Wagering against the spread (ATS) on NFL games often leads to tough decisions and requires you to research all the intangibles. My weekly "The Golden Rules" examines historical ATS betting trends relevant to specific games. Consider these Golden Rules to be the tie-breakers, the game-changers and the intangible factors you are looking for.
For the playoffs, I am going to analyze each team’s 2015 regular season ATS track record to identify factors that are most appropriate in considering their upcoming playoff matchup. What could be the variable that swings the odds in your favor? Could it be a franchise’s record at home? Or their performance following a bye week? Or what about a team’s improvement once their star quarterback returned to action.
The Minnesota Vikings surprised many this season by rolling through the NFC North and capturing a division crown that was all but assured to be Green Bay’s. And what do they get as a reward? A visit from the current two-time AFC champion Seattle Seahawks who are arguably the most explosive team entering the playoffs.
Minnesota finished strong down the stretch themselves by winning their final three games including two within the division to post a 5-1 record against their NFC North rivals. But how did they perform against the spread throughout the 2015 regular season? The chart below compares Minnesota’s straight up and ATS results for the entire season.
Note that I have used the same format for all my charts for purposes of this analysis. The bars represent the team’s straight-up performance. If the bar is above zero, they won outright; if they lost, the bar drops below zero. The size of the bar is based on the game’s margin of victory. The impact of the spread is depicted by the dots. Similar to the bars used for straight-up performance, the dots show the team’s spread-adjusted margin of victory. In other words, if the dot is above zero, the team covered the spread.
The 11-5 Vikings were even better against the spread. Minnesota covered as road underdogs in two of their losses (Week 4 vs. Denver and Week 14 vs. Arizona) – a positive sign, for sure, when you can stay within striking distance versus a top club from each conference. Six of their games resulted in double digit spread-adjusted margins of victory including their final three. However, the seven-point victory over the field goal favorite Packers in Week 17 was the only such game involving a playoff team.
Minnesota obviously faced Green Bay twice, but also butted heads with the two AFC West and two NFC West playoff participants. The Vikings split their duels against the Packers, but went 1-3 against the others. The next chart takes the results presented above and isolates their battles against the best that the 2015 season had to offer.
On an encouraging note, Minnesota did post a 4-2 ATS record within this group. But the evaluation of the Vikings’ chances against the spread this postseason come down to upside versus downside risk. The Vikes were impressive in each of these covers but never exceeded a 10-point spread adjusted margin of victory. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if they come within this week’s five-point line but it’s evident that the upside is limited.
On the other hand, their two ATS losses expose a possibility that the game could get out of hand quick in their opposition’s favor. Not to mention that one of those forgettable defeats was 38-7 to the Seahawks. And that lopsided affair didn’t take place in front of the 12th Man; it was in Minneapolis at TCF Bank Stadium.
Looking towards the other sideline, I have also performed a similar analysis based on Seattle’s 2015 campaign. If you recall, the Seahawks did not appear destined to be playing January football after starting the season 0-2 and then 2-4. But they recovered with two wins before a Week 9 bye and took charge with five of the first six after the bye to regain their status among the league’s top teams.
The first thing I noticed about the chart above is how the area below zero is scattered with green dots proving that Seattle also struggled against the spread for much of the season. But in a way, their 8-7-1 ATS record is a bit misleading. I discussed upside versus downside risk when analyzing the Vikings. In this case, it is the Seahawks who appear to have much more upside by virtue of the large amount of white space occupying the bottom half of the chart.
The Seahawks may have uncharacteristically lost six games this season including twice to the Rams, but the never fell by more than 10 points. Moreover, seven of their ten wins were by double digits including four by at least a 25-pont straight-up margin of victory. By focusing on their second half of the season, you can see just how many of the positive aspects remain and how many of the deterrents, such as the multiple sub-zero green dots, have disappeared.
The Seahawks may have posted an 8-7-1 ATS record over the full season, but were 6-2 over the final eight games. The two ATS setbacks included an understandable loss to the tough NFC West titleholders from Arizona and the perplexing stumble at home to St. Louis. The six wins included five by convincing 10+ point fashion and four with a spread-adjusted margin of 19 points or higher. They also claimed victories over playoff qualifiers such as the Steelers, Vikings and Cardinals. Further, if you look only at their road games (not unlike this week), the Seahawks won by an average of 30 points and had an average spread-adjusted margin of victory of 28 points.
Golden Rules say to take Seattle
They are completely deserving, but it’s hard to imagine that Washington is in the playoffs. It wasn’t too long ago that Dallas was sailing into the season with so much promise and Chip Kelly and the Eagles were causing so much fanfare. Meanwhile, Washington is laying in waiting, embroiled in a quarterback controversy and feeling the heat of one too many unfulfilled seasons.
The Green Bay Packers were quite the opposite. The Packers are collectively the star high school quarterback. They are the homecoming king. They have all the expectations and they tend to deliver. But in a moment, Green Bay went from being undefeated darlings to question marks on a Sunday night in Denver. Starting with the Broncos game, the Packers would lose four of five and their certain division crown was in jeopardy. It wasn’t until Aaron Rodgers and company were at the doorsteps of losing their fifth of six that a Thursday night prayer versus the Lions nudged them back on course.
This Sunday, two of the league’s oldest franchises face each other in their first postseason head-to-head matchup in 43 years. Back in December of 1972, Washington took down Green Bay 16-3. Similar to the other NFC Wild Card game, I have assessed each team by comparing their straight-up and against the spread results for the entire 2015 regular season. To begin my analysis, I reviewed the performance of Washington in the chart below.
You would be hard-pressed to find a playoff team with as a much of a rollercoaster season as Washington’s. Following a Week 1 loss to Miami, Washington found success at home and disappointment on the road. From Week 2 through to Week 12, Washington were victorious in all five games at FedExField and lost five times in the other clubs’ parks.
Washington was never a strong play against the spread. Their inconsistency made it difficult to gauge how they would perform taking the line into consideration. They finished the season with a 9-7 ATS record. Despite strong straight-up results at home, their 5-3 home ATS mark was nothing to rely on. Or was it? Considering they host Green Bay as a one-point favorite this week, I decided to look deeper into their ATS performance on their own turf.
You can see from the chart that Washington’s two home straight-up losses and their three home ATS defeats were all by very small margins. The biggest margin among all their home losses came all the way back during Week 1 when nobody including fans, oddsmakers, bettors and Washington themselves really knew what to expect.
The argument against Washington is their lack of experience at home against quality opponents. Not one of the eight visitors to FedExField are participating this playoff season. In fact, road games against the Patriots and Panthers were the only two quality opponents Washington faced through the regular season.
Speaking of opponents, I next examined Green Bay’s chart that compares their 2015 straight-up performance with their results against the spread. The chart clearly depicts a strong, consistent start to the season with a highly variable conclusion.
Not only did the Packers burst out of the gate with five consecutive wins, but they were locks against the spread over that period as well. Their initial stumble against the Broncos could have been foreshadowed after they failed to cover over the Chargers in a tight Week 6 battle at Lambeau. The San Diego win was the first of four games in which Green Bay did not beat the spread en route to a 4-67 ATS mark over their final 11 games.
The inconsistency and variability were most evident when the Packers traveled away from the frozen tundra. For example, Washington’s home chart above depicted a consistent low risk ATS profile; whereas, Green Bay’s volatility stands out in a similar chart below which isolates the Packers’ 2015 road schedule.
Green Bay’s straight-up and ATS results away from home are 5-3, but the results only tell half the story. Four of the five wins resulted in an ATS margin of victory of a touchdown or less; however, the three losses had an average spread-adjusted margin of victory of 16.5 points. Washington may have not played any playoff teams at home but lack of experience does not dictate how they would have played if they did face a Minnesota or Cincinnati in their friendly confines. What we do know is that Green Bay’s three road losses all came at the hands of playoff teams – not a good sign for the Packers when facing adversity on the road this week.
Golden Rules say to take Washington
Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.
The Golden Rules were 3-3 during Week 17 and are 35-31 for 2015
You can access last week’s 2015 Weekly Golden Rules Analysis below.
Historical data on NFL spreads was accessed via Sunshine Forecast, whose latest source was scoresandodds.com, or accessed from scoresandodds.com directly. Spreads were collected by Sunshine Forecast as close as practicable to game time.