Laying favorites: A recipe for success?

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Laying favorites: A recipe for success?

The NFL has long prided itself on its parity. But something has happened this year. The gap between the good teams and bad teams has widened. Immensely. There are no great teams, but there have emerged a handful of awful ones, which is changing the landscape of handicapping.

The wiseguys will always tell you that they play numbers, not teams. The public is the opposite. If Green Bay is squaring off against Minnesota and the line shifts from 9.5 at open to 10.5 just before kickoff, the average bettor is still going to bet the Packers. The pros, on the other hand, aren’t looking at who’s playing, but where the line is – specifically in relation to key numbers such as 3, 7, and to a lesser extent, 10. So while they may be on the Green Bay side at -9.5, if the public action pushes the line over that key number of 10 to 10 and the hook, they may very well come in heavy on the Minnesota side and try to middle the game at 10.

While public teams and favorites are always going to do their fair share of covering, taking uniforms out of the mix and focusing on numbers is the reason why the wiseguys are able to make a living at betting football, whereas the public is relegated to riding the waves and swoons, just like they would at the craps or blackjack table.

However, this season has seen a shift, primarily at the bottom of the league. There are a handful of teams that look to be anywhere from notably to historically bad (Jacksonville first and foremost, along with Tampa Bay and Minnesota). Coupled with the high-flying aerial attacks of many of the league’s elite outfits, scores have become increasingly more lopsided.

The books have tried to adjust, pushing many lines well into the high teens and even twenties on occasion. But the talent gap is so drastic that favorites are continuing to cover – and with relative ease a lot of the time.

To put it in perspective, let’s look at the eight teams with two losses or fewer: Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay, New England, Denver, Kansas City, New Orleans and Indianapolis. In games that those teams have been favorites so far, they are 32-18-1 against the spread. In other words, anyone who has blindly bet those teams as favorites this season has cashed at a 64-percent clip. That number jumps to 69 percent for those teams as home favorites (20-9-1). While that includes early-season games when the league was still calibrating, with the exception of the Chiefs and Colts, these are the teams that were expected to be the cream of the crop.

On the other end of that spectrum are the bad-to-abysmal teams. Of the eight who have no more than two wins (Washington, the Giants, Minnesota, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Houston and Jacksonville), those teams are 8-30 (.210) as underdogs, meaning anyone who blindly laid the points with the favorite in contests in which these teams were ‘dogs has cashed at nearly an 80-percent clip.

Because it was tough to predict the horrible starts of the Giants, Falcons, Steelers and Texans, only the savviest gamblers would have been able to profit from this trend. But that doesn’t change the fact that, simply put, good teams are covering at an accelerated rate and bad teams are failing to cover at an even more accelerated rate. Whether or not that changes remains to be seen.

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