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Week 1 NFL picks using the Golden Rules


Laying down a few bucks in Vegas on the Week 1 lines? Or, maybe, it’s you and 49 other colleagues at the firm all staring curiously at the spreads wondering how to get a leg up in the office pool. Regardless of the reason, the Golden Rules are for you.

During the 2014 NFL season, I provided weekly insights for those betting NFL games against the spread (ATS). It’s what I like to call The Golden Rules. And I’m back for the 2015 regular season hoping to build on my 39-25 (61%) regular season record from a year ago.

There is no guarantee you can pick the winner by analyzing historical data from the past five, ten or 20 NFL seasons. But can you gain a competitive advantage? Sure you can. The Golden Rules are about asking the right questions, identifying differentiating factors and having faith that you are increasing the likelihood of success.

HOW DO REIGNING SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS PERFORM IN THE THURSDAY NIGHT OPENER?

Thursday September 10, 2015 – Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots (-6.5)

Starting with the 2004 season, the Thursday night NFL Kickoff featured the previous season’s Super Bowl winner at home embarking on their title defense. That night, Tom Brady and the Patriots faced-off against their conference rivals from Indianapolis. Fans remember how New England held off a late Peyton Manning rally and took the game 27-24. But bettors recall how the game ended in a push.

There have been ten more season openers since that night in Foxboro. The graph below depicts how the reigning Super Bowl champs performed straight-up and against the spread in these ten high-profile games. The silver bar indicates how many points the champs outscored their opponents. The black dot represents how many points by which the Super Bowl winners covered (or failed to cover) the spread.

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The largest victory by a reigning Super Bowl champion in an NFL Kickoff game was the 41-10 thumping that Indianapolis handed New Orleans in 2007. Although the 5.5-point favorite Seahawks did try hard last season to eclipse the standard set by Indy. Seattle eventually beat Green Bay 36-16 – a straight-up margin of 20 points and a margin against the spread of 14.5.

The only two reigning Super Bowl champions to lose their season opener since 2005 were the 2012 New York Giants and the 2013 Baltimore Ravens. Incidentally, the Cowboys win over the Giants came on a Wednesday night (played early due to the 2012 Democratic convention) and Baltimore’s loss to Denver took place in the Mile High City since the Orioles were already scheduled for a homestand.

This season, the opener is back at Gillette Stadium for the first time in a decade. And Jimmy Garoppolo Tom Brady will take his rightful place behind center for the Patriots as they face their longtime AFC nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since 2005, Super Bowl champs are 8-2 straight-up and 6-3-1 against the spread in Week 1. Based on the past, picking New England straight-up should be a slam dunk. Since 1978, Super Bowl champions are 25-12 in the season opener and 18-4 when the game is played at home. The ATS results are less clear, but still favorable. Since 1978, reigning Lombardi Trophy holders are 17-17-3 against the spread; however, they are 12-7-3 when those games are played at home.

Golden Rules say to take New England

DOES A WINLESS PRESEASON RECORD HAVE ANY BEARING ON WEEK 1 RESULTS?

Sunday September 13, 2015 – Seattle Seahawks (-3.5) at St. Louis Rams
Sunday September 13, 2015 – New Orleans Saints at Arizona Cardinals (-2.5)

There is no reason to pay attention to NFL preseason results. It’s just a bunch of second stringers. Sure, millionaires make brief appearances, but it’s followed by bubble players battling for three quarters. Can any weight be placed on these games? The Indianapolis Colts have gone winless in three separate preseasons over the past ten years and they have posted a 108-36 regular season record over the same period. (Well, excluding the Curtis Painter season, that is.)

So, am I just wasting my time analyzing how winless preseason teams perform against the spread in Week 1? This preseason, the New Orleans Saints (arguably, one of the league’s most powerful offenses) and the St. Louis Rams (arguably, among the top defensive units) have the dubious distinction of being the only oh-fors. Can the Saints and Rams ignore their August failures and right the ship now that the games truly matter?

In order to answer this question, I researched the Week 1 straight-up and ATS results for each preseason winless team since 2005. Each team is represented by a bar in the chart below. Green indicates the Week 1 game was won straight-up; red indicates a loss. The yellow dot represents how many points by which the preseason winless team covered (or failed to cover) the spread.

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That sure is a lot of red. And there definitely plenty of yellow dots below zero. Are you still certain that preseason records have no merit?

Over the past ten seasons, preseason winless teams have posted a 7-16 mark straight-up in Week 1 battles. It gets worse. The average margin of victory in the 16 losses has been 13.8 points – that’s two converted touchdowns! Last season is a prime example of how peculiar the results are. Two Super Bowl contenders, the Colts and Cowboys, both lost Week 1 games. Indianapolis lost in Denver by a touchdown. Understandable. But looking back, it gets harder to believe the Cowboys dropped their opener at home by 11 points to the 49ers.

The results aren’t much different against the spread. Since 2005, preseason winless teams are 6-16-1 ATS. This season, St. Louis is welcoming Seattle at the Edwards Jones Dome whereas the Saints travel into the desert to face the Cardinals. So, does the trend change at all depending on home field advantage? Not really. Among the preseason winless since 2005, home teams are 3-9 against the spread and visitors are 3-7-1. Both the Rams and Saints are underdogs this week. Surely underdog preseason winless teams have fared favorably? No luck here either. Underdogs have been 2-8-1 since 2005.

Golden Rules say to take Seattle and Arizona.

HOW DO ROOKIE HEAD COACHES PERFORM ON THE SIDELINE IN THEIR FIRST NFL GAME?

Sunday September 13, 2015 – Cleveland Browns at New York Jets (-2.5)
Monday September 14, 2015 – Philadelphia Eagles (-2.5) at Atlanta Falcons
Monday September 14, 2015 – Minnesota Vikings (-2.5) at San Francisco 49ers

There are three rookie head coaches this season: Todd Bowles (New York Jets), Dan Quinn (Atlanta) and Jim Tomsula (San Francisco). I know, I know. Bowles and Tomsula had brief interim stints a few years back. But for my analysis below, I considered a head coach to be a rookie even if he previously has experience running an NFL sideline as an interim head coach. I also excluded any games involving two rookie head coaches.

Over the past 20 NFL seasons, it’s not surprising that rookie head coaches only win 36% (29-51) of their Week 1 games when facing an experienced head coach. The Week 1 ATS results are much more reasonable, however. Since 1995, rookie head coaches are 40-36-4 against the spread resulting in a profitable outcome or a push in 55% of the games. The table below shows how this trend is evolving in recent years. 

Week 1 - Against the Spread Results
NFL Rookie Head Coaches

Time Period

Win/Loss Record

% of Wins and Pushes

Since 1995

40-36-4

55%

Since 2005

25-19-4

60%

Since 2010

11-7-2

65%

When looking back over the last five and ten seasons, rookie head coaches maintained a 35%-40% straight-up winning percentage, but their ATS results were gradually improving. The ATS results have steadily increased to the point that two-thirds of rookie head coaches have been beating the spread in their first regular season game.

Therefore, you would expect two of Bowles, Quinn and Tomsula to come out on top against the spread. But which one? I immediately noticed that Quinn and Tomsula debut in prime-time on Monday Night Football. Certainly the pressure of the big game will be a factor. Rather, the opposite was true. Either the oddsmakers were underrating the rookie coaches or they benefited from an extra day of preparation. Since 1995, rookie head coaches have a 5-2-1 Week 1 ATS mark on Monday.

But what about Todd Bowles, his New York Jets play on Sunday afternoon versus Cleveland – the same Browns franchise that has gone 2-8 against the spread during the past ten Week 1 battles. However, this isn’t your father’s Cleveland Browns anymore. I mean, even the traditional uniforms have been modified. And the Jets, for that matter, have only recorded a 5-4-1 ATS mark over the same period. I couldn’t identify any other significant trends or differentiating factors. Home teams, dome teams and favorites all trend close to a .500 success rate against the spread. I’ll stick with the Monday night theory.

Golden Rules say to take Cleveland, Atlanta and San Francisco.

Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.

NOTES:

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.



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