Isaac Newton would have made a killing betting on the NFL. Besides literally writing the book on math (Principia Mathematica) and outworking all his peers (he may have had Asperger syndrome), Newton defined the concept of inertia in his First Law of Motion. It goes roughly like this: Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, while objects at rest tend to stay at rest.
For football betting purposes, the “objects” in this case are the people that make up the NFL betting public. They tend to do the same things at the start of every season that they were doing the year before. Meanwhile, the teams they’re betting on have changed – new coaches, new players, new systems.
Even when the players are the same, they’re not. They’re a year older, which can be a good or a bad thing (often both), and they might have different motivations behind their performances. Is this a contract year? Is their team on the cusp of greatness? Or has the player in question just signed a nine-figure deal after winning the Super Bowl?
Sharp handicappers are always asking these questions and working to get the answers. The more casual fans who bet on the NFL are not as good at this. They stick to their old ways until confronted with their new reality. The result: market inefficiency, the kind you could drive a truck through during the early regular season.
Mike D with the Master Plan
Since we’re working the academic theme today, let’s look at a 2012 thesis presented by Ohio University student Michael D. DiFilippo. Crunching the numbers from nearly 2,000 regular-season games between 2004 and 2011, DiFilippo and his colleagues found that the Week 1 NFL odds lines in games between playoff teams and non-playoff teams were off by an average of 4.28 points. In these games, the playoff team covered the spread only 34 percent of the time, going 18-35-1 ATS.
Let those numbers sink in for a moment. Now here’s another: 25.6 percent ROI. That’s the return you would have gotten by blindly betting on non-playoff teams versus playoff teams in Week 1 from 2004-2011. But did this strategy hold up in 2012?
Dallas (+3.5) 24, N.Y. Giants 17 - WIN
New England 34, Tennessee (+4.5) 13 - LOSS
Atlanta 40, Kansas City (+1) 24 - LOSS
Washington (+8) 40, New Orleans 32 - WIN
St. Louis (+9) 23, Detroit 27 - WIN
Miami (+13) 10, Houston 30 - LOSS
Cincinnati (+7) 13, Baltimore 44 - LOSS
Well, if my math is right (I’m no Isaac Newton), that’s 3-4 ATS. However, seven games is a small sample size, and I don’t see anything here that would make me not want to give this strategy some serious thought in 2013.
We’re Maybe Gonna Score
DiFilippo and his cohorts also discovered that the Week 1 NFL lines were far too generous when it came to setting the totals. The hypothesis is that NFL offenses need time to work out the bugs and operate efficiently, leading to overly optimistic totals and a money-making opportunity for UNDER bettors. Sure enough, the UNDER was 102-69-3 in Week 1 from 2000 to 2010, good for a 13.6 percent ROI.
This looks like a healthy early-season trend, but the NFL has been getting rather offense-centric in recent years. The UNDER was just 4-12 to start 2011 and 7-9 in the first week of 2012. This could be a sample-size issue, as well, but betting on the NFL is always like that. The important thing to remember is that no one trend exists in a vacuum; the larger league-wide trend toward offense has to be taken into account as well.
These Week 1 inefficiencies also melt away pretty quickly once the NFL betting public has its new information. Betting the UNDER in Week 2 might still be profitable (88-79 from 2000-2010), although that 12-18 record from 2011-12 looks pretty scary. The totals level off from there, and there’s no historical advantage for picking non-playoff teams against playoff teams from Week 2 onward. As Newton used to say, get ‘em while they’re hot.