Sep 8, 2013; Jacksonville, FL, USA; A general view of the NFL logo on the goal post before the game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Kansas City Chiefs at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Why Bother With NFL Picks Against the Spread?

The more common tendency instead is that people (and especially the “experts” who write about the issues for a living) overestimate the degree of predictability in complex systems. There are some other exceptions besides presidential elections — sports, in many respects…

–Matt Silver of FiveThirtyEight, in a recent piece about the U.S. Govt Shutdown

That’s why they play the games. Any team can win on any given Sunday. These guys have the better team, on paper. “Paper champions.”

These famous football clichés have become so well known and ingrained in our subconsciousness (like all cliché s by definition, I guess) and yet every week, every day, we pontificate on the NFL matchups. Who will win. Who should win. And, most importantly to a larger-than-the-NFL-would-admit segment of the population: will they cover the spread?

Lost amid the billions of dollars and TV ratings and concussion controversy conversation is the SHHH-dont-talk-about fact that gambling (legal and otherwise) creates tremendous interest in the NFL that might not otherwise supply the eyeballs that secure the huge TV contracts. If the Broncos and Jaguars were playing in my back yard I’d close the blinds. Yet it’s the most talked about game of the week, even if it’s not the NFL’s Official Game of the Week. But since Denver is favored by a ridiculous 27.5 points, everyone is talking about this game.

The league has happily cashed in during the years they were denying concussion risks and strong arming their way to new collective bargaining agreements and astronomical TV revenues while ignoring the untold billions in the underground wagering economy that they’ve always pretended didn’t exist. But there are real people out there, not unlike stock traders on Wall Street, investing their money in unpredictable outcomes in a volatile industry.

Much like their legal counterparts in the financial industry, gamblers spend so much time banging their heltmetless heads against the wall looking for the right statistical or situational advantage where they can swoop in and make a few bucks for themselves. But can any stats or alleged trends help us predict the next result of a given NFL game?

Coming into their game this week at the New York Jets, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 9-1 against the spread (ATS) in their last 10 games following a bye week. They are 16-4 ATS as road underdogs vs. an AFC opponent.

No they’re not. I just made that stuff up. It sounded good didn’t it? But would it really matter what other Steeler teams had done, with other personnel, in other circumstances against a wide variety of competition? Not really. That’s why they play the games. THIS version of the Steelers (even with Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, and Troy Polamalu) is obviously not the same team, hence they are underdogs at the Jets.

Speaking of the Jets, has a coach ever gone from the hot seat to the Coach of the Year shortlist faster than Rex Ryan?

Which brings us back to predictability of “complex systems” like the NFL. The Jets were supposed to be terrible. And I guess the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons were paper champions? Only in the context that all of our conventional wisdom from the preseason was ever worth a damn in the first place.

So where do we find ourselves after the first 5 weeks of the NFL season?

Not only do we still not know who will win or by how much before the game starts, it’s still in doubt even after most of the game has been played: 54 of the 77 NFL games played this season were within 7 points in the 4th quarter. That’s the most in NFL history through 5 weeks (breaking the 1999 mark of 53).

Make that 55 out of 78 after Thursday night’s game. The winless New York Giants covered the spread, losing the game to the Chicago Bears by 6 (Chicago was favored by 6.5 early in the week, a point spread that quickly moved through the key number of 7 and reached as high as 9 by kickoff).

And for all the digital ink spilled on stats and matchups and trends and injuries and home-field advantage, through week 5:

Home teams: 48-28 Straight Up, 44-30-2 Against The Spread
Favorites: 49-26 SU, 37-36-2 ATS
Home Underdogs 12-14 SU, 16-10 ATS
Double-digit Underdogs 2-8 SU, 6-4 ATS
Over/Unders 40-37
Games where the point spread actually mattered: 12

(Records courtesy of Dave Tuley of View From Vegas)

The much agonized-over point spread only mattered in 12 of 77 games over the first 5 weeks! (10 games where the favorite won SU but didn’t cover the spread, and two ties ATS). That 12 out of 77 is 15.6%, not too far off the long-term average.

Favorites are 37-36 against the spread. About half the games go over the total, and a little less than half stay under. The spread only matters in about 15% of the games. I’m not sure if that makes picking games easier or harder.

Besides, what do we really know about any team this season? The Bills beat the Ravens who beat the Dolphins who beat the Colts who beat the Seahawks who blew out the 49ers. The Jets were the first double-digit underdog to win outright on Monday Night Football since 2000. Any given Sunday. And yet we still think we should bother trying to predict any of this stuff.

All that said, here are my Week 6 NFL Picks Against the Spread.

Jaguars +27.5 at Broncos
I know the Broncos could win 56-3. But more likely they’ll be up 42-14 early in the 4th quarter and Peyton Manning will sit down. Broncos backup QB Brock Osweiller and the running game will manage a field goal to go up 45-14, and then Jacksonville adds the garbage-time touchdown for the back-door cover, 45-21.

Raiders +9 at Chiefs
Too many points for a divisional rivalry. I know the Kansas City Chiefs are 5-0 with a lights-out defense facing a young QB in the once-again hostile environment of Arrowhead Stadium. But this conservative offense with Alex Smith at the helm just doesn’t score in the kind of bunches necessary to cover such a big spread. The Chiefs aren’t going 16-0, and with their stock as high as it can be right now, this line is a bit inflated. Oakland Raiders QB Terrelle Pryor has the wheels to elude the KC pressure at least a few times to extend drives. Take Oakland +9 points in what should be a more competitive game than most people predict, and I have a weird feeling the Raiders might win this one outright.

Washington at Dallas: OVER 52 total points
I’m tempted to take Washington +5.5 in this game, as the underdog has covered the spread in 73% of all Cowboys games over the last 4 seasons and Dallas is only 4-16 against the spread as a home favorite the last 3 years. But the Washington defense and the early rust on Robert Griffin III don’t instill a lot of trust. I could see either team winning this game, but the safest bet is that these two bad defenses will give up plenty of points to the two explosive offenses. It’s a big total set at 52, but if each team can manage just one TD per quarter, this one goes over.

Saints +2.5 at Patriots
Because the New England Patriots offense is not right. And now the defense loses Vince Wilfork which means less stuffing of the versatile New Orleans run game and no eating up blockers protecting Drew Brees. The New Orleans Saints can play shoot out or they can grind out the ugly lower scoring games. And they’ll need both those clubs in their bag when they visit Brady and Belichick. As unlikely as it seems for the Patriots to lose two in row, these games aren’t played on paper. Brees and that Saints defense are the better, hotter, healthier team right now and they’ll notch another win up in New England. Take New Orleans and the points.

Tags: ATS Best Bets Dallas Cowboys Dave Tuley Denver Broncos Drew Brees Five Thirty Eight Free NFL Picks Jacksonville Jaguars Kansas City Chiefs Nate Silver New England Patriots New Orleans Saints New York Jets NFL Picks Against The Spread Oakland Raiders Pittsburgh Steelers Robert Griffin Iii Tom Brady Tony Romo Wagering Washington Redskins

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