NFL Betting Strategy: Improve Your NFL Handicapping Skills

Jason Lake

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 1:56 PM GMT

Put 12 NFL handicappers in a room, and you’ll get 13 different opinions about how to bet on football. Jason Lake explains the market-driven approach he uses when formulating his NFL picks and why it’s been reliably profitable over the years. 

I’m only as good as my material. Anytime I’ve learned the wrong way to do things, I’ve done them poorly. When I learn the right way – well, sometimes I still do poorly, but eventually I figure it out. It all depends on how difficult the task is, where my natural talents lie, how developed my skills are, and how much time I get.

That being said, I’ve done pretty well at sports betting. I was hired as a sports writer in late 2001 and trained in the fundamentals of handicapping by some of the best minds in the business. I must have literally written over a million words about it since then. And you know what? It’s not exactly rocket science. At least, it doesn’t have to be.

 

Do This, Don’t Do That
Once you understand NFL betting as a marketplace filled with bettors of varying quality, you can see the slim profit margin this market provides. It’s difficult to quantify – maybe 53 percent, maybe 54? But that’s all you need – if you get more than 52.4 percent of your sports picks right, you’ll make a profit in the long run after factoring in the juice. The trick is to stick with the game plan, use proper money management, and don’t fall for magical thinking.

So here’s the game plan. When we’re going to do some shopping, how do we know something has value? Two ways: One, we get reliable consumer reports. Two, we look at what other people are buying. Are they smart customers? Then we’ll be more likely to do what they do. Are they not the sharpest knives in the drawer? Then we’ll be more likely to do the opposite. Most people in the NFL betting market are not all that sharp, which is why “contrarian betting” works. This is our material.

 

Sure Plays a Mean Football
Let’s start with the consumer reports. It’s amazing how much any of us can learn about football these days. We’ve got the Internet, and we’ve got thousands of die-hard football fans with big brains and big databases. These football wizards have dissected all 32 NFL teams and pretty much everyone on the 53-man roster, for every year going back as far as their data allows. You can access most of their published results for free. People with lots of cash, like actual football teams and well-heeled gamblers, can and do pay for a higher level of access. But the basic cable package will do.

If you look back at the NFL picks I’ve made here over the past two seasons, you’ll see I’m always citing Football Outsiders – their efficiency-based power rankings are super sweet. Pro-Football Reference is also great for both advanced and conventional stats. I trust this information. It’s third-party, it’s apparently objective, and did I mention it’s free? That’s good value.

 

The Sun Always Shines on TV
So where do most casual fans get their information? They don’t. They just bet on their favorite teams. Okay, maybe they watch ESPN, or even the NFL Network, but what are they learning when they watch? These companies are in the entertainment business. Sometimes they provide information, but mostly, they tell stories and sell ad space.

This is great stuff for those of us in the reality-based community. You can generally count on the square betting public to stay square, too. Some people will learn better, but as they do, even more new people come into the market every day, and they make predictable rookie mistakes in the way they value teams. Here are some of the big ones:

  • Ignoring injuries
  • Undervaluing “non-skill” players and special teams
  • Overvaluing famous and telegenic players
  • Not appreciating the rigors of travel and playing on short rest
  • Overlooking West Coast and regional markets (aka “East Coast Bias”)

Each of these mistakes adds to the profit margin available in the NFL betting marketplace. If I can find a matchup will all five factors in play – well then, I’ve got a five-star football pick. Here’s looking forward to plenty of those in 2014.