Week 17 NFL Betting Causes Handicappers Serious Headaches
by Trevor Whenham - 12/30/2009
Betting on the NFL in Week 17 is, for the most part, a fool's game. I don't want to suggest that you shouldn't bet on the last week of the football regular season (though I usually don't), but if you approach this week with strategies that you use to handicap the rest of the weeks of the season then you are doomed for failure. There are a lot of reasons for this, but let's just start by looking at five big ones:
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Teams that are just passing time - For all but six teams in the NFC and five teams in the AFC the games in Week 17 mean absolutely nothing. Win or lose, nothing will change for these teams other than their spot in the NFL Draft. For many of those teams it has been weeks since they have played a meaningful game. They are bruised and beaten down, and they are thinking more of avoiding the embarrassment of playing anymore games than they are about preparing for this last game. That means that they aren't likely to put their best effort forward. That can be great for bettors when a team that doesn't care about the game is playing a highly-motivated one, but when two teams in the same situation are playing each other than there is absolutely no way to know which team is likely to show up and what is going to happen.
Playoff teams resting starters - All you need to look at to understand this point is what the Colts did last week. They were ahead of the Jets and looking like they were going to stay there, but then they pulled their starters and didn't score another point, ultimately losing by two touchdowns. This week, Indianapolis, San Diego, and New Orleans have absolutely nothing to play for, and several other teams just have minor playing placement issues at stake - likely not enough to have them playing at full throttle. The problem, though, is that we can't accurately predict the degree to which the teams will rest their players - some coaches like Jim Caldwell don't care what happens at all, but others still think that winning is important. This means that you not only have to figure out which team is best, but also play amateur psychologist to figure out how much the teams will try and how much it matters. The ultimate nightmare is a game like Indianapolis-Buffalo. What happens when a team that will rest every player with a pulse plays a team desperate to see the season end?
Coaches counting their last seconds - Jim Zorn won't be coaching the Redskins next year. There is a long list of other teams that could be looking to make a change as well, including Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Oakland, and maybe Seattle. Most coaches that are in their last days on the job know it. Inevitably, anyone who is about to be fired isn't likely to put their best effort forward. Players aren't likely to kill themselves working for a coaching staff that they know will soon be gone.
Teams fighting for playoff spots - You would think that a team that is fighting for a playoff spot is sure to put forward a top effort If only it were that easy - just think of what Denver and Baltimore did last week when they had their fate in their hands. As a further complication, things can change during the day, so team's motivation can change significantly after you have made your bets. For example, Denver is still alive in the playoff picture heading into their 4:15 pm game against the Chiefs. If the Steelers win their early game, though, and the Jags or Texans also win, then the Broncos will be eliminated from the playoffs, and they'll know it before their game starts. That means that the motivation that you are banking on when you make your bet could totally disappear by kickoff.
Playing for draft position - I'm not saying that teams would throw a game just to get a better draft pick. Actually, I am. The Rams are a good example. Right now they are sitting with the top draft pick - something they certainly need to improve their team. They have only one win, but the problem is that Detroit has just two, and St. Louis' only win came against the Lions. If the two teams wound up with the same record, Detroit would get the top pick. Since the two teams play at the same time on Sunday, it seems unlikely that the Rams would put forth their best possible effort - the top pick is worth a lot more than a second win at this point.
So, with these complications and more to the NFL handicapping process, what should bettors do to deal with these games without losing their shirts? Here are three quick tips:
1. When in doubt, pass. If you can't be reasonably sure of the effort both teams will put forth in a game, you are far better off not betting on the game. If you do bet on it you aren't handicapping - you're just gambling. If you want to gamble then blackjack or roulette are faster than sports betting.
2. Reduce your unit size. In almost all cases in Week 17 you can't be sure that your edge is as big as it is in other weeks, so it doesn't make sense to bet as much on these games as it does on other weeks.
3. Get ready for the playoffs instead. Rather than waste your time trying to pick winners in overly difficult games, you'd be better off spending the extra time you'd normally use handicapping these games getting ready for the playoffs. You obviously don't know the matchups yet, but there are enough playoff teams already determined that you can start doing your homework on them.
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