5 “Intangibles” NFL Bettors Should Take Very Seriously
Successful NFL betting isn't only a matter of breaking down the numbers. Today Jeff Fogle gives us 5 intangibles to keep in mind when making our NFL picks this season.
Modern analytics is attacking the challenge of handicapping NFL action from a variety of statistical-based directions. The problem with such a heavy focus on statistics is that myopic analysts will often miss “intangibles” that can be worth anywhere from a few to several points of value in a given game. A complete handicapping approach involves both tangibles (as expressed in key statistics) and “intangibles” that involve motivation and intensity.
Stat-based approaches basically assume that motivation and focus will be “even” in a game. Is that true all the time? Obviously not. Making great bets against market pointspreads often involves recognizing peaks or valleys in motivation that will lead to an extreme result. When will good teams come out flat? When will perceived mediocrities come out breathing fire?
Today I’m going to talk about five common “intangibles” that handicappers and sports bettors should pay attention to in the NFL on a weekly basis.
Intangible #1: An “Us Against the World” Mentality
This is magic in a bottle when you can find it. A team that wasn’t expected to be special suddenly puts the pieces in place and goes on a “Shock the World” tour that strings together straight up and pointspread victories. It takes a while for opponents to adjust. It takes a while for the markets to adjust.
Sometimes this is triggered by a coaching change. The Kansas City Chiefs are 6-0 straight up and 5-1 against the spread this season with new coach Andy Reid at the helm. Fresh eyes can fix problems that had existed, and can create strengths where they hadn’t existed before. All that creates a fresh attitude and city-wide enthusiasm.
Sometimes this is triggered by a quarterback change. The Cleveland Browns won their first two games outright as underdogs after outmatched Brandon Weeden was replaced by Brian Hoyer. While the media was theorizing that the franchise might go in the tank to improve next year’s draft position, the players themselves wanted to win some games!
Sometimes, this can even come in the form of “getting even” for perceived injustices. New Orleans head coach Sean Payton was suspended for all of last season because the Saints had allegedly been “placing bounties” on opposing players. Payton, his players, the franchise, and the city of New Orleans thought this was unproven and unfair. Payton has returned…and the Saints are off to a 5-1 start that has them 4-2 against market expectations.
Intangible #2: Lookaheads To Upcoming Divisional Rivalry Games
Generally speaking, the most intense regular season NFL games are those played between divisional rivals. There are eight divisions in the NFL. Each division has four teams. Those teams play each other twice per season, representing six of their 16 regular season games. Over a few seasons of play, familiarity breeds contempt!
Because of that intensity, and because of the fact that winning your division automatically puts you in the playoffs, coaches and players place a very high priority on divisional games. If a divisional game is on the schedule next week, then the team often plays at something less than ideal intensity this week. This current game isn’t as important as next week’s divisional battle.
How many points is that worth? Sometimes it’s not worth anything. Not all teams have the luxury of looking past one game to worry about the next one. But…and this is particularly true for longtime bitter rivals…a lookahead situation can be worth several points. Be sure you know what’s ahead next week for any team you may be betting this week.
Intangible #3: Letdowns After Divisional Rivalry Games
In our prior example, a looming divisional game served as a distraction. Now, we move to the impact that a physical, draining divisional battle can have the following week. Energy-wise, there may be little left in the tank. In terms of emotional intensity, winners are prone to relax after surviving a critical game, while losers may take an extra week to get up off the map.
This is often a more important intangible later in the season, when cumulative fatigue from wear and tear also comes into play. But, we’ve already seen some early season examples. The New York Jets beat AFC East rival Buffalo in Week Three 27-20. In Week Four, they were mistake-prone and inept in a 38-13 loss at Tennessee as underdogs of just 3.5 points. Prior to that, Tampa Bay lost a home heartbreaker to NFC South rival New Orleans in Week Two, before imploding badly the following week at New England in a 23-3 loss as a +7 underdog.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is a 100% rule of thumb. Some teams are talented and deep enough to maintain their performance levels. For those who can’t, the fall-off is often worth a lot more than just a few points as you saw in the above examples.
I should also mention here that “sandwich” games…where a team faces a non-divisional opponent in between two divisional opponents…need to be on your radar whenever they come up. Some believe that San Francisco’s stunning Week Three home loss to Indianapolis by a 27-7 score as favorites of 10 points (it missed the market by 30 points!) was influenced by a sandwich spot. San Francisco has just visited NFC West rival and conference favorite Seattle the prior week. St. Louis from the NFC West was up next.
Intangible #4: Revenge From An Earlier Loss
The fact that divisional teams play each other twice each year sets up the potential for same season “revenge” games. The theory is that whoever lost the first meeting will be chomping at the bit to come back and win the second…while whoever won the first meeting will relax because they already proved what they needed to prove the first time around.
The danger here is that revenge is so publicly talked about in the media that it’s naturally factored into the pointspread of the rematch. If “revenge” is “priced” in already, then there’s no value to handicapping the angle. And, of course, some teams are so bad that they’re not capable of extracting revenge even in the right situation.
What handicappers need to look for are situations so intense that revenge is worth many points. Losers aren’t just interested in getting a win, they’re interested in sending a message. Maybe that means a 4-point favorite will win by at least 10 or a 7-point favorite will keep piling up the points until the game is way out of reach.
Ideal situations would include:
- The superior of the two teams was upset in the first meeting
- The superior of the two teams was dealing with injury absences in the first meeting
- The lesser of the two teams is currently going through coaching or personnel turmoil
Revenge is often overrated by the media and gamblers. But, when it’s a legitimate issue, the market has a lot of trouble capturing the real world scoreboard impact.
Intangible #5: Throwing In The Towel
It’s a fact of life that non-contenders often lose intensity in the latter stages of the season. They know they have no chance to make the playoffs. They may also be in a situation where the coach is expected to be fired at the end of the schedule. It’s very difficult to play above and beyond what’s expected of a professional. Many, in fact, do the bare minimum of what’s expected of a professional as they grind through 60 minutes of another loss.
Oddsmakers have great difficulty pricing teams like this, because they don’t play to the expectations of prior norms. Bettors need to take advantage whenever oddsmakers are having trouble pricing teams!
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Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JeffFogle
Jeff writes about Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA, and American college sports on his StatIntelligence blog