What's the easiest way to explain contrarian betting in the NFL (or any other sport)? Essentially backing a team that the public is hugely leaning against. Let's take an overview of this betting strategy using early Week 1 NFL lines.
Why Contrarian Betting?
Remember that sportsbooks cater to the public, not the sharps. So the sportsbooks set the opening lines based on the expectation that the general public tends to lean favorites and overs in every sport. It's true. Americans might like to root for underdogs in the NCAA Tournament or whatever the sport, but really they love teams to hate. And those are the teams that always win. Think the New England Patriots in the NFL or New York Yankees in baseball or Duke in college basketball. Think of it as bullish stock investing. These sportsbooks are all profitable because the public is wrong more than right.
One betting trend site, Sports Insights, has done research showing that If a certain game has more than 75 percent of the bets on one side, it usually means that the general public is overvaluing that side. I would argue that the general public also likes offense and stars. Two Super Bowls ago, who was the biggest star in the game? Denver's Peyton Manning, who led a record-setting offense. To no surprise, the Broncos took the lean as did the over. Of course the Seattle Seahawks, the NFL's best defense, rolled 43-8. Certainly the ESPN's of the world help shape the general public's betting patterns. The Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings and Aaron Rodgers of the world get all the hype. Can you name me one Seattle Seahawks defensive player other than Richard Sherman?
You need to determine for yourself how much of a percentage lean justifies contrarian betting. I generally like a minimum of 70 percent. A few years ago, a prominent betting analyst looked at nearly seven years of NFL regular-season and playoff games bet at six well-known sportsbooks. His analysis was that when one team gets at least 80 percent of the bets, the other team wins against the spread 53.2 percent of the time. When the other team is also the underdog, that number is 56 percent.
Week 1 Contrarian Examples
Right now, there are seven games in the opening week of the season with at least a 75 percent lean. I will try to explain what I believe the public is thinking and why it's leaning so heavily that way. All the favorites are taking the huge lean except Minnesota-San Francisco.
Packers at Bears (+5): Green Bay is now a 5-point favorite on the NFL odds because it's taking such a massive lean, the biggest of any Week 1 team. This line opened at 4. Bettors know all about how good Rodgers and that Green Bay Packers offense are, while the Bears were terrible defensively in 2014 and are breaking in an entirely new coaching staff as well as offensive and defensive schemes. But really it's because Rodgers just about always beats the Bears. Shoot, you might get a touchdown on Chicago by kickoff.
Browns at Jets (-3): What have we all heard about the Browns this offseason? How bad their quarterback situation is with the out-of-rehab Johnny Manziel and likely starter Josh McCown. He was terrible as the Bucs' starter in 2014. Meanwhile, the New York Jets defense has been praised for adding Darrelle Revis and having USC tackle/end Leonard Williams falling to New York at No. 6 overall in the draft.
Colts at Bills (+2): The Indianapolis Colts added several offensive weapons for Andrew Luck this offseason and many believe the Colts are the team to beat in the AFC. The Bills? Good defense but perhaps an even worse quarterback situation than Cleveland with Matt Cassel and E.J. Manuel.
Dolphins at Redskins (+2.5): The big free-agent winner this offseason? Miami in adding Ndamukong Suh as well as trading for Kenny Stills. The Redskins have quarterback (and coaching) questions.
Saints at Cardinals (-2.5): The public only remembers that the New Orleans Saints traded Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills this offseason in what might appear to be a slight rebuild -- it's not, they are just trying to be less pass-heavy. Arizona, meanwhile, was unbeaten with Carson Palmer as its starting QB last season and he's healthy -- for now.
Titans at Buccaneers (-3): Very raw rookie quarterback (Tennessee's Marcus Mariota) making his NFL start away from home and with little skill position talent around from home and another, much-less raw quarterback (Tampa's Jameis Winston) at home with one of the NFL's best receiving tandems.
Vikings at 49ers (-3): This one makes the most sense of all. Why are the San Francisco 49ers taking so little action? No team had a worse offseason than they did, with a defense ravaged by retirements and losing one of the NFL's best head coaches in Jim Harbaugh. He was replaced by a guy the public has never heard of (Jim Tomsula). Meanwhile, Minnesota welcomes back Adrian Peterson from his suspension.