Putting the UNDER in your early NFL picks used to be easy money. Is this strategy still viable with all these teams getting so much better at the offensive end?
The logic is flawless: At the start of the preseason and a new NFL season, or in pretty much any team sport, everyone's still trying to figure out the offensive playbook. Scoring is therefore lower than the betting public expects, which means you should put the UNDER in your early-season football picks – especially during Week 1.
We've even got the data to back up that logic. You might recall our recent article about early season spreads, where we revisited a 2012 academic paper from Michael D. DiFilippo to see if non-playoff teams from the year before are still solid NFL picks against playoff teams (Answer: Probably). DiFilippo had a few things to say about totals, too, and it all boils down to what we said about teams working out the kinks in their offense. Get those No. 2 pencils sharpened up, folks.
In this case, DiFilippo and his colleagues examined the Week 1 totals from 2000 to 2010, and found that the UNDER went 102-69-3, which converts to a very tasty 59.6-percent success rate against the NFL odds. That trend even carried into Week 2, as teams were still fumbling and stumbling enough to drive the UNDER to an 88-79 record (52.7 percent).
Sadly, that trend appeared to fizzle out. In 2011 and 2012 combined, the UNDER went 11-21 in Week 1 and 12-18 in Week 2. There goes the college fund. Was this a case of the market failing to adapt to the new, pass-happy NFL? Or just bad luck attacking a small sample size? It's not a binary choice, of course, but at least we have two more seasons of data to look at.
The Good Old Days
So what happened in 2013 and 2014, you ask? Let's see, Pope Benedict resigned, Edward Snowden fled to Russia... oh, you mean the totals. Here's the skinny:
2013: 8-8 in Week 1, 8-8 in Week 2
2014: UNDER 9-7 in Week 1, UNDER 9-7 in Week 2
Interesting. In hindsight, it looks like the market stabilized in 2013, then the UNDER became profitable again when the pendulum swing in the other direction. Not that we should completely trust hindsight when we're looking at a small sample size, but it is worth pointing out that scoring decreased in the NFL last year, from a near-record high of 46.8 points per game in 2013 to 45.2 points in 2014.
This is a promising development. If you look at the history of the NFL, scoring has always gone through its ups and downs over the long term. We went through a period of relative stability between 1994 and 2007, with the average score floating around 41-43 points. Then we had five straight years of increased scoring between 2009 and 2013 inclusive. We may or may not see another decline in 2015, but that's the way the arrow is pointing. Welcome to the “new” new NFL, and don't be afraid to put the UNDER in your football picks for Week 1.