Ahead of Chargers vs. Raiders on Thursday Night Football, we take a look at the odds and betting trends for backup quarterbacks against the spread and total based on the best NFL odds from our best sports betting apps.
Above all else, the 2023 NFL season has been the "Year of the Backup QB" amid a rash of injuries to the game's top signal-callers. And we're in for another reserve-laden slate in Week 15.
We've already seen seven Week 1 starters land on injured reserve with a season-ending injury, with Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert joining that fateful list in Week 14. Half the league has relied on a second-string passer at least once, while 78 of the total 208 games played (37.5%) have featured at least one backup quarterback. (Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray, who opened the year on IR, is considered a starter for these purposes.)
This week, as many as 12 teams are expected to trot out a backup QB, and the first three games of Week 15 all feature backups on both sides - tied with Week 14 for the most such contests in a single week this season.
For the second straight week, Thursday Night Football will feature two backup QBs facing off, as we outlined with our Easton Stick NFL player props and Aidan O'Connell player props, while Thursday's betting total (34.5) is the lowest on the board across our best sportsbooks.
Last week's TNF showdown between backup QBs shockingly went over the pregame total of 31, which was the lowest in a game since 2008. Still, oddsmakers continue to deal low totals whenever a backup QB is involved - largely because bettors continue to blindly bet the Under, anyway.
As tempting as that may be when backups take the field, that hasn't been a surefire strategy in 2023. And in many cases, starters are the ones to fade.
2023 NFL backup QB odds, betting trends
As we mentioned earlier, more than a third of all games this season have featured a backup quarterback for either side. Sixteen teams have relied on a reserve QB this season, while 10 rookies have made at least one start - the most in a single season in NFL history.
That rash of injuries and relative inexperience has had a profound effect on leaguewide scoring, which is down to its lowest per-team total (21.7 points per game) since the 2009 season. The average passer rating (88.4) is also at its worst point since 2017, while the league's passing TD rate (4.0%) hasn't been this low since 2008.
So, with all that said, is it profitable to bet the Under whenever a backup quarterback is involved?
Not exactly. Here's a look at the betting data for the 2023 season, broken down by games featuring zero, one, or two backup quarterbacks:
|Starter vs. starter
|Backup vs. starter
|Backup vs. backup
Just as you might expect, teams are scoring roughly five points per game more with their regular starters than they are without them - a clear indication that those myriad injuries are contributing to the leaguewide scoring drought.
That said, the Under has been more profitable in games featuring two starters (59.4%) than ones pitting a starter against a backup (52.5%), which has been a break-even bet (assuming -110 odds) through the first 14 weeks of the season.
Ironically, when two backups go head-to-head, the Over has been the better bet (62.5%). The biggest reason? Low totals. Games with dueling reserves have seen an average betting total of 38.3 points through 14 weeks, more than six points lower than games with two starters.
And while those games are averaging just 37.6 points, that's dragged down heavily by last week's 3-0 result between the Las Vegas Raiders and Minnesota Vikings, which was the lowest-scoring NFL game in 16 years. The other seven games have averaged 42.6 combined points - an even higher mark than what we've seen when backups face starters (40.5).
That's the most obvious reason why blindly betting the Under on games with second-string passers isn't nearly as profitable as doing so when starters are involved: sportsbooks are keeping tabs on this stuff, too.
Of the 16 teams to start a backup QB in 2023, 11 have been profitable to the Under across the entire season. Yet nine of those 11 teams have been more profitable to the Under when their starter takes the field, as sportsbooks routinely hang lower totals for reserve QBs, often aggressively so.
There's another explanation for that seemingly curious trend: sometimes the starter just isn't that good.
Of those 16 aforementioned teams, six have actually scored more points per game with their backups at the helm. Remember, not every QB change is injury-related: the Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans both willingly benched their Week 1 starter at some point this season, and they were each rewarded with a notably better scoring pace behind their new signal-caller.
How to bet backup QBs in NFL Week 15
All of this brings us back to Thursday Night Football, which features two backup QBs for the second straight week and the lowest betting total of Week 15.
Historically, extremely low totals have been a good thing for Under bettors, and Thursday's total is a direct reflection of the shoddy QB play from both sides. Still, as the numbers have shown, not every game with backup passers is an automatic Under.
Look no further than Week 14, when the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers soared past the lowest betting total in almost two decades behind backup QBs Bailey Zappe and Mitchell Trubisky, who combined for 430 passing yards in a 21-18 final.
A week earlier, the Cincinnati Bengals (Jake Browning) and Jacksonville Jaguars (C.J. Beathard) were down to their second-stringers by the end of regulation, but they still combined for 65 points in one of the 15 highest-scoring games of the entire 2023 season.
With that said, here's a look at the three Week 15 matchups featuring two backup QBs, with odds from DraftKings as of Wednesday evening:
|Chargers (Stick) vs. Raiders (O'Connell)
|Vikings (Mullens) vs. Bengals (Browning)
|Steelers (Trubisky) vs. Colts (Minshew)
Some of those games could very well set new marks in offensive futility, but those low totals could also spell value for contrarian Over bettors, especially given what we've seen through the first three months of this wild NFL campaign.
In a season when former third-string QB Brock Purdy is among the favorites by our NFL MVP odds and journeyman Joshua Dobbs is the feel-good story of the year, backups are having their moment. So, before you rush to the window to bet against a dozen fill-in starters, just remember: not every backup is worth fading, and not every total is worth betting into.
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