The last time the NFL tinkered with the regular season schedule was 1978, when the league went from 14 to 16 games. Forty-three years later, the NFL braintrust has tinkered again, bringing the regular season to 17 games this year. (Quick aside, and a guarantee to make you feel old: While 43 years is clearly a long time, if you go back 43 years from 1978, it’s 1935, and Ed Danowski of the 9-3 New York Giants led the NFL in passing with 794 yards. Not that the rushing output was much better, as Doug Russell of the Chicago Cardinals paced the league with 499 yards. So yes: Forty-three years is a lot of time. Anyway … )
Changing the amount of games each team plays for the first time in four decades has had an effect on the sports betting world, specifically win totals. The extra game — and whom each team plays — is causing bookmakers a little more hand-wringing then they’re used to at this time of year.
As far as the extra game goes, the NFL schedule-makers made it relatively straightforward: They are inter-divisional games, with individual divisions in one conference playing another division in the other conference, with last year’s standings as the barometer for who plays whom. Each year, the divisions will rotate, but for this year, the AFC East is facing off against the NFC East, the NFC West against the AFC North, the NFC South facing off with the AFC South, and NFC North going up against the AFC West, with the division winners taking on each other, the second place teams doing battle, and so forth.
Already, there are noticeable differences, specifically home field advantage. NFC teams will have eight home games this year, whereas AFC teams will have nine.
“The AFC teams benefit slightly more than the NFC teams as they are all home games in that extra week,” pointed out Mattias Stetz, the chief operating officer at Rush Street Interactive, which operates BetRivers.
So already, on home field advantage alone, those AFC teams tick up a bit.
Win totals jump
“It’s kind of a different mindset for myself and my team,” said Johnny Avello, the sportsbook chief at DraftKings. “We’re so used to doing 16, and you throw another week in there, and it should be a fairly easy calculation, but then we start thinking about it and it’s not as straightforward.”
Avello points to the lack of a fourth preseason game as one part of the equation, but he’s more interested in what that extra week might mean for the more dominant NFL teams. As it stands now, week 17 (game 16) often features teams with nothing to play for. Add another week, and the potential for a runaway team to have salted home field away with two games to go certainly is in the realm of possibility — as is a lousy team tanking earlier than normal for draft position.
“We’re used to the 17th week sometimes not meaning anything,” Avello said. “Will that hold? Will there be two weeks with some teams not having much to play for?”
Questions like these aside, the sportsbooks still have to come up with a win total for each team, and already, some five months out, there is movement afoot.
“We put the Browns up at 9 wins at first, bumped it to 9.5 after the announcement, and that’s been bet over,” Avello said. “We moved the Washington team from 7.5 to 8, and that’s also been bet over. For the Colts, we started them at 9, but boosted them up to 10, and that’s been bet under. Then there’s the Jets — we started them at 6, brought them up to 6.5, and that’s been bet under as well.”
Over at BetRivers, Stetz has also seen the Jets take a pounding on the under in the early going.
“The Chiefs lead the way with a total of 12 followed by the Bucs at 11.5, Packers and Ravens at 11, and Bills and Rams at 10.5,” Stetz said. “The lowest totals in the 17-game slate are Lions and Texans at 5, Jets and Jaguars at 6, and the Bengals at 6.5. Early action shows a preference for the Broncos over (7.5) and the Jets and Lions unders.”
At PointsBet, Jay Croucher, the director of sports analytics, is in lockstep on the overs with DraftKings.
“In terms of activity so far, across the board we’re seeing more action on overs, with Washington over 8 and Cleveland over 9.5 the two most popular bets,” Croucher said. “On the other side, Chicago under 7 and Houston under 4.5 have been the two most popular under bets, with bettors heavily fading the suspect quarterback situations for both those teams.”
The extra week — and the uncertainty around how to precisely price the market — has led to bettors being able to take advantage of differences in the lines. Arbitrage, anyone?
I found seven* different arbitrage opportunities on Win Totals. The ROI may not be great but it's free money…. https://t.co/NR9TIRyBXn
— Connor Allen (@ConnorAllenNFL) April 19, 2021
Playoff odds shifting
Of course, win totals are only part of the equation. Getting into the playoffs is the most important item on a team’s preseason to-do list.
And those markets are more affected by the one-game addition.
“In terms of playoff odds, the 49ers benefit the most,” Stetz said. “Their 17th game is at the Bengals, whereas their divisional rivals — Seahawks, Rams, Cardinals — will all face likely playoff teams.”
Croucher notes the cream will probably find an easier path to rise to the top with the addition of the extra game.
“There is a small impact in division markets — and there will be in make/miss playoff markets‚ in that expanding the sample size of the season favors the best teams, and there’s less chance of a mediocre team catching a few breaks and fluking their way to a division win/playoff berth, as the fluke now needs to carry for an extra game,” Croucher said.
And then, of course, with an extra game comes extra chance for injury to impact players.
“I don’t know what the players’ feelings are about an extra game, but football is a tough game,” Avello points out. “It’s a long season, and now it’s even longer. One more week of getting knocked around.”
As evidenced by Saints running back Alvin Kamara, the extra game isn’t exactly a unanimous home run amongst the NFL elite.
Shit dumb… as hell.. https://t.co/HnJ0otzzWp
— Alvin Kamara (@A_kamara6) March 28, 2021
As far as the 2021 schedule goes, the full slate of when and where won’t be released until after the NFL draft, but here’s each team’s “extra” game:
- Seahawks at Steelers
- Rams at Ravens
- Cardinals at Browns
- 49ers at Bengals
- Saints at Titans
- Buccaneers at Colts
- Panthers at Texans
- Falcons at Jaguars
- Packers at Chiefs
- Bears at Raiders
- Vikings at Chargers
- Lions at Broncos
- Washington at Bills
- Giants at Dolphins
- Cowboys at Patriots
- Eagles at Jets
The season kicks off Sept. 9, and concludes on Jan. 9, with the Super Bowl moved from Feb. 6 to Feb. 13. Happy Valentine’s Day, indeed.
Photo by Dan Powers / USA Today Sports