Thursday Night Football Unders A Profitable Bet In 2021, 2022

Can making contrarian bets in prime-time games be a sound strategy?

I sat down last week and turned on Thursday Night Football

I know, I know — why in the world would I willingly watch the Chicago Bears host the Washington Commanders? Well, mostly for sports betting reasons. I wanted to see if Curtis Samuel cashed a few prop bets, having wagered on the Commanders wide receiver. 

A few hours later, I found myself instead watching Baylor-West Virginia and wondering what part of my brain let me place money on a godforsaken Thursday Night Football game. Samuel fell well short of his props, catching two passes for a whopping six yards. But hey, the college football game was fun! The Mountaineers won 43-40 in a contest that delivered way more excitement than its NFL counterpart. 

Mercifully, the Bears-Commanders game eventually ended, with the Commanders winning 12-7. Under bettors were about the only people happy with the result. 

As it turns out, under bettors have been happy about a lot of recent Thursday Night Football results. Since the start of last season, Thursday Night Football unders are 17-7. The under has hit in five of the six TNF games this year.

“I do anticipate Thursday Night Football unders continuing to be profitable,” VSiN’s Josh Appelbaum told US Bets in an email interview. “Will they continue to cash at an 80% clip? Probably not. But can they finish the year 55% to 60%? I would say yes.”

Why are TNF games going under?

Appelbaum helped us address a few possible causes for Thursday night unders.

“First, the short week for both sides leads to less exotic play calling and more vanilla offense, which means more running the ball, less risk taking, more punts and more chewing up the clock,” Appelbaum, author of The Everything Guide to Sports Betting, said. 

That logic makes sense. Fewer days to devise a game plan could result in less impressive offensive showings. There’s also the possibility that defenses are catching up to offenses in the modern game, a long-term trend worth keeping an eye on. 

“Secondly, the public loves taking overs and rooting for points, especially in prime-time games,” Appelbaum said. “By taking unders, you extract additional value by going against the grain and taking advantage of public bias. In other words, you are placing yourself on the side of the house by taking the under. In the long run, the house always wins.”

This doesn’t mean you can blindly “fade the public” and expect to win all your bets, but there are opportunities to go against public perception, especially in prime-time spots.  

Contrarian prime-time bets

Prime-time games often generate significant interest from bettors, and those casual bettors like favorites and overs, according to Appelbaum. 

“Prime-time unders are 13-6 (68%) overall, when you apply Thursday, Sunday and Monday night football,” Appelbaum said. “So the overall theory of going contrarian in these heavily bet one-off games is a sound strategy.” 

Appelbaum likes looking for reverse line movement and using those situations to bet on underdogs. He used Monday’s game between the Chargers and Broncos – Los Angeles won 19-16 in overtime, but failed to cover – as an example.

“The Chargers were getting 74% of bets, yet Los Angeles fell from -6 to -3.5,” Appelbaum said. “This was a dead giveaway that pros were grabbing the points with the road dog Broncos, who ended up covering the spread. Target the unpopular prime-time dogs with line moves in their favor.” 

Do unders equal boring games?

So Thursday night games are inherently worse than Sunday matchups, right? I’ve laughed at plenty of tweets mocking the subpar play on Thursday nights. 

While the unders are hitting at a high rate, the idea that TNF games are drastically worse than Sunday games seems to be at least somewhat of a myth. 

A study conducted by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective before the 2021 NFL season found that much of the talking points regarding TNF’s subpar entertainment value aren’t supported by data. That means injury concerns, competitiveness, scoring, etc. between TNF games and games on other days were actually fairly comparable from 2012 to 2020.  

Have the last two seasons dramatically differed from that? Well, the quality of TNF is subjective, and I’d argue that the Harvard Analysis falls short by looking at “close games” and equating that to a “good game.” Was the 12-9 Colts-Broncos overtime game earlier this season close? Yes. Was it good? That’s debatable.

Outside of the Chargers’ 27-24 win over the Chiefs, this season’s five Thursday Night Football games can be described fairly as stinkers. In 2021, however, there were some exciting games that went under the point total. In Week 4, the Bengals took down Jacksonville 24-21. Week 5 featured the Los Angeles Rams defeating the Seattle Seahawks 26-17, and Tampa Bay beat Philadelphia 28-22 a week later. Week 8 was one of the highlights of last year’s TNF season, with the 6-1 Packers beating the 7-0 Cardinals 24-21 thanks to a last-second, goal-line interception. 

Those games went under the point total, but they certainly entertained. 

Future Thursday Night Football games

This year’s Thursday night schedule has underwhelmed, but it has to get better, right?

Unfortunately, only one TNF game the rest of the season features two teams currently with winning records. That’s the Week 17 matchup between the Dallas Cowboys (4-2) and the Tennessee Titans (3-3). 

The short-term future may include some ugly Thursday Night Football games, but the Harvard analysis suggests TNF isn’t actually that bad. Sure, sometimes, a standalone NFL game won’t match our standards for an entertaining football game. But plenty of other times, Thursday Night Football has delivered memorable moments. 

Just like a close game doesn’t equate to a good game, an under hitting doesn’t mean a game can’t have entertainment value. And if you’re not a fan of recent TNF games, consider switching the channel, as there’s a decent chance a college football shootout is lurking somewhere else on your cable package.

Photo: Matt Marton/USA TODAY


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