NFL Season Win Totals (AFC)
What things should you look at when studying NFL season win totals and making futures wagers?
Lots of things. Most importantly, they include:
Coaching — This is pretty simple. I prefer to bet on good coaches and bet against bad coaches. I especially like to bet on good coaches coming off disappointing seasons (Tom Coughlin and Sean Peyton immediately come to mind in 2013). Moreover, I tend to bet against teams that change coaches and install new offensive or defensive systems, which means uncertainty. Adapting to a new coach’s (or coordinator’s) way of doing things and new system usually takes several games. I prefer to wager on teams with proven coaches where players believe in the system. To this day, I think many handicappers fail to realize how critical coaching is to winning. Great coaches can (and do) win with average teams. Great coaches sometimes make average players into great players.
Team’s Performance During the Last Half of Previous Season — A team’s previous win-loss record isn’t quite as important as a subset of games, usually the last 6-8 weeks of the season. That’s more indicative of the direction a team is headed. I’d much rather bet on a team that closed out the last half of the season strongly than one that faded down the stretch (Indianapolis finished strongly, as opposed to Dallas and Tampa Bay, which faded in 2012). Naturally, the influence of injuries on team performance must also be taken into account. A team where the star QB went out during mid-season would not necessarily be a fade.
Strength of Schedule — This is absolutely critical. Playing a first-place schedule versus a tough division is usually a good fade, whereas a talented team that may have suffered a bad previous season and now gets to play a last-place schedule looks to be tempting. Another key is to look at which games are played at home versus on the road. It’s much better to host teams like New England, Denver, and Baltimore at home early in the season, as opposed to playing December games on the road versus those caliber of opponents. It’s also important to look at the strength of each division. Denver gets to play six games against weak teams, two of which have new head coaches this season. Meanwhile, how would you like to be in Tampa having to play six games versus Atlanta, New Orleans (back to full strength), and Carolina (fast improving)?
Key Totals — The importance of a half game cannot be overstated. For instance, there’s a monumental difference between 10.5 and 11. These high win totals are hung on the best teams. The problem with an “11” for an over bettor is, now the team must go 12-4 to cash the ticket. Given that some teams rest starters in the final week or two when divisions are locked up, this becomes a huge question mark. Take Houston for instance, which almost won the AFC South division by default. Yet, the Texans basically took the last month of the season off, losing 3 of their last 4 games. That’s just one example of a situation where the team was better than its record indicated over the course of the year, but essentially surrendered a few “meaningless” games. These half game differences are arguably even more pronounced around the 7-9 win range, where the majority of teams land in terms of regular season wins.
Vig Price — Not long ago, all futures were priced at the standard vig price, usually -115 or -120 on either side. As the sportsbooks started taking hits from the sharps, vig prices were gradually adjusted. This season, it’s easy to like the NY Jets under 6.5 wins. But do you want to lay -165 on a team that gets to play Buffalo and Miami a total of four games? How about Kansas City, which is expected to show improvement and gets to play four games versus Oakland and San Diego? Going over 7 looks easy until you see that the lay price is -200. What I like are teams where I like the raw wager anyway, and then have relatively no vig on the total. Tampa Bay going under 7.5 wins with a vig coming back at +105 (plus money!) is a prime example. I should be laying -135 with that number. At least!
Contrarianism — I’ve researched and published a lot of material on this before. For years at Casino Player magazine, I ran an analysis of all the teams lined above and below “8.” The theory goes that the NFL encourages parity. Teams will gravitate towards 8-8 based on the uncertainty of injures, luck (turnover differential), and so forth. So, I advised betting UNDER on all the teams lined at 8.5 or higher, and OVER on all the teams lined at 7.5 or lower. This system produced a profit for years, especially the UNDER (good teams) angle, because sportsbooks shaded win totals slightly up across the board. Back in the days when more novices bet these futures, they tended to wager OVER with their favorite team, and so the entire slate usually had an extra dozen or so wins calculated into the matrix, which would have been impossible to achieve. This made money for years. However, vig adjustment became more of a factor and this is no longer relevant. Nonetheless, I still tend to like fading teams expected to be good, and backing teams the public doesn’t like. No one ever gets rich betting with the crowd. Remember that.
Free Agency — I think this is vastly overrated. Losing a key player or two is normal for most teams and good coaches and players can make proper adjustments. That said, I tend to think losing a key player is more of a factor than gaining a solid free agent. Reason is, a Pro Bowl player is hard to replace sometimes, whereas there is no certainty that the free agent will produce at the same level with a new team. Perhaps the star player had a great surrounding cast which made his statistics look much better than reality (remember Larry Brown leaving Dallas and signing with Oakland several years ago). Of course, some positions do not apply here, such as quarterback. Peyton Manning’s move to Denver last year completely changed the landscape. This is much less the case with other players. Think of all the free agent busts in the past. It’s almost a good fade. Don’t get fooled by the free agent market.
A few days ago, I posted my NFC season win projections. View them here: NFL SEASON WIN TOTALS (NFC)
Let’s now continue with the AFC. I only see three teams worth wagering: Note — Current lines are taken from OLYMPIC SPORTSBOOK as of August 23, 2013.
BALTIMORE RAVENS OVER 8.5 WINS (-110) — Even with the so-called “Super Bowl Hangover” factor looming, I don’t recall an NFL championship team ever lined this low the following season. I’m banking on a gross overreaction to some free-agent departures in the off-season. There’s still plenty of talent on this team and no one can deny Coach Jim Harbaugh has joined the elite ranks of NFL coaches with the most wins over the past five seasons than any other team (actually tied with New England at 63 wins, including playoffs). Baltimore remains one of the toughest places in the NFL to play (best home field record in football over last five seasons). While we can’t handicap team success based solely on the past, given the same organization, head coach, quarterback, running game, I believe they’ll groom replacements well enough to post a winning record. Offense has 9 returning starters, while defense returns 6 (and frankly, the defense was Baltimore’s weakness last season following years of dominance). Ravens play tougher than average schedule, but get most of the beasts at home (Houston, Green Bay, New England). Many handicappers I respect are on the other side of this one, but I’m counting on a gross overreaction to Flacco’s big contract and the losses (Reed, Boldin, Lewis). This team has done nothing but exceed expectations every year under Harbaugh, and I see no reason to go against that prospect now. Recommendation: BALTIMORE OVER 8.5 WINS (-110)
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS OVER 8.5 WINS (-110) — Here’s another playoff team many respected handicappers are fading. I don’t like their reasoning at all. One methodology is to look closely at teams that “overachieved” last season, indicated by winning a lot of close games. The Colts apply here, for sure. But given Indianapolis was coming off a horrid previous season (2-11), started a rookie quarterback, and had its head coach in cancer treatment, there was nothing to indicate the Colts would suddenly become a contender again. In fact, many forget the Colts started last year 2-3 and appeared in bad shape. All they did from that point forward is go 9-2 straight up. I always give more weight to how a team finished the season, coming into a new year. So, why is Indianapolis 11-5 record now not given more credit? Was it all just a mirage? Yes, the Colts had many breaks go their way. And, I don’t expect a repeat in 2013. But 9 or 10 wins — going over 8.5 — is certainly very achievable in a weak division where four games come against Tennessee and Jacksonville. In fact, this looks like a cream puff schedule including games against Oakland, Miami, San Diego, St. Louis, Arizona, and Kansas City. At a minimum (barring major injuries), The Colts look to be favored in 10 or 11 of their games, making this 8.5 number something of a mystery. Just about everyone is back for this 11-5 team last year, and I’m not convinced the emotional drop off with Coach Pagano now back on the sidelines full time will materialize. Give QB Luck a year under his belt now, and this team looks to have a bright future. Recommendation: INDIANAPOLIS OVER 8.5 WINS (-110)
OAKLAND RAIDERS UNDER 5.5 (-180) — I hate joining the crowd. In fact, just about everyone is fading the Raiders this season and yet the season win total is holding at 5.5 (with high vig tilted towards the under). I fail to see why this number is not 4.5 given the multitude of problems with this organization and team. It’s hard to find anything to like about the Raiders at the moment. A horrid organization. A clueless head coach. Starting quarterbacks either Matt Flynn or Terrelle Pryor — take your pick, does it matter? Essentially nothing at any skill position (RB McFaddden injury?). The defense looks to have taken a step backward. Oakland went 4-12 last season. To go over 5.5, they must win at least six games in 2013. Where are those extra two wins going to come from? QB Palmer is gone. RB McFadden has injury issues. No one wants to play here as a free agent. Making things worse, Kansas City — which gave the Raiders half of their wins last season — should be much better. If Oakland doesn’t sweep San Diego, I see no way they get to 6+ wins. Looking at their schedule, I (now) see only three games where they could conceivably be favored. The only thing that scares me is many teams will not be taking the Raiders seriously, which could create some lackluster performances and possible upsets. Recommendation: OAKLAND UNDER 5.5 WINS (-180)
Note: For the purposes of handicapping, I will make the following wagers to be included on my final results:
DALLAS COWBOYS UNDER 8.5 WINS (-125) —– Wagering $750 to win $600
NEW YORK GIANTS OVER 9 WINS (-105) —– Wagering $1,050 to win $1,000
GREEN BAY PACKERS UNDER 10.5 WINS (-115) —– Wagering $575 to win $500
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS UNDER 7.5 WINS (+105) *BEST BET* —– Wagering $1,500 to win $1,575
NEW ORLEANS OVER 9 WINS (-165) —– Wagering $1,650 to win $1,000
ST. LOUIS RAMS OVER 7.5 WINS (-110) —– Wagering $440 to win $400
BALTIMORE RAVENS OVER 8.5 WINS (-110) —– Wagering $1,100 to win $1,000
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS OVER 8.5 WINS (-110) —– Wagering $880 to win $800
OAKLAND RAIDERS UNDER 5.5 (-180) — Wagering $1,800 to win $1,000