Examining Thanksgiving NFL Trends
by Trevor Whenham - 11/21/2006
It's Thanksgiving again. Or at least for most of you it is. I'm a Canadian, so our Thanksgiving was more than a month ago. No turkey for me on Thursday, but at least I don't have to put up with huge crowds in an airport somewhere, and I still get to sit on the couch all day and watch football. An extra full day of football every year is truly a great thing, and I'm thankful even if it isn't the day I'm supposed to be. This year we get an extra game, but only those of you lucky enough to be able to get the NFL network can watch it. The way Denver played on Sunday night I'm not sure I need to watch them again this soon, so I don't mind that much that I can't get it up here.
As always, Dallas and Detroit will be hosting games. With the exception of a few years off during the war, the Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving game every year since 1934. Unfortunately for Detroit sports fans, the Lions historically have been only slightly better than they are now - they have a rather uninspiring 33-31-2 record on the big day. Dallas hosted their first game in 1966, and have missed playing only two years since. As you would expect, they have a much better record - 23-14-1. Neither team has been anything resembling close to dominating this decade. Both sport a dismal 2-4 record.
Handicapping the Thanksgiving games is the same as any other week, only different. A lot of the common wisdom about these games doesn't stand up to investigation, or just plain doesn't make sense. The most common factor you'll hear people talk about is the fact that teams will have to cope with playing on short rest. That is, of course, ridiculous. All six teams played on Sunday, so they are all coming off short weeks. Denver played in the Sunday night game, but they don't play until Thursday night, so they will get basically as much rest as everyone else. Something is only a factor if it gives a team an advantage, so this obviously doesn't cut it.
You could reason that Dallas and Detroit have an advantage because they are used to the short weeks since they do it every year. It's arguable that this would really make a difference, given the turnover on a team's rosters every year. More significantly, it doesn't seem to matter. Neither of these teams have a winning record over the course of the last decade, so if they get an advantage from playing these games every year they sure aren't showing it.
You also often hear people saying that the short rest leads to tired players, and that tired offenses can exploit tired defenses. If that were true then you would expect the over to be particularly attractive. Looking at Dallas you could conclude that that were indeed true - they have gone over their total four times in the last five years. Unfortunately, Detroit has gone under four times in five years, so there is no overriding theme to be found here.
History shows us that these games don't turn out much differently on the field than any other week. There is a pretty significant difference between this game and others, though. Because of the holiday tradition, the handle for these games will be higher than normal for a regular game. There will also be more action directed towards the Lions and Cowboys than there might otherwise have been because of the significance of tradition that will be attached to them by the casual fan. That factor had already shown itself by Monday night. The Dallas game started with the Cowboys as 9.5-point favorites, but it's already up to 11. Almost 40 percent of bets have been on Detroit so far at +3, which might seem more than expected given how terrible they are playing and that the Dolphins are on a mini-streak with three wins and three covers.
The other significant difference between these games and most is when people make their bets. On most Sundays, a huge portion of the money bet on the games is laid down on game day, so late line movements can often happen. Because most people have a dinner of some sort to get to, much more action goes down before Thursday for the Thanksgiving games. That means that the lines for Thanksgiving games are typically much more stable on game day than most games. That can be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on what side you like, but it's something you need to be aware of either way.
Regardless of when the bets are made, there hasn't been a side that has been more favorable for bettors. In the last 12 Thanksgiving games the favorite has covered seven times and failed to cover five.
There are clearly no shortcuts for Thanksgiving handicapping success. You'll have to take a break from dreaming about turkey and parades of massive balloons in New York to handicap these games just like any other, and you have less time to do it. On the plus side, come Thursday you'll be on a couch somewhere instead of at work. That's a reason to give thanks.