An interesting topic I have been given by my editors here at SBR in trying to explain what separates me on my NFL choices each week from those handicappers who are professional bettors. I'll try to explain.
Statistics Ignore Intangibles
First off, I believe I have an intimate knowledge of the game of football as I played through college. No, I certainly wasn't a Division I star with NFL aspirations. Just a backup quarterback at a Division II school. But I think having played the game at a fairly high level can offer some insights into certain things. Injuries, for one. You aren't going to keep a hurt player off the field if it's up to said, player. But being injured is a different thing entirely.
Secondly, I believe that professional bettors do sometimes take analytics too much into account. It's all computers and advanced statistics these days. While trends and the like are obviously important, it's not wise to overlook emotion or intangibles in an NFL game. Many professional bettors are putting down action on every single NFL game, not to mention college football, Major League Baseball, the NBA, NHL, etc. Even the best handicappers can be worn a bit thin. This happens all the time at sportsbooks in college football season as you can find weak lines on some games involving lesser FBS schools because the books simply can't devote the necessary time to those games with so much else going on.
For example, I absolutely believe in trap games, look-ahead games, sandwich games and payback games in the NFL even if the statistical analysis doesn't back me up. But computers can't compute emotion or motivation.
In early NFL odds for Week 2 of the regular season, defending NFC champion Carolina is a 13-point favorite against visiting San Francisco, probably the NFC's worst team on paper. That line could get over two touchdowns if the Panthers go to Denver on opening night and beat the Broncos in a Super Bowl rematch and the 49ers lose at home Week 1 to a so-so Rams team. But why would I lean taking the points there? The Panthers are apt to have a major letdown after the Broncos game and perhaps looking past the 49ers to a Week 3 matchup at home with defending NFC North champion Minnesota. You think the computers will take a potential letdown into account?
There's a sandwich game involving the 49ers that really stands out to me this season as well. The Niners are likely to be double-digit underdogs again on NFL picks when they host New England in Week 11. It's actually Patriots QB Tom Brady's first regular-season game in San Francisco, the area he grew up in and the team he rooted for. The last time New England visited San Francisco, it was 2008 and Brady was out injured. On the field, the Patriots look immensely better. But they will be coming off a Super Bowl XLIX rematch against Seattle (major payback game for the Seahawks!) in Week 10 and then have a big game at the blood-rival New York Jets in Week 12.
Humans Like To Stick It To Former Employers
There are also emotional games for coaches and players. Last year, the New York Jets had a chance to be a wild-card team if they won in Buffalo in Week 17. Of course, the Bills are coached by Rex Ryan, who was fired by the Jets after the 2014 season. New York was a slight favorite, but you know the Bills players wanted to keep the Jets from the playoffs for Ryan. They did with a 22-17 upset.
I have circled two games involving the Broncos where all the motivation will be focused on the visiting team's quarterback. There's that Super Bowl rematch as Carolina's Cam Newton will want to play his best football after he was shut down by Von Miller and Co. in February. Newton took that game personally as you could tell by his post-game press conference. So while I think he has a big game and probably leads a Panthers victory -- they are -2.5 as of now -- I believe that Houston's Brock Osweiler is in for a long night in Week 7 when he goes back to Denver. The way Osweiler criticized the Broncos when he left down as a free agent will have the Denver defense in a frenzy that night. I love Denver in that game, spread regardless.
Finally, I tend to lean against teams with entirely new coaching staffs early in the season. With all offseason workouts now strictly limited by the collective bargaining agreement, teams that have been together for years should have a big advantage over clubs introducing new schemes on both sides of the ball. So the Eagles, Dolphins, Browns, and 49ers could have it rough in the first few weeks. I didn't include the Bucs, Titans, and Giants because they all promoted coordinators-interim head coaches from last season.
Last but not least on how I'm different in making NFL picks from the pros: outside of Survivor or Confidence Pools, I don't worry about every game. I focus on the ones I'm assigned or where I see a good betting value. I think when it comes to putting money down, it's better to know a lot about a few games than a little about all of them.
Looking forward to a productive season!