Fading Last Year’s Lucky Losers When Betting NFL

Jay Pryce

Thursday, July 21, 2016 9:23 PM UTC

Thursday, Jul. 21, 2016 9:23 PM UTC

The 49ers and Saints probably won more games than they should have last season. Was it luck? Maybe, and we're betting against such good fortunes this season.

One angle we like to focus on headed into a new NFL regular season is fading bad teams that may have experienced some good luck the year before. The gist here is that their positive fortunes will eventually turn sour, exposing them in the betting market as overvalued. There are several teams we are tracking for the upcoming 2016-17 campaign to bet against the spread (ATS) under certain conditions. Two we want to highlight today are the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints.

Several advanced metrics attempt to quantify luck in the NFL, and most build off of a similar foundation—that is, a measure of the deviation between a team’s actual win-loss record against what one could expect from its offensive and defensive efficiencies per game. Strength of schedule, environmental factors, turnovers, and a host of other factors are considered poignant as well typically.

Football Outsiders is a valuable statistical resource, and one of several sites to calculate team efficiency ratings and win projections based on these numbers. One can examine their figures to gauge whether a franchise potentially experienced luck in any given season. The site’s Value Over Average (VOA) metric analyzes every single play, weighing a team’s performance to league averages based on specific situations (turnovers, weather conditions, etc.) and outcomes to garner an efficiency rating. With these numbers, they project the amount of wins a team should achieve when adjusted to league-averages, including scheduling. Comparing these estimated wins to a team’s actual winning percentage is one way to reveal if a team may have experienced luck.

We are interested in pinning down franchises with a losing record the prior season that actually won more games than estimated based on their efficiency numbers. In the last 15 years, 40 teams have done so. Assuming they are still a bad team, as change comes slowly in the NFL, the belief is their luck will run out the following year, and end up on the wrong side of close contests. We are specifically targeting games where these teams are underdogs by less than 4 points. Since 2000, they are 50-75-3 ATS (40%) and 43-85 (34%) straight up with a 2.7 average line. The 49ers and Saints fit the bill this year.

Based on VOAs, the 49ers should have won 4.1 games in 2015, though they finished with five victories. Nonetheless, they still came in under the books’ preseason offering of 6 total wins. Behind a new coach and purged of talent headed into the campaign, the Niners kicked off underdogs in every game, going 7-9 ATS with a 6.6 average line. Interestingly, only four of their contests closed at 4 points or less, where they went 3-1 SU and ATS. The betting market predicts San Francisco will struggle again, with 6 wins once more offered on the futures board. We will be leaning the short-priced favorite on a game-to-game basis, thinking the Niners are due for some bad breaks.

The Saints are another team maybe worth fading as a small dog this year. Going 7-9 SU last season, they finished just shy of the  NFL odds' 8.5 wins total. Analysis of Football Outsiders VOAs suggests New Orleans should have won just 5.2 games. Fielding one of the worst defenses in recent years, there is little optimism in the betting market performance will improve this season with a 6.5 wins total listing. Although 8-7-1 ATS last season, they were 5-1 ATS when spotted 5 points or more. They proved to falter in close games, or one’s they were expected to win, and we will be leaning against for our NFL picks when kicking off a small dog this year. 

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