When you talk to most NFL fans about their expectations for the coming season, most prognostication immediately reverts to how last year ended. If the Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts won their divisions and have young quarterbacks, then both would naturally be better, right? The preseason predictions are usually some variation of that theme.
If you talk to Las Vegas insiders and big bettors, you get the opposite story—not necessarily about the Eagles and Colts (who I cited not to pick on, but just to use as an example), but about last year’s powers. Here the theory goes that the general public has inflated these teams beyond what they can realistically do, and true betting value is going to be found by going against them.
So, who’s right? That’s a subject that could fill a book, but since we’re on the verge of Week 1 of the 2014 NFL season, why don’t we start with something basic—and it’s how previous years’ division winners have fared in the ensuing season opener.
We’ll use a two-year window, looking at how the division champs of 2011 and 2012 fared in Week 1 the following year, and then look at this week’s lines and see if any trends might be built on.
2011 DIVISION CHAMPS/2012 WEEK 1
AFC East: New England Patriots: In 2012, the Patriots came out smoking off their Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. The Pats were (-6.5) going to Tennessee, and unveiled a newfound running game with Stevan Ridley and rolled to a 34-13 win and cover.
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens: Following a gutwrenching AFC playoff loss, the Ravens opened 2012 hungry, as a (-7) favorite on Monday Night Football against the Cincinnati Bengals. Joe Flacco lit it up with a 44-13 win.
AFC South: Houston Texans: The Texans faced a big number, (-13.5) at home against the Miami Dolphins and covered it, 30-13.
AFC West: Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning replaced Tim Tebow at quarterback and Peyton made his return a winning one on a Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Denver (-2.5) beat Pittsburgh 31-19.
NFC East: New York Giants: The champs didn’t show well in the prime-time home game to open the year. They spotted (-4) to the Dallas Cowboys and lost outright 24-17.
NFC South: New Orleans Saints: Playing without head coach Sean Payton, suspended for his role in Bountygate, the Saints lost to the Washington Redskins 40-32 as a (-9) favorite, as rookie sensation Robert Griffin III stole the Superdome stage from Drew Brees.
NFC North/NFC West: The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers went head-to-head in Lambeau Field, with the Packers a (-6) favorite. The 49ers controlled the point of attack throughout the game and won it 30-22.
Halfway through our little exercise, last year’s division champs are 4-2, both outright and against the spread when facing non-division winners.
2012 DIVISION CHAMPS/2013 WEEK 1
AFC East: New England Patriots: The Patriots won their 2013 opener, beating the Buffalo Bills 23-21, but as a 10 ½ point favorite, New England backers lost decisively at the betting window.
AFC South: Houston Texans: Another non-cover win. Houston went to San Diego for the opening Monday Night and escaped 31-28 as a (-6.5) favorite. It was a small sign, but the first one of trouble for the Texans and hope for the Chargers.
AFC North/AFC West: The Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos rematched in their epic playoff game from the previous January. Denver was a solid (-7.5) favorite over a Baltimore team that had a lot of key retirements. Peyton Manning dropped seven touchdown passes on the Ravens and the Broncos covered the big number, 49-27.
NFC East: Washington Redskins: The “All In For Week 1” rehab message of Griffin didn’t work out. The Redskins lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 33-27 as a (-4.5) favorite, with Griffin looking clearly uncomfortable on that bad wheel.
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons were getting points (+3.5) when they went to New Orleans. It didn’t help Atlanta bettors—a 23-17 loss cost them both the win and the cover and spelled trouble ahead.
NFC North/NFC West: It was another Packers-49ers season opener. This time it was in San Francisco, and this time it was the Niners laying a decent number of points (-5). It was still San Fran winning and covering, although not quite as easily this year, 34-28.
No trend emerges in the games involving two first-place teams. There’s one clear favorite cover, one solid outright upset and in the third, the favorite covered only by a point. Nothing of predictive value there.
But on the real point of this study, the record of the division champions is not good—while they’re 6-4 outright, the number that counts in Vegas is ATS, and it’s there that defending division champions are 4-6 against the spread when facing a non-division winner from the previous year.
There will be four games that meet this criteria in 2014. You can throw out Green Bay-Seattle and Indianapolis-Denver, at least for purposes of this post. Let’s focus in on these four games…
Philadelphia (-11) vs. Jacksonville
Carolina (+2) at Tampa Bay
New England (-4.5) at Miami
Cincinnati (+1.5) Baltimore
So do our results to go out and grab the non-division winners? We can understand if you’d be tempted—for example, Miami has covered the number in their home game with New England both years under head coach Joe Philbin, and won one game outright. The line is high enough that you have room to lose a tough game by a field goal and still collect.
But, as we often emphasize in handicapping, it’s never that simple. To stick with this example, the Patriots have strengthened their defense in free agency and through the return of injured players. You could walk through the other three games and find good reasons for going with last year’s champs, in spite of the spotty ATS performance the last two years of such teams.
There are an array of factors that affect a football game’s point spread value. What that means though, is you need a good starting point to work from. From that starting point, you can look at the unique personnel and schematic matchups, observe how the line is moving in Vegas, run computer simulations and crunch statistical data. That’s what we’ve been doing at the Jim Hurley Network since 1985.
Our process may reveal some of these games as bet-worthy. Perhaps the numerous other factors we use could point us in the other direction on the same games noted above. What we can say is that the weak ATS performance of last year’s division winners is certainly one of the considerations. And if you’re looking for a place to start handicapping Week 1 of the 2014 NFL season, this isn’t a bad place to start.
Jim Hurley has been a successful public handicapper since 1985, when he founded the Jim Hurley Network. Hurley brings a team approach to handicapping, consulting with statistical analysts, personnel experts and Vegas insiders to narrow the NFL & college cards down to the most bettable games each and every week. Visit him online at www.jimhurley.comBack to the NFL Newsfeed