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Using Strength of Schedule to Handicap Season Over/Under Wins

Using Strength of Schedule to Handicap Season Over/Under Wins

Using Strength of Schedule to Handicap Season Over/Under Wins Part 1
By Teddy Covers

When looking at the entirety of the NFL futures market, Super Bowl odds and odds to win divisions or conferences only give bettors one choice – betting ON a particular team.  Then that team has to beat out all of their competition to win the division/conference/Super Bowl for you to cash, offering the potential for big payday longshot returns, but cashing a low percentage of the wagers that are made.

NFL Season Win totals, on the other hand, offer bettors the opportunity to bet AGAINST teams in relatively low juice situations.  And with win totals, even when betting Overs, the team you are betting on doesn’t have to win anything big.

For example, the Kansa City Chiefs didn’t win their division last year; unable to get past mighty Denver.  They didn’t win the AFC or the Super Bowl.  But they cashed every Over ticket that was bet on their season wins by the time their bye week rolled around.  KC’s 11-5 campaign offered a positive return-on-investment for a squad lined at 7 or 7.5 wins prior to the season.

In my opinion, NFL win totals rank among the most profitable set of wagers currently available in the betting markets.  The books have little wiggle room when setting a number because of the short 16 game schedule.  There are very little impactful in-season trading, leaving injuries as the primary morphing catalyst.  And you can handicap depth effectively over the summer months, identifying teams with potentially significant injury concerns at key positions.

My win total handicapping process begins with creating accurate strength of schedule (SOS) numbers for both last year and the upcoming season.  The broader betting markets focus on strength of schedule using flawed analysis.  I’ll focus on those differences here.

The widely available information that helps set the markets start with last year’s results as their base point.  But they don’t do it thoroughly.  The conventional models simply add up the combined records of every opponent a team faced to come up with their strength of schedule both for 2013 and for the upcoming 2014 campaign.

Those standard models will tell you that the Chiefs, Eagles, Packers, Lions, Broncos and Bears played the six easiest schedules in the league last year, while the Bucs, Texans, Falcons, Rams, Dolphins and Cardinals played the six toughest slates.

That’s not my process.  I’ll focus on last year’s SOS this week, and move to the 2014 SOS in Part 2 of this article next week.  Creating numbers that are more accurate than the broader market for BOTH seasons are instrumental in what I’m trying to accomplish.

The aggregate numbers for last year’s strength of schedule – the starting point for any analysis of the upcoming 2014 campaign – can be extremely misleading.  A team’s final win-loss record tells us nothing about how good they actually were at the time the game was played.  There were some enormous in-season power rating shifts last year, just as there are every year.  Look no further than the Green Bay Packers, ranked among the league’s elite for the first part of 2013; but morphing into a below average team once Aaron Rodgers got hurt.

The markets view Green Bay as a team that went 8-7-1 for the season, completely average.  Every team that faced them gets that 8-7-1 added to their cumulative SOS numbers for the season. But there was an enormous difference between the Green Bay team that opened up at San Francisco in Week 1 compared to the team that lost by 30 to the Lions on Thanksgiving Day.

So here’s what I do.  I go back to my 2013 spread sheet that details my power rating numbers on a weekly basis from last year.  Then I go through the schedule, using my numbers for every squad on the week the game was played.  Using that formula, you’ll get some VERY different results than the ones I listed above (Chiefs, Eagles, Packers, Lions, Broncos and Bears as exceptionally easy, while the Bucs, Texans, Falcons, Rams, Dolphins and Cardinals were exceptionally tough).

I also discount Week 17 results.  Some teams had quit on their coach and their season, other teams were resting starters and other teams were playing their guts out to try to reach the postseason.  Power rating models for the final week of the regular season are inherently flawed – that’s why we see enormous line moves that week every single year. The nine point move on the Chiefs – Chargers game in Week 17 last year is just one classic example.

Green Bay certainly wasn’t the only dramatic “morpher” last year.  Jacksonville ranked among the worst teams in NFL history for the first half of the season when they started 0-8 SU, 1-7 ATS.  Following their bye, the Jags morphed into a “still bad but not abysmal” squad while going 4-4 SU down the stretch.  The Jaguars squad that got annihilated at home by KC in their opener was NOT the same squad that won three straight in late November and early December.

What about Houston and Atlanta, arguably the two biggest disappointments of 2013?  Both teams were perfectly competitive in September, but got progressively worse as the injuries mounted and the reality of their dismal campaigns sunk in.  Atlanta’s Week 1 loss to New Orleans shouldn’t be graded the same way as their Week 11 loss to Tampa Bay, when the team was positively moribund.   The Texans’ Week 4 loss to Seattle shouldn’t be graded the same as their Week 11 loss to Oakland.

Philadelphia is another great example.  The Eagles were mediocre at best in September and October, still picking up the nuances of Chip Kelly’s radically different offense.  By December, when Nick Foles was playing like a pro bowler, they were a juggernaut.  These are but a handful of examples of how and why my personal SOS numbers take into account these dramatic differences.

So where does that leave us?  The Rams played the single toughest slate in the league last year according to my numbers, and Houston, St Louis, Miami and Arizona all faced very tough schedules.  But four teams that aren’t on many “toughest schedules from last year” lists – the Redskins, Giants, Titans and Saints – also faced abnormally tough slates.  As a result, all of those teams should grade out as better than their final records would indicate.  We should not be surprised that only one of those teams (the Saints) made the playoffs.

On the easy side, according to my numbers, the Chiefs faced the weakest slate of opponents in the NFL. Standard model teams like the Bears, Eagles and Broncos also faced weak slates.  But Dallas, Carolina, Seattle, Buffalo, New England, the New York Jets, Cincinnati, San Diego and Pittsburgh all faced easier than average schedules, and the majority of those teams exceeded their win totals, at least partially as a result.

Next week I’ll finish the thought process, writing about the next step – identifying accurate strength of schedule numbers for the upcoming 2014 campaign.

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