Just a few days ago, we examined just how bad the bottom 25% of NFL teams have done over the final two weeks in any given season. As expected, the results have been from bad to terrible across several splits, with hopeless squads that have nothing to play for just playing out the string as they await a nice holiday vacation. Taking a page from our good friend Bob Sullivan, we will try to find tendencies and themes from seasons past to find favorable betting lines.
For Week 16, the schedule gives us a number of games that range from the meaningless to the heavily important in terms of playoff positioning, but we will only focus on those who feature one of the NFL's worst 8 teams. From worst to first, these teams and their opponents are:
Cleveland Browns (3-11) @ Kansas City Chiefs (9-5)
Tennessee Titans (3-11) vs Houston Texans (7-7)
San Francisco 49ers (4-10) @ Detroit Lions (5-9)
Dallas Cowboys (4-10) @ Buffalo Bills (6-8)
Baltimore Ravens (4-10) vs Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5)
San Diego Chargers (4-10) @ Oakland Raiders (6-8)
New Orleans Saints (5-9)* vs Jacksonville Jaguars (5-9)
Miami Dolphins (5-9)* vs Indianapolis Colts (6-8)
*the Jaguars, Lions, and Bears are also 5-9, but hold better point differentials.
Bottom 25% Versus Losing or .500 Teams
Looking back at the overall numbers, the bottom 25% has gone an overall 31-40-1 against the spread since 2010 in Weeks 16 and 17. However, their worst performance has come when facing similarly bad teams that also have little to no playoff hopes. In 24 games with similar scenarios, the 7-16-1 record ATS is much worse than the .500 mark the lowly bunch has posted against winning teams.
For Week 16, there are six such matchups, each of which deserves a longer look before taking a side. Even as three of these matchups come against the 3 teams that remain alive in the AFC South, we can take the group as a whole and analyze it accordingly.
The Texans-Titans, Saints-Jaguars, and Colts-Dolphins games still don't have a line, considering Houston's and Indy's uncertain QB situations, as well as the newfound injury to Drew Brees, but we can tackle the other 3 games, where the bottom 25% teams go from small to medium underdogs.
SD @ OAK -5
DAL @ BUF -7
SF @ DET -10
Part of the reason why the bottom 25% has been so dreadful when facing fellow teams with losing records is that 15 of the 24 games over the past 5 seasons have come on the road for them. Overall, the straight up record has been a ghastly 2-13, with only a couple of extra covers to give us a 4-11 mark against the spread. In games with a point spread between 6 and 9 points, the results have been mixed with a 3-4 record, with games ranging from full blowouts to the rare upsets.
This would make the Dallas-Buffalo contest a stay-away, which makes sense considering the volatility of both clubs. The Cowboys will give third-stringer Kellen Moore his first career start while the Buffalo defense has completely fallen apart in recent weeks. While the weather in Buffalo will play a role and it would be tempting to take the Bills, I'd recommend to simply walk away from this game.
On the other hand, the 3 occasions in which the point spread has reached double digits, the favored team has covered the spread. The average margin of victory has been merely 13.5 points, but it makes sense that a team like the Lions could cover a big spread at home against the Niners, who can only hope for a better draft pick.
Similarly, the erratic Raiders enter as 5-point favorites, with teams that have been favorites of 5.5 points or below going 4-1 in our sample. Even in a division game, the Chargers have no real motives to give a big effort after finishing their home schedule, while Oakland still has a lot to figure out as they prepare for their possibly bright future. With the added bonus that the game comes on a Thursday night, the Raiders may be the best bet for this confluence of factors.
Even as we are dealing with small samples, we can take these numbers into consideration once the lines are released for the games involving the AFC South. However, things can be a bit different as they include teams that are fighting for something. On the other hand, we can have some fun making unwatchable games a bit interesting.
The Picks: Raiders -5; Lions -10
Bottom 25% Versus Winning Teams
CLE @ KC -13.5
PIT -10 @ BAL
As mentioned before, the bottom 25% has been a bit more effective to close out the season versus the league's top teams. In these two games, we will see a clear pattern as the playoff teams are huge favorites both at home and on the road. What do the trends tell us about these matchups?
Starting with the Chiefs, they have a lot of solid backup behind them. From 2010 to 2014, there were 15 games in which a winning team was favored by at least 9.5 points against a bottom 25% squad. In these contests, the favorites won all games, with a 12-3 mark against the spread and a 22.3 average margin of victory. In short, good teams have shown practically no mercy against the league's lesser squads, always demolishing them at home.
With the way the Chiefs have been playing and Cleveland's path to yet another #1 draft pick, there is no reason to believe that laying this many points is a big risk. I think it is a good idea to jump on the line as it is today rather than waiting for it to reach the 15-point range. Even then I'd be taking Kansas City in a heartbeat.
On the other hand, when the bottom 25% has been a double-digit home underdog, they have gone a respectable 4-3 against the spread. As it has always been the case, double-digit home 'dogs tend to be solid bets overall, so it could make sense that the trend still applies even when the worst are facing the best. Taking home games as a whole against winning teams, the bottom 25% has gone 13-14 against the spread in this sample, suggesting that it can always go either way when laying points.
Considering the rivalry between Pittsburgh and Baltimore, even when considering how decimated the Ravens are today, I would not take a chance with the Steelers laying so many points. The numbers say that the Steelers should prevail, but probably not cover the spread. We could just stay away from this game and see it from afar (or maybe just make it part of a teaser).
The Pick: Chiefs -13.5