Fourteen games down, 242 to go, which means at this point, 5.5% of the way into the curious, COVID-compromised 2020 NFL season, we are working with a very small sample size.
The cardinal rule for sports gamblers after Week 1: Don’t overreact.
That said, do react. Do try to learn from what you saw.
But there will be those who, after one game, want to hand the Kansas City Chiefs another Lombardi Trophy, write off the “Tompa Bay” experiment, grow a Gardner Minshew mustache, etc.
It’s still very early. It’s one game. Any team can stumble or hit its stride in any individual week.
Sure, the Chiefs looked explosive, Brady and the Bucs appeared fairly feeble, and the left-for-dead Jags stomped out all those 0-16 predictions. But there’s always a counter-argument: The Texans traded away their best player, the Saints are an elite title contender, and the Jags beat a 38-year-old quarterback who threw 20 interceptions last season.
Putting the “money” in “moneyline”
Here are some raw numbers from the 14 games played so far — bearing in mind that spreads and totals varied by a half-point here or there depending on the sportsbook (and maybe it’s just me, but I hate when people cite a team’s “record against the spread” when there is no universally agreed upon spread to measure against):
- If we chalk up the Chiefs-Texans point total as a push (some books closed at 54, others at 53.5 or 54.5, and the final score was 34-20, with an otherwise meaningless late field goal giving us some vintage Al Michaels wink-wink gambling talk), the over went 8-5 on the week. Predictions that offenses would be particularly out of sync due to the lack of a preseason were off the mark.
- Every outright winner covered except — depending on the sportsbook — the Chargers, who pushed if you got them at -3 (where they closed at DraftKings) but covered at -2.5 (their FanDuel line).
- If we consider the Chargers a road favorite that covered, home favorites went 5-4 ATS (road dogs 4-5) and home ’dogs went 3-2 (road faves 2-3). Overall, home teams went 8-6 in the win-loss column and either 8-6 or 8-5-1 against the spread, depending on that Chargers-Bengals line.
- Underdogs won seven of 14 games outright. That’s probably the stat of the week. If you had elected to bet all 14 ’dogs on the moneyline, at prices ranging from +100 (Seattle) to +335 (Jacksonville), you did well. In fact, using DraftKings Sportsbook’s moneyline pricing as an example, a $100 bet on every dog, meaning $1,400 risked, brought a return of $1,970 (or $570 in profit).
’Dogs take a bite out of parlays
According to ESPN and the lines it uses, over the past eight seasons underdogs have covered 56.3% of the time in Week 1. So the underdog success on Sunday was no anomaly.
But backing ’dogs is not necessarily a trend to follow the rest of the season. It’s something that we see amplified in Week 1 because the bookmakers, like the rest of us, are still guessing at times about who the good teams are.
Underdogs winning tends to be good news for the sportsbooks, and that surely seems to be the case in this opening weekend.
Most-lopsided early point-spread betting @FDSportsbook:
• 80% of bets, 75% of money on Colts (-8) at Jags
• 78% of bets, 79% of money on Bills (-6.5) vs. Jets
• 82% of bets, 82% of money on Eagles (-5.5) at WAS
— David Payne Purdum (@DavidPurdum) September 13, 2020
Those FanDuel Sportsbook stats were typical of many books, as they needed the Jags, the Jets, and the Washington Football Team, and got two out of three. And favorites falling helps blow up parlays, which is where the sportsbooks really make their money. Any parlay involving the Eagles, Colts, 49ers, or Cowboys — all very public teams on Sunday — went up in smoke.
PointsBet Sportsbook had similar needs and went three-for-four:
Per @PointsBetUSA's Patrick Eichner (@P24Eichner), top liabilities in today's #NFL are Bills, Falcons, Cowboys and Eagles. So accordingly, book needs Jets, Seahawks, Rams, and Washington Football Team. @Covers
— Patrick Everson (@Covers_Vegas) September 13, 2020
Oh, and in the somewhat newly legal sports betting state of Indiana, that Jaguars win/cover really made it a great day for the house.
For what it’s worth, the most popular teams in the Westgate Las Vegas SuperContest mostly did well. In order of popularity:
- Bills: covered
- Rams: covered
- Falcons: did not cover
- Titans: TBD
- Cardinals: covered
Meanwhile, the most popular pick in DraftKings’ SuperContest-like pick ‘em competition posted an “L” by a half-point:
The Pro Football Pick 'Em National Championship is officially here, and the most popular pick this week is the underdog Panthers.
— DraftKings Sportsbook (@DKSportsbook) September 13, 2020
Plus 3 …or plus 39?
The competition for customers at the major national online sportsbooks translated to some bets that couldn’t lose in Week 1. DraftKings handed out a free win on a bet up to $50 by giving you Kansas City +101 points. And FanDuel made losing almost impossible with a “Spread the Love” promotion that saw the Rams close at +39, also with a $50 betting limit.
In the entire 2019 regular season, two games were decided by more than 39 points and one was decided by exactly 39. So 99.4% of the time, any team +39 was a winner.
In all, FanDuel gave out more than $6.5 million with the Rams promo.
FanDuel also reported that the NFL made up more than 75% of its overall Sunday handle (no surprise there), and the three biggest handle games of the day across all of its online sportsbooks in the U.S. were Rams-Cowboys, Saints-Bucs, and Cardinals-49ers.
New Orleans-Tampa held down the top spot for the Rivers/Rush Street books:
The #SaintsvsBucs matchup by far received the most action of any game at @BetRivers and @PlaySugarHouse on Sun, with 27% of all NFL bets on the contest. Approximately 90% of all totals tickets in the Saints' 34-23 victory were placed on the Over (47.5 pts).
— Matt Rybaltowski (@MattRybaltowski) September 14, 2020
Meanwhile, Rams-Cowboys was the most bet game for BetMGM, and the biggest wager MGM took was $525,000 on the Pats to cover a 7-point spread. That’s a million-dollar swing for a bettor who was very happy to see an interception in the end zone instead of a pass interference call when the Dolphins were looking for the backdoor cover in the final two minutes.
The NFL betting community had two major unknowns entering Week 1: Does the lack of a preseason matter, and does home-field advantage exist without fans?
The answer to the first question seems to be no. Especially in the modern age, in which stars sit out most if not all of the preseason anyway, we are seeing even more clearly that those four games exist purely to siphon money from season ticketholders.
As for home-field advantage, it’s too soon to say. But for what it’s worth, the two home teams that allowed some fans in — Kansas City and Jacksonville — both won and covered.
(On a side note, as a TV viewer, did any of you really notice the absence of fans at all? Perhaps at moments when the fake crowd noise piped in didn’t quite match the situation, but otherwise, it was easy to forget the stadiums were empty — unless it was in Kansas City or Jacksonville and the cameras cut to that sparse, socially distanced crowd.)
Bad beats, not bad bets
The bad beat of the day had to go to Lions bettors, who thought this year might be different for Detroit, only to watch the team blow a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, something that doesn’t happen very often:
The Lions became just the 4th team since 2006 to blow a 17+ point lead entering the 4th quarter.
Teams had been 779-3 (99.6%) in that span.
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) September 14, 2020
Even after the Lions let Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears turn a 23-6 deficit into a 27-23 lead, Detroit rookie De’Andre Swift had the game in his hands in the closing seconds, only to drop a touchdown pass from Matt Stafford that would have given Detroit the win and, with a made extra point, the cover.
No other near misses on point spreads quite approached that level of pain. That said, a few runners-up: the aforementioned Patriots interception was a tough one for Miami bettors; a debatable offensive pass interference call late in the game cost the Cowboys the chance to either win and cover, or force overtime and have a shot at covering; and the Bengals had all sorts of opportunities in the closing moments to beat the Chargers or send the game to OT.
It’s bound to be a weird 2020 football season, but the Lions and Bengals breaking hearts and the Browns and Jets laying eggs provide a certain familiar comfort for football fans seeking normalcy.
Photo by Kyle Terada / USA Today Sports