Handicapping and Analyzing Stats As NFL Teams Push Towards The Playoffs Down The Stretch
In seasons past, I wrote weekly Inside the Numbers articles recapping NFL boxscore data and discussing the importance of point of attack play and both running the ball and stopping the run. I would go inside the numbers reviewing box scores, stats, game recaps and more after watching and analyzing many of the NFL games. I provided an opening quarter report of the 2019 NFL season following Week 4 when the leading online sportsbooks had their best week of the season as bettors rode the favorites and had a rough week as favorites went just 7-8 SU and 5-10 ATS in Week 4. We went 3-2 ATS in our Week 4 underdog report which was a bit disappointing considering the underdogs success, which has carried through this season on these pages.
Following a 35-19 ATS (65%) season a year ago that included a 6-0 ATS run the final three weeks and 21-7 ATS the second half of the season posting underdog picks on these pages, our underdog picks and running game has been unable to break tackles going 21-22 ATS on these pages. That's following last week's 1-1 result in Week 14 with the Rams winner. The 3-year record selecting only NFL underdogs is now 72-49 ATS (59.5%) as we look to finish strong like last year's 6-0 ATS sprint to the end zone.
For more than 15 years, I have kept a proprietary database of statistical information and utilized relevant rushing numbers, statistical guidelines and situations to better assist me in sports investing and providing point spread winners. It helped me produce 8 consecutive winning NFL seasons when I previously worked in the tout and pick selling business posting a documented record of 371-277 (57.3% ATS) with a number of seasons better than 64%.
I've moved on from that business model and turned down offers from companies and others interested in my expertise. I now provide sports betting and handicapping insight, analysis, opinions and work with companies to produce sports betting and related content while also covering and reporting on the industry.
There are many ways to handicap NFL games. But while the talking heads and more media members break into the business with legal sports betting in the U.S., you're going to hear more and more opinions and reasons (some garbage) about why teams win or lose. More computer and math models are being created, and many ridiculous and meaningless trends are used as a lazy way to try and justify why a team will win or lose. Like last weeks Seahawks trend that noted Seattle was 8-2 ATS in its last 10 games on Sunday Night Football. Make that 8-3 after the Rams rolled over the Seahawks and we were were on Los Angeles with one of our strongest plays of the season in the Rams 28-12 smashing of the Seahawks. Oh, and the Rams rushed the ball 35 times for 162 yards. We'll get to the significance of those numbers below.
While the game continues to evolve with more scoring, rules changes and safety at the forefront, pro football is still a game of running, passing, blocking and tackling. Oh, and kicking as the Rams found out with a missed 44-yard field goal at the gun in a 30-29 loss at Seattle in Week 5, or the Hall of Fame kicker Adam Vinatieri missing a PAT and potential game winning field goal late in a Week 9 loss at Pittsburgh 26-24. Both those kicks also had a huge impact on the point spread and money lines with many millions of dollars changing hands on the missed kicks at the leading online sportsbooks.
Rushing Success and Point of Attach Play
While we hear more and more about how the NFL is more of a passing league, I provide stats that show the importance of running the ball and stopping the run, and the impact on not only winning football games, but also covering point spreads. If you can become better at analyzing match-ups and identify when a team will have more success running the ball and/or stopping the run, you'll increase your ATS winning percentage.
Exhibit A this season is the Baltimore Ravens, who lead the league in rushing at 202 yards per game. That includes a league-high 36.6 rushing attempts per game and 5.5 yards per rush. The Ravens lead the AFC with a 12-2 record. Quarterback Lamar Jackson set the single-season rushing record for a quarterback in last night's 42-21 Thursday night win over the Jets rushing for 86 yards to send him past Michael Vick. Jackson passed for five more touchdowns in the victory, and the dynamic quarterback will be the NFL Most Valuable Player this season as his 1,103 rushing yards (7 TD's) and 2,889 passing yards (33 TD's) put him on a pedestal as the new standard at quarterback. Ravens running back Mark Ingram added 76 rushing yards to his total (963 and 10 TD's) and will likely surpass 1,000 rushing yards next week.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that the top-5 rushing teams are all going to the playoffs with Baltimore (12-2) and San Francisco (11-2) the two top teams in each conference: Ravens (202/game), 49ers (149), Seahawks (146), Vikings (136) and Bills (136). Those teams also run the ball an average of at least 30 times per game, joining the Colts as the six teams that do so. The five teams that run the ball the least and less than 23 times per game are the Dolphins (3-10), Giants (2-11), Falcons (4-9), Redskins (3-10) and Bengals (1-12).
It can be difficult to handicap and beat the NFL as not only are there significant injures each week, but trying to overcome turnovers, penalties or poor calls by officials only adds more hazards to the course. And oh, those missed kicks! There has been at least 15 backup quarterbacks that have started an NFL game this season. The impact on the point spread can be most significant when a backup takes over for a proven quarterback. It's always important to analyze and handicap the play of the quarterback and the match-ups of the opponent, but even the best quarterbacks are going to struggle if they don't have enough pass protection or if they don't have a supporting running game.
A strong run defense and overall defensive strength can overcome deficiencies on a teams offense, but it still depends on the match-ups as even the Jets No. 1 rush defense couldn't slow the Ravens dynamic No. 1 rush offense last night as the Ravens kept on rolling with 218 rushing yards.
Beating the NFL over the long-term involves an understanding of the match-ups, situations and stats, and how to apply them for success. Good fortune in the turnover column helps too. After all, teams that are plus (+3) or more in the turnover column in a game are a long-term 92% winning ATS situation and 32-4-1 ATS this season. Teams that are exactly plus-2 in turnovers during a game are also a high wining percentage, now 32-7 ATS this season. So teams that have a plus-2 or greater turnover differential in a game this season are 64-11-1 ATS (85%) and 68-8 SU (89.5%) - perhaps the most important statistic of them all when it comes to winning and losing and against the spread.
But a review of the meaningful rushing numbers shows the importance of point of attack play in both SU and ATS success.
103-49 (68%) - teams that out-rush their opponent by at least 30 yards in a game
70-13 SU (84%) and 63-19-1 ATS (77%) - teams that run for at least 150 yards in a game
109-18 SU (86%) and 95-33 ATS (74%) - teams that run the ball at least 30 times in a game
18-118 SU (13%) and 32-102 (24%) - teams that run the ball less than 23 times in a game
Yet as important as running the football and gaining yards on the ground is, it's likely equally as important to have more rushing attempts.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that the top-5 rushing teams are all going to the playoffs with Baltimore (12-2) and San Francisco (11-2) to two top teams in each conference: Ravens (202/game), 49ers (149), Seahawks (146), Vikings (136) and Bills (136). Those teams also run the ball an average of at least 30 times per game, joining the Colts as the six teams that do so. All those teams have a winning point spread (ATS) record this season.
The five teams that run the ball the least and less than 23 times per game are the Dolphins (3-10), Giants (2-11), Falcons (4-9), Redskins (3-10) and Bengals (1-12). The Dolphins (67 rush/game), Jets (77), Falcons (81), Bears (85) and Bengals (86) have the worst rushing attacks in the league all below 90 yards per game. All those teams have a losing ATS record except the Dolphins (7-6 ATS), who were on a historic run of futility and record breaking betting lines the first half of the season as a double-digit underdog six times and now eight times for the season. Miami is projected on the Week 16 look ahead lines to be a favorite for the first time this season against the bungling Bengals.
Point Spread Records
Some other point spread notes and ATS records this season.
122-15 ATS (89%) - the straight up (SU) winners ATS record in games competitively-lined games of 6-points or less
57-12 SU (82%) - the SU record of teams favored by more than 6 points
30-38-1 ATS (44%) - the ATS record of teams favored by more than 6 points
22-41-1 SU 35%) - the SU record of home underdogs
30-34 ATS (47%) - the ATS record of home underdogs
One other note about the NFL. Evaluating point spreads and betting the best number is always recommended. But you can't control the market moves or always get the best number. In today's instantaneous market with moving lines based on betting volume and action, key injury news and weather factors more at this time of year, try to give yourself an edge with multiple accounts at the leading online sportsbooks. Also follow the betting activity tracked by Sports Insights and available from other individual sportsbook providers like OSGA Elite-rated BookMaker.
Quarterback Play and Passing
The quarterback is the most important position, and there are many sites to reference analytics and performances including Pro Football Focus. And as mentioned there has been a quarterback change on half the teams this season since the start of Week 1. But the stats don't lie when it comes to success in the running game versus passing numbers. Teams with the most passing attempts this season are:
42 - Falcons (4-9 SU, 5-8 ATS)
41 - Patriots (10-3 SU, 7-6 ATS)
39 - Buccaneers (6-7 SU, 4-8-1 ATS)
38 - Bengals (1-12 SU, 5-8 ATS)
38 - Cowboys (6-7 SU, 7-6 ATS)
38 - Panthers (5-8 SU, 6-7 ATS)
37 - Eagles (6-7 SU, 4-9 ATS)
37 - Giants (2-11 SU, 5-8 ATS)
37 - Jaguars (4-9 SU,5-8 ATS)
All those pass heavy teams are losing teams except for the Patriots, who played the softest schedule in the league until the past five weeks with the Patriots 0-3 SU/ATS against winning teams.
Fluctuating point spreads can cause variance in these numbers, but in the perception - reality world of pass versus run, you'll have more success if you focus on point of attack play on both sides of the ball and rush to the window more often with success in the running game.
You can bet on it.
FairwayJay is a leading national sports handicapper and is recognized as one of the sports industry's most insightful analysts. Read more great insights from Jay here and follow him on Twitter: @FairwayJay