NFL Handicapping: Public Teams
by Trevor Whenham - 9/4/2009
No matter what sport you are handicapping you have to consider which teams are public teams, and what effect those teams will have on the lines of their games. Simply put, a public team is one which the public - generally the less sophisticated bettors - are likely to back basically regardless of the spread, their opponent, or the other usual factors that would affect the outcome of the game and the handicapping decisions. Whether it's because of star players, a tradition of success, or disproportionately high media coverage people tend to think that these teams are practically unbeatable, and they bet them accordingly. Oddsmakers are very aware of public teams, and they try their best to turn those situations to their best advantage. They may be able to set a line for a public team higher than they normally would. They know that the public won't likely be deterred from backing their favorite, and the extra points on the line decrease their risk and may help to better balance the action on the games.
You obviously can't make your betting decisions based entirely on public teams. By being aware of which teams are likely to be over-appreciated, though, then you may be able to spot opportunities that work to your advantage - especially when you like the public team's opponent in a game. The public can be fickle, so public teams often change from year to year as players move and teams rise and fall. Here's a look at five teams that are likely to be disproportionately backed in the NFL this year:
New England Patriots - This one is obviously a given. No team has been more successful this decade, and no team gets talked about more. The attention will be especially fierce this year because of the return of Tom Brady - probably the most popular athlete in the league both on and off the field. The Pats are likely to be the class of their division yet again, but there are enough questions that the public's affections could be at least somewhat misplaced. They have a new offensive coordinator, a quarterback with a questionable knee, a scary situation backing him up, an aging lineup on both sides of the field, and some long time leadership missing from the dressing room. If any of those factors prove to be a problem then the public's attention may start to create real value on the team's opponents.
Philadelphia Eagles - This team will get a double dose of public love this year. First of all, they are a very popular pick to win the NFC this year, and seem to be quite widely viewed as the class of the conference. Combine those expectations with a team that is traditionally reliable and successful, and which has a marquee quarterback, a good running game, and a well-respected veteran coach and you have a recipe for public love. That's nothing compared to what will happen after six weeks of the season, though. That is, of course, when Michael Vick is officially eligible for play in the regular season. It's doubtful that he'll see a significant amount of playing time, or that he'll have a dramatic impact on the fate of the team, but combine the public's obsession with Vick and his fall from grace with the new national obsession with the wildcat offense and you can be sure that the Eagles will draw an undue amount of attention.
Minnesota Vikings - Two words - Brett Favre. For obviously different reasons people are as obsessed with Favre as they are with Vick. The Vikings were a fairly highly-regarded team coming into the season, and they will be especially so this year. Favre will be very popular with bettors, and so will Adrian Peterson, who is pretty much universally viewed as the best running back in the league. Add to that a defense that is good - and particularly good against the run - and you have a team that the public is going to be paying a lot of attention to. Perhaps too much. It also won't hurt that Favre has progressed well in the preseason - he went from looking totally out of place in his first preseason appearance to looking like his old self in Game 2.
Pittsburgh Steelers - The Steelers are the defending Super Bowl champs, and they have made quite a habit of being successful in recent years. They have a well-liked quarterback (despite his recent legal woes), a young coach who has quickly proven that he is for real, and good, charismatic skill players on both sides of the ball. They were heavily favored in the Super Bowl last year in part because they were up against an opponent that got little respect, but it's quite likely that they would have been favored against almost anyone because of the public's attachment to them. They are one of those teams that is good now but also has a long history of excellence. Teams like that are hard for the public to ignore - Dallas is also always a public team despite their stunning underachievement in recent years.
Indianapolis Colts - Peyton Manning is the ultimate model of steadiness and consistency, and he has been for years now. No one else in the league has a reputation as squeaky clean as Manning's, and few players are as consistently excellent. It doesn't hurt, of course, that Manning and the Colts make a real habit of winning. They aren't the best team in the league against the spread, but they aren't the worst, either. The public has been given no reason not to back the Colts for years, so they keep doing it. There are reasons here why the Colts' opponents could be made attractive by the public's Indy infatuation. Manning has to deal with a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator after years of stability. His running game lacks depth, and he'll need name tags to figure out who his receivers are. I'm certainly not saying that Colts will stumble, but if they show signs of starting to then there could be an opportunity.
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