NFL Handicapping: What We Learned from Week 1
by Trevor Whenham - 9/10/2014
Every year when the NFL season starts, smart bettors are forced to do a whole lot of learning. So much changes every year that we can't afford to rely on what we have seen in the past to guide what we should expect this year. Instead, we need to make informed predictions of what could happen and then refine and improve those predictions as we see meaningful games played to start the new season. Through one week of the season here are seven things we learned that could help guide our success in the coming weeks:
It's still a passing league: This doesn't come as a real shock or surprise, but the league's commitment to and excellence in the passing game is as strong as ever. In the opening week of the season there were 10 quarterbacks out of the 32 who started who threw for at least 300 yards, including two games in which both quarterbacks eclipsed that mark. There were 12 quarterbacks with 300-yard performances in 2013 and nine in 2012, so the results are well within range.
But it's not just a passing league: Because teams are so strong through the air these days and running backs are lower-profile and more expendable than ever before it can be easy to assume that the running game isn't as powerful or important as it once was. Despite the decreased focus on the ground game, though, there were still nine individual 100-yard rushers this week. That is way up from just three in the opening weekend last year, so it is way too soon to plan a funeral for the running game in the NFL just yet.
Home field doesn't rule: At least in the first week it was not a huge advantage to be playing at home - not from a betting perspective, anyway. There were 10 home teams that came out on top on the scoreboard, but 10 road teams covered spreads. As bad as it was for teams against the spread at home it was even worse for favorites - just five betting favorites covered the spread. Public teams like New England, Denver, Chicago and Pittsburgh all failed to cover as well. It's not a wonder, then, that sportsbooks are openly thrilled with their results to start the season.
Lines weren't tight: The longer the season goes, the better oddsmakers get at setting right numbers. At this point in the season, though, it is very tough to set a tight line because meaningful knowledge of where teams are at is so slim and we are forced to speculate about what to expect so much. It's glorified guessing. In the first week there were seven teams that covered spreads by double-digits and 11 that covered by a touchdown or more. Of those, the biggest surprise by far was Minnesota. It was tough to find anything to like about this team, but somehow they covered by 31 points.
NFC wasn't as dominant as it seems: On paper it seems as if the NFC is much deeper and more competitive than the AFC this year. That certainly didn't seem to play out so far in head-to-head action - albeit in a small sample size. There were four games that saw teams from the two conferences square off, and the AFC covered the spread in three of them.
No totals trend emerged: In the first week of action there were seven games in which the total went "over" and nine that went "under". That means that you could have made a small profit by betting the under on every game but not so much that it is worth writing home about.
QB Disasters mostly weren't so disastrous: Several quarterbacks who were a real concern heading into the week actually fared reasonably well. Derek Anderson won when called on to replace Cam Newton. EJ Manuel won a shocker for Buffalo and wasn't horrible. Robert Griffin III lost but was surprisingly accurate. Ryan Fitzpatrick was sound. Geno Smith won nicely. Derek Carr looked like a rookie but had some bright spots and largely avoided bad mistakes. Brian Hoyer almost won on the road. Matt Cassel had a 113.8 QB rating in a huge road win. Even Austin Davis, an undrafted free agent third-stringer in his second season in the league averaged 8.35 yards per pass in his relief effort for a lousy St. Louis team. Heading into the week there were several situations that seemed like they could be really disastrous. In reality there were few quarterbacks who made it impossible for their teams to win and a few that won games that were real surprises.
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