unit on each of these lousy teams each time they played. It gets even better when you consider that Oakland has played both Cleveland and San Francisco. You wouldn't play both sides of a game, so the ATS number becomes 22-19, creating a bit more profit. The lesson here is clear - these teams may not be very good, and they are certainly painful to watch, but you can't just discount their performances because of their lack of quality.
Some good teams aren't so good - Denver is at 7-2 and fighting for dominance in the AFC West. Seattle, despite a mind-numbing range of injuries, is at 6-3 and in decent position to defend their NFC Championship from last year. Both teams are doing well on the score sheet, but they have been a disaster to bet on. Denver is 4-5 ATS, and Seattle is 3-6. The privilege of betting on these two serious contenders would have cost you a fortune.
Who are the powerhouses? - If I were to ask people who has the best offense and who has the best defense in the league, most people would probably come up with Indianapolis and Chicago, and the stats can make a case for both teams. It would seem logical, given one team's ability to score almost at will, and the other team's ability to shut down their opponents, that Indianapolis would often be a good bet to go over the total, and Chicago would be more likely to go under. Not so much. Indianapolis has gone over just four times in nine games, while Chicago has gone over seven times in nine games.
Passing doesn't pay - If I was an offensive coordinator my team would pass on every down. I think it's so much more exciting. That's why I'm not an offensive coordinator. Because of my love of the pass, I would naturally assume that teams that put up more passing yards are likely to win. It turns out that that hasn't been the case recently. The team that passed for more yards was just 7-9 ATS last week, and 7-7 ATS the week before. Even more surprising, the team that has passed for more yards than any other team each of the last four weeks has failed to cover. You might not want to pick a team just because of their passing advantage, even if it is large.
Rushing really pays - Keeping the ball on the ground may not be exciting, but it is much more profitable for bettors than sending it through the air. Over the course of the last three weeks, the team that has had the leading rusher in a game has gone 28-16 ATS. That's a 64 percent rate. It's even better when that runner goes for more than 100 yards. In that case, the team with the top runner has gone 17-7 ATS, a 71 percent rate. The team with the leading rusher on the week has covered each of the last six weeks. Clearly, a rushing advantage makes a team attractive for a bet.
The best example of the power of the rush compared to the pass may be Atlanta. The team is 5-4 ATS. The five times they have covered are the five games in which they have had the widest advantage in running yards over their opponents. Their opponents have passed for more yards than Michael Vick in seven games this year, and the team is 4-3 ATS in those games. The Bucs passed for 235 more yards than Atlanta in week three, and Pittsburgh put up 192 more yards than Vick did in week seven. Atlanta had the rushing advantage in both games, and they covered both of them.