Betting On The NFL Late Season

It’s that time of year, folks. Thanksgiving leftovers are dwindling. More and more houses are putting up their holiday decorations. 2018 is quickly coming into view, and with it an increasingly clear playoff picture in the National Football League. Now that players have established statistical patterns and data to sift through, NFL bettors have a treasure trove of information to inform their handicaps during the NFL late season. But so do the Sportsbooks.

So the question is, how do you go about betting on teams as they approach season’s end? Can we expect the 0-11 Cleveland Browns or the 1-10 49ers to give teams any fits or are they now vying for the overall pick in the 2018 Draft? Will the Eagles, having locked down the NFC East, bench their starters in late weeks, giving underdogs the upper hand? Clearly there’s a lot of questions to answer. So… now seems like as good a time as any to discuss the ins and outs of betting on the NFL late season, as well as some specific tips for betting on the current playoff picture.

The NFL Playoff Picture

Here's a look at the NFL playoff picture as of Week 12. As you can see the Eagles have a firm hold on the NFC.

Here’s a look at the NFL playoff picture as of Week 12. As you can see the Eagles have a firm hold on the NFC.

As you can see in the AFC, the Patriots and Steelers have all but clinched their respective divisions. While the race in the AFC South and West are still neck and neck–though for vastly different reasons. In the South the Jags and Titans are both vying for the 3rd seed. While in the West, the free-falling Kansas City Chiefs are somehow holding on to playoff hopes, albeit dim and seemingly irrelevant ones. But they’re now 1-6 in their last seven while the Chargers have won their last three games.

As for the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles have come out of nowhere and established themselves as the league’s winningest team this year. It’s been a real treat for Philly fans. Same for the Minnesota Vikings. They’re looking outstanding. And for the NFC South and West, the situation is a lot like the AFC. Three teams–the Panthers, Saints, and Falcons– are pushing for control of the South with very little to differentiate them. While in the West, the LA Rams are giving Los Angeles something to get excited about. But Seattle is still fighting. And with things so tense in the South, we’re likely to get some very good football from all five of these teams down the stretch.

NFL Late Season Betting Factors

Now that we’ve got an idea of how things are shaping up in 2017, let’s take a look at some different factors to consider when placing bets during the NFL late season.

  1. Weather – Of course there are many other factors to consider during the playoff push—clutch QBs, tight division races, injuries, winning teams benching their starters—the list goes on. But the weather plays a greater role in deciding NFL late season games than you might think.

    As the season enters its final regular season stretch, temperatures begin to fall and teams, especially traveling teams, have to contend with extreme weather conditions. You’d think teams would make more mistakes and thus score fewer points in such games, but statistics show otherwise. Interestingly enough, since 2003, the over has won 128-100 games with temps below freezing.

    Moreover, since 1978 cold weather home teams have fared consistently better in the late season months, boasting a winning percentage of .627 and a 604-359-2 record. Even home teams playing against the spread in December fare better than their traveling counterparts, with a winning percentage of .541 in games played in December and onward since 1978.

    In other words, the money’s on cold weather home teams to dominate in the final stretch of the season. This is why a team like Seattle might have better odds at winning the tight race in the NFC West than the LA Rams—depending on their schedule. Look for cold weather home teams playing against the spread and don’t be afraid to bet against the public. You might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

  2.  Home Dogs Giving Late Value – There is a prevailing sentiment in NFL betting that big money can be made off contrarian betting. The right contrarian bet can yield a slick payout if you do your research. This goes especially for games played late in the year. As the NFL season winds down, there’s simply more stats to pull from, more data to pick apart and examine. As a result, the betting public has a pretty good idea of which teams are worth their bets and which aren’t. So, spread betting trends tend to show larger point spreads and lopsided games after week 14. While the square bettor is easily scared by a large spread, the sharp sees it as a ripe opportunity.

    In 2003, Richard Borghesi published a paper called, “Price Predictability: Insights from the NFL Point Spread Market.” In this paper, Borghesi analyzed Week 15 through the playoffs from 1981-2000 and found, after week 14, consistently increased value in betting large, home underdogs.

    Analyzing NFL home dogs from 2003-2011 reveals a stark trend—when home underdogs play against spreads of eight or more, they win 69.2% of the time. That being said, that number drops to 52.4% when the spread is between 2 and 7 points. So for this one you’ll want to keep in mind changing lines in mind as game time approaches. Currently the biggest home underdog going into Week 13 is the Seahawks, who have opened as 6-point underdogs to the 10-1 Eagles. Chances are, the line won’t rise over 8 points but for contrarian bettors it might be a risk worth taking.

    The same might go for the Vikings who open as away underdogs in a crucial matchup against the Falcons. The difference is, the Vikes can afford to drop this one while the Falcons can’t. I’d take Seattle but hold the sauce on Minnesota—Matt Ryan and Co. are winning this one.

  3. Fade the Top Teams – There’s something to be said for contrarians capitalizing on late season underdogs, especially against the elite squads in the NFL. For some reason, favorites tend to be overvalued coming off wins in late season games. A big reason for this is the reactiveness of the general betting public. As we’ve said before, squares are easily swayed by success or failure. As a a result, Sportsbooks change their lines in anticipation of this regular trend. Statistics show there’s money to be made in betting against teams with winning percentages of 80% down the final stretch of NFL games. Contrarian bettors who take these odds have won an average 58.4% of the bets they made against the league’s best teams in recent years.

    This has to do with a constellation of factors. Middle of the road teams have more to gain and more to lose by winning down the stretch, especially against teams sitting pretty for the playoffs. Look for coaches who tend to bench their starters in the latter fourth of the season. If a team is sitting at 7-5 going into a week 14 matchup against a 10-2 team who’s all but clinched their division, look for lineup shifts that might aid the dogs in covering the spread.

  4. Teams Coming Off Losses – Squares tend to bet reactively late in the season. They favor the favorites and waste no time ignoring losers, especially ones who’ve just suffered recent losses by large margins. The result? Sportsbooks often shade their lines to anticipate public perception. As a result sharps get free points based purely on the reactiveness of the general betting public.
  5. Injuries – This one seems like a no brainer any given week. You should always check the injury reports at game time before locking in your bets. It’s standard practice. But this goes especially for late season games. By week 14, it’s pretty clear which teams will survive the winter and which won’t, not to mention which players are more injury prone than others.

    The interesting thing here is that injuries don’t necessarily mean losses. It just depends on the team. For instance, the general betting public tends to think of NFL starters as far superior to their backups. This isn’t always the case. Remember when Aaron Rodgers got injured some years ago and Matt Flynn came in and lit up the scoreboard in one of the league’s highest scoring games in years? Or when Jimmy Garoppolo took over for Tom Brady and fared rather well under center? While this isn’t exactly the norm, it happens more often than we realize. Big injuries in the late season can offer perfect opportunities for solid contrarian bets—depending on a team’s backup. In the case of Matt Flynn, he was a talented QB with fresh legs going up against a seasoned, worn down opponent. Not to mention the possibility for a big offseason contract offers backups ample motivation to step in and play far beyond expectation.

    Granted this isn’t always the case. Sometimes a late season injury means the end for an otherwise good team. When Derek Carr went down in 2016, the Raiders had no solid replacement and they suffered accordingly. Again it just depends on who’s waiting in the wings.

    There’s also the issue of position. The sports betting public generally gives greater significance to an injury in a skill position like QB or RB or WR. This means that when factoring injuries into your bets, you’ll want to think about the actual impact of the injury as well as the perceived impact. Sportsbooks will shade lines against teams that suffer injuries to skill positions. This difference between reality and perception is often where profit lives.

    Well that summarizes our guide for NFL late season betting. Remember: betting down the stretch in the NFL is a whole different monster than the early season. Amateur bettors are often less inclined towards contrarian betting during the playoff push. They like to stick with what’s working. And that’s where you step in, knowing there’s money to be made on the dogs. Just keep in mind that no single factor is enough to inform a bet. You have to consider everything interdependent of everything else. If you have questions or thoughts on your own late season betting strategies, feel free to weigh in in the comments!