NFL Handicapping: Ditch the Assumptions
by Trevor Whenham - 9/27/2012
Most sports bettors are lazy. They get an idea about a team or player’s performance and they stick with it — even if it isn’t particularly accurate any more. Getting stuck on assumptions and outdated opinions is a problem when you are having an argument, but when you are using those assumptions to base your betting decisions on it can be downright expensive.
When we take a closer look at what is going on in the NFL season so far there are several things that stand out because they fly right in the face of what most people assumed would happen heading into the season — and even what most people would assume has happened so far. By being on top of what is really going on you can have an edge over all those lazy bettors out there.
Here are five things you could easily have missed if you were relying on your opinions and not boxscores and current analysis:
It’s an aerial league — unless you want to cover spreads
Everywhere you turn these days you hear about how this is a pass-happy league. The logic is that there are a whole lot of quarterbacks who can really hurl it, and they move the ball so well that opposing defenses are virtually helpless. That may be the case, but the guys who have been throwing the ball around the most this year have been doing a lousy job of one important thing — covering spreads. The Top 5 passers in terms of passing yards this year are Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Michael Vick, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. Their five teams are just 4-11 ATS combined, and only Baltimore, at 2-1 ATS, has been profitable. It could be that the players are forced to pass because they are behind, or it could be that the public gives them too much credit because of their names and aerial abilities. Either way, using passing prowess to guide your betting decisions at this point doesn’t seem to be a great idea.
Baltimore’s defense isn’t all that
For years we have come to expect the Baltimore defense to be all but unbeatable. The unit is very talented, and ridiculously deep. Unfortunately, like the rest of us, the players on that unit are also getting old. So far, at least, that age has led to some pretty underwhelming defensive play. The once-potent defense sits just 27th in the league in yards allowed, and 28th in pass yards allowed. The Ravens sit in the middle of the pack in the only stat that really matters — points allowed. It hasn’t been a total disaster, but make no mistake — this is not the defensive unit that we have become used to. That means that more than we have in a long time we really need to be confident about the state of the offense before we can back this team.
Dallas can defend the pass... finally
Last year the Cowboys gave up 244.1 passing yards per game — 23rd worst in the league. The year before they were 26th. There were a lot of reasons why the Cowboys were a frustrating team that fell short of expectations the last two years, but their woeful secondary was as big as any of them. It’s early this year, but that which had been a weakness has been a strength so far. They sit second in the league at just 137 yards per game. It’s a remarkable improvement, and proof that the heavy offseason investment in the unit wasn’t wasted. While neither Russell Wilson nor Josh Freeman have established himself as the next Dan Marino yet, the opening game was against Eli Manning, and he threw for just 213 yards.
Even immortals like Peyton Manning get old
There was a widespread belief among the betting public — as proven by the dramatic fall in the future odds for the Broncos right after the signing — that Manning immediately made Denver a Super Bowl contender. While I’m not suggesting that we write him off yet, the early returns have not been nearly as positive as people hoped. He has long been laser-accurate, but his completion percentage is more than two percent lower than any season since his rookie year in 1998, and it is five points lower than any year since 2002. His yards per attempt are the third lowest since he was a rookie — and the lowest was his last season in Indianapolis. Most significantly, though, in the first half against Atlanta he was just awful. It’s like the Falcons had a copy of his playbook, and he was getting more and more frustrated as things went along. That kind of loss of composure isn’t something we are used to seeing from him. As we go forward it will be very important to look at the Manning that is actually playing, not the one who has had a brilliant hall of fame career. As long as those two versions of the man are different there will be betting opportunities to be had.
Who are you, and what have you done with Christian Ponder?
Last year as a rookie the Minnesota quarterback was, frankly, lousy. He threw an interception for every touchdown, his yards per attempt of 6.37 were ugly, and he completed just over half of his passes. He looked out of place and confused. This year, though, the Vikings are surprisingly out to a 2-1 start, and the stunning play of Ponder is the biggest reason. His YPA is much improved at 7.35, he has completed more than 70 percent of passes, and he has four touchdowns without a pick. Passer rating paints an imperfect picture, but an improvement from 70.1 last year to 104.9 this year is still remarkable. Most impressive of all, though, was what he did against the 49ers. That defense had shut down Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, but Ponder wasn’t bothered in the slightest. He completed 60 percent of his passes, threw two touchdowns, and never buckled under relentless pressure. the Ponder we saw last year would not have been capable of that performance. There will still be rocky times, but Ponder has taken a gigantic sophomore leap forward — in direct contrast to what we have seen from Cam Newton so far.
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