Laying down a few bucks in Vegas on the Week 10 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 HAVE TEAMS PERFORMED AGAINST THE SPREAD TO THIS POINT OF THE SEASON (AND OVER THEIR LAST 16 REGULAR SEASON GAMES)?
Sunday November 15, 2015 – Jacksonville Jaguars at Baltimore Ravens (-5.5)
Sunday November 15, 2015 – Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers (-5.5)
Sunday November 15, 2015 – Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks (-2.5)
Monday November 16, 2015 – Houston Texans at Cincinnati Bengals (-10.5)
You think you have it straight by now? All 32 teams have played at least half their schedule. You have sharpened your pencil and scratched your head making picks on 132 regular season games to this point.
It’s like the 1970’s all over again. The Minnesota Vikings and the Oakland Raiders look like contenders. And, then again, some goings-on don’t seem familiar at all when you have the Cincinnati Bengals and Carolina Panthers undefeated at the midway point of the season. But how do these performances over the first half of the season measure up when evaluating against the spread?
In order to analyze performance against the spread, I have charted each team’s 2015 straight-up and ATS winning percentages at the end of Week 9. For ease of reference, I have split the results by conference. Note that the average ATS winning percentage is just below .500 due to the exclusion of pushes.
A majority of the teams have ATS winning percentages within the range from .400-.600. But you will see teams crawl above and slip below this middle ground. Bettors should gravitate towards teams with ATS winning percentages above .600, such as Cincinnati. Likewise, teams falling below .400 (e.g. Baltimore, Cleveland and San Diego) should clearly be avoided.
I also tend to compare teams with similar straight-up results to see how they differ against the spread. For example, I am much more confident betting on the Bengals compared to the Patriots, or looking at the back end of the chart, I would hesitate wagering on underdogs like the Ravens in comparison to the Jaguars. A worthwhile note since Jacksonville visits Baltimore as a 5.5 point underdog this week. A similar assessment can be done using the NFC chart below.
In the NFC, there are fewer teams exceeding a .600 ATS winning percentage than we saw with the 2015 AFC results. However, there are also fewer teams dropping below .400 in comparison to the other conference. The three NFC teams with the lowest ATS mark at this point of the season have one thing in common: each franchise – Seattle, Dallas and Detroit – were all playoff teams a year ago. The Cowboys and Lions are unlikely to reach the postseason again; whereas, the Seahawks maintain an outside chance.
Last year, Carolina and Minnesota were examples of NFC teams that exceeded the expectations of oddsmakers despite the fact that their efforts did not translate into wins. This season, both teams have found a way to claim victory more often. On the other hand, Chicago, Tampa Bay and San Francisco are the NFC’s best examples of teams who have exceeded expectations so far this season.
PREVIOUS 16 REGULAR SEASON GAMES
Even with half a season in the books, midseason results can be sensitive to the impact of a single game. To alleviate such concerns, I have also charted straight-up and ATS winning percentages over each team’s most recent 16 regular season games. You will want to make some consideration for coaching changes, significant player suspensions and personnel moves, but looking back 16 games is a reasonable time horizon to assess current ATS performance.
The ATS results over the previous 16 games have flattened compared to the analysis based on the eight or nine games from 2015. The Bengals own the AFC’s top ATS record over their previous 16 regular season games. In comparison to multi-season successful franchises like the Patriots and Broncos, Cincinnati’s ATS performance is attributable to lower bettor expectations stemming from years and years of frustration. The Bengals meet the Texans on Monday night this week as a 10.5 point favorite. Cincinnati has produced double-digit wins on four occasions this season and the 3-5 Houston Texans lost all five games by at least a touchdown.
You can use a similar argument for explaining why usual playoff locks like the Ravens have such poor ATS results over the previous 16 games. Teams with strong winning traditions will have difficulty beating the spread when they are also struggling to simply win football games. My eye focused at the other two teams (Oakland and Kansas City) with similar straight-up records to Baltimore. Using this chart, you can identify quickly which of the three teams are more likely to cover a spread based on recent historical trends. Of course, we have all become accustomed to Raiders teams that annually underwhelm. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the oddsmakers and the betting public were slow to react once the silver and black saw improved results on the field. But will Oakland be a sure pick in their Week 10 battle versus the 6-2 Vikings?
The NFC chart below is based on each team’s previous 16 regular season games and will shed some light on this week’s tilt between the Raiders and Vikings.
Do you wonder how unexpected Minnesota’s 6-2 2015 record is? It shouldn’t be too surprising as this chart shows that the Vikings have been playing .600 football dating back to last season’s mid-point. But the Vikings .800+ ATS winning percentage is the byproduct of an improved team continuing to fly under the radar. It appears to me that not committing to either Minnesota or Oakland is the correct move this week.
Other than some top teams in the NFC, very few teams in the conference have seen a significant decline in their ATS results in comparison with their straight-up record. The sharpest drop belongs to the Lions who made the playoffs last season but are 6-10 straight-up and 4-12 against the spread in their previous 16 regular season games. Considering the opposite scenario, the Bears and Buccaneers have both managed to cover the spread in half of their previous 16 games despite only managing five and four wins, respectively, over that period.
MARGIN OF VICTORY
There is one other way that I examine which teams are more likely to not only win outright, but also cover the spread. I figure that teams who play tight games with small margins of victory are less likely to cover as favorites. Or, from the other point of view, underdogs who keep it close may not win straight-up, but they will stay within the spread.
The charts below rank each team by their average margin of victory or defeat. For example, a 4-4 team has an average margin of victory of two if they won their four games by an average score of 10 and lost their four games by an average score of eight. The spread adjusted score takes into consideration whether oddsmakers are giving or taking points away to underdogs and favorites, respectively. For example, if a three-point favorite wins by 10 points, the favorite’s margin over the spread adjusted score of that game is reduced to seven.
From this chart, you can see which teams give bettors a bit more comfort on Sundays. Both undefeated teams – New England and Cincinnati – have an average margin of victory above ten points. In fact, the Patriots are winning games by an average of 16.6 points per game. No wonder we have seen their point spreads climb in and around the two touchdown range at home and around a touchdown on the road like this week versus the Giants.
A black dot (representing the spread adjusted margin) sitting above the straight-up margin (see Pittsburgh) suggests that a team has not only won a few games, but has done so occasionally as an underdog. The Steelers did just that versus the Rams, Chargers and Cardinals. Cleveland visits Heinz Field this week as a 5.5 point underdog. Even with Ben Roethlisberger being shelved again, Pittsburgh must be salivating at the thought of facing a Browns squad that has lost by an average of 18 points over the past three weeks.
Baltimore is the opposite of Pittsburgh. The Ravens were favorites five weeks in a row at one point this season and they managed only one straight-up win over that stretch.
There are six AFC teams who have an average margin of victory between -5 and zero. In five of the cases, the average spread adjusted margin tracks the straight-up results quite closely. However, the one outlier is Tennessee. The Titans appear to be matching close to their opponents once the spread is factored in.
The NFC margin of victory chart provides even stronger indicators compared to the AFC chart. The results for preseason Super Bowl favorites – Green Bay and Seattle – have not been kind if you have been expecting them to safely cover the spread on a regular basis.
The 6-2 Packers were a touchdown favorite on average in their six wins but only won by an average of 11 points. Their two losses came as they were approximately two-point road favorites and they lost by an average of two touchdowns. Green Bay’s pattern of performance against the spread is a strong indicator that they are less likely to cover. It’s too bad they play the Lions this week – another team with an unflattering spread adjusted margin of victory.
Arizona not only has the best straight-up margin of victory, but also leads the NFC against the spread. The Cardinals have covered the spread by at least 20 points on three occasions this season although the most recent example was all the way back in Week 5 versus the Lions. In week 10, they matchup against their division rivals from the Pacific Northwest. The Seahawks are 2-6 versus the spread this season resulting in a sub-zero spread adjusted margin of victory.
Chicago and San Francisco have played poorly this season; however, their spread adjusted margin is within a much more acceptable tolerance compared to their straight-up margin of victory. The Bears, for example, have played five consecutive games decided by a field goal or less. The 49ers have achieved similar results though much more volatile means. San Francisco has three spread adjusted wins above a touchdown and four spread adjusted losses greater than seven points.
Golden Rules say to take Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Arizona and Cincinnati
BONUS ANALYSIS: WHICH TEAMS ARE MOST LIKELY TO GO ABOVE OR BELOW THE OVER/UNDER?
Any midseason recap for those who bet on NFL games would be incomplete if it excluded some season-to-date information on over/unders. The charts below show the average point totals in each team’s 2015 regular season games compared to the pre-kickoff over/unders. If the bar surpasses the line, the team is consistently over; likewise, under is more likely if the bar fails to reach the over/under line. Those in the middle are either too close to comfortably wager on or they have been inconsistent all season long. It is more important to note the gap between the bar and the black line and not focus on how high or low the scoring is.
Starting with the AFC, the top six teams are a mix of high powered offenses (New England), teams whose offensive production has exceeded expectations (Oakland and Buffalo) and teams whose defense are surrendering far more points than one would have expected (San Diego, Jacksonville and Baltimore). Teams to the right are not necessarily the basement dwellers; they are either teams that have faced key injuries at quarterback (Tennessee and Pittsburgh) or teams with a stingy defense (Cincinnati and Denver).
The six NFC teams involved in higher scoring games all show as strong plays for the over. Tampa Bay is likely the biggest opportunity. The Buccaneers average an over/under of 43 points and they have only been part of one game this season that dropped below that mark. Everyone thinks of Carolina as a lock down defense and a good choice for the under. But let’s not forget that the Panthers have scored an average of 28 points per game this year.
Not one AFC team average total scores below 40 points, yet there are four NFC teams beneath that threshold. In fact, these teams aren’t even considered poor by any standard. Only the 49ers have a record below .500. There have been plenty of examples to explain why each of these teams are more likely to gravitate towards the under. Minnesota beat Kansas City earlier this season 16-10, the Seahawks have won twice by scoring only 13 points and the Rams lost in Week 3 after holding the Steelers to only 12 points.
Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.
The Golden Rules were 3-2 during Week 9 and are 19-21 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.