Season win lines are among the most popular NFL futures bets, as they’re particularly ripe for exploiting statistical outliers from the previous season.
Oddsmakers tend to cluster every team around 8-8; this season, no team has an over-under win total lower than 6.5 or higher than 11 at 5Dimes. We know that actual win totals are much more variable, of course, so it’s just a matter of picking the right team that will fall below or above the bell curve.
Before we get into the best values, it’s worth noting that betting on underachieving teams from last year has historically delivered a better return. In other words, it’s better to bet the over on teams that underachieved last season (based on metrics we’ll get into), rather than betting the under on teams that overachieved. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but since oddsmakers tend to bake regression into the win totals of overachieving teams, it’s harder to cut against the public consensus on those teams.
We’ll use two metrics throughout this piece—the first is estimated wins from Football Outsiders, which emphasizes consistency and how teams performed in high leverage situations (red zone, late-and-close, etc.). The second is Pythagorean win expectancy, which simply projects wins based on point differential. With this in mind, let’s take a look at three intriguing team win totals, based on current over-under NFL odds from 5Dimes.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Over 6 wins (+110)
Expecting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to jump from 2-14 to 7-9 sounds ambitious, until you realize that five wins mischaracterizes the jump Tampa Bay is trying to make. By both estimated wins and Pythagorean wins, no team underperformed more than the Bucs last season. The former pegged Tampa Bay as a 4.1 win team, the latter as a 4.4 win team. Simple regression to the mean should get the Bucs to around 4 or 5 wins next season, but the likely upgrade at the game’s most important position might put this ticket over the top.
Jameis Winston has elicited a wide range of opinions about his career potential, so instead of adding to the endless conversation, let’s set a baseline of expectations. Since 2000, 24 first-round quarterbacks have started at least eight games during their rookie seasons. Take a look at how the average first-round rookie has fared, versus how Buccaneers quarterbacks Josh McCown and Mike Glennon performed last season:
Even including the putrid rookie campaigns of players like Blaine Gabbert and Joey Harrington, the average still largely outperformed McCown and Glennon. If we look at individual performances, 13 of the 24 first-rounders outperformed Tampa in at least two of the above categories, while three players within that group—Ben Roethlisberger, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton—outperformed last year’s Bucs duo in all three categories.
Even if Winston posts an average rookie season based on the numbers listed above, he will represent an upgrade over last year’s quarterback situation. Tampa Bay will also have the 26th-ranked strength of schedule, according to Chase Stuart’s research on implied team strength based on current Vegas lines. The over pick would be a no-brainer at 5 or 5.5, where it sat earlier this offseason, but the impending rebound in Tampa is still stronger than many realize.
New York Giants: Over 8.5 wins (+120)
Looking at wins and losses would have you believe that the New York Giants regressed from a 7-9 team in 2013 to a 6-10 outfit last season. In truth, though, that’s misleading and does not accurately portray how New York went from a lucky bad team to a slightly unlucky mediocre team.
In 2013, the Giants were among the luckier teams in the league, finishing with just 5.5 estimated wins and 5.6 Pythagorean wins. Both those figures portrayed the G-Men as a bottom-seven type of team, even though the Giants picked 12th in the following draft. Conversely, the 2014 Giants accrued seven estimated wins and 7.5 Pythagorean wins, as opposed to just six real wins. By Pythagorean expectancy, New York was the second unluckiest team in the league, ahead of only the aforementioned Buccaneers.
Apart from regression to the mean, the Giants’ offensive improvements provide the greatest reason for optimism. Eli Manning will presumably have full seasons from Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz, as the receiving duo suited up together for roughly six quarters last season. Shane Vereen and a hopefully healthy Rashad Jennings will also provide more speed and receiving value than the plodding Andre Williams did last season.
The biggest impediment to the Giants hitting the over here is probably New York’s bizarrely awful health luck. The team is already off to an inauspicious start in that regard, with left tackle Will Beatty tearing his pectoral and Jason Pierre-Paul’s infamous fireworks mishap. But injuries don’t typically stay at one extreme or the other from year to year, so one would expect the injury bug to eventually stop biting the Giants.
Arizona Cardinals: Under 8.5 wins (+100)
While underachievers are usually the way to go, the Arizona Cardinals remain hard to overlook due to how flagrantly Arizona overachieved in 2014. The Cards are essentially the anti-Bucs, as the 11-win team exceeded its estimated wins (7.4) and Pythagorean wins (8.3) more than any team in the league. The optimist would argue that a full season from Carson Palmer might offset some of the expected regression, but 36-year-old quarterbacks coming off ACL tears aren’t exactly the most stable commodities. Arizona also finished 5-1 in one-score contests, and teams without quarterbacks named Brady or Peyton Manning tend to regress back to .500 in close games over the long haul.
Additionally, the schedule won’t do Bruce Arians’ squad any favors, as Arizona will face the third-toughest strength of schedule based on the Chase Stuart calculations mentioned earlier. Granted, the Cardinals had the second-toughest schedule last year by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, and still managed to post a 5-3 record against teams that finished with winning records. Still, facing a similarly difficult schedule means that Arizona will either need similar luck or for its roster to take a step forward.
Arians is a terrific coach who has led overachieving squads three years in a row, so it feels a little dangerous to bet against the magic hidden beneath that Kangol. Nevertheless, betting on Arizona to finish no better than 8-8 doesn’t feel like a particularly bold assertion, so it might be wise to strike before the line slips another half win.