NFL PRESEASON HANDICAPPING BASICS
PART 9: PRESEASON TOTALS BETTING
Many recreational bettors avoid NFL preseason totals (otherwise known as over/under bets) thinking that there’s just too much randomness and unpredictability involved. They’re not necessarily wrong in this regard but that doesn’t necessarily make NFL preseason totals ‘unbettable’. At the right price, anything is ‘bettable’ and NFL preseason totals are no different from any number of other wagering propositions. Like side bets in preseason NFL play the sharp handicapper will approach NFL totals bets differently than he would in the regular season. That being said, there are two factors that make me think that NFL preseason totals will be a very profitable focus for a contrarian bettor.
FACTOR #1—PERCEPTION VS. REALITY
NFL preseason totals are, on balance, significantly lower than they would be during the regular season. The casual fan would say that this is for good reason—many NFL preseason games are tedious affairs where neither team really tries to win and sloppy play by both offenses results in the game being played between the 20 yard lines. This is especially true in Week #1 when new players are trying to learn the system and veterans are trying to get back in playing shape. It’s understandable that NFL totals would trend lower than regular season totals.
There’s only one problem with this—it isn’t really true. The part about NFL preseason totals being on balance lower than regular season totals is true. What’s incorrect is the perception that every NFL preseason game and particularly ‘early’ games (Week 1 and 2) all have baseball like final scores. Here’s an example—I pulled up the Week 1 results for the 2015 NFL preseason. 16 games on the board and the final scores translated to an ‘average score total’ of 39.5. The lowest total score was 21 points, the highest total score was 57 points. In Week 2 there were once again 16 games on the board and the final scores of these games factored out to 38.1 points per game. The scores ranged from a low of 21 to a high of 61.
Obviously, this is a very small sample of two weeks in the NFL preseason but there’s nothing to suggest that preseason NFL scores are across the board lower than regular season scores. One misconception that could contribute to the fallacy that NFL preseason scores are lower could be the ‘casual fan’s’ perception of the relative difficulty of offense and defense. There are plenty of people who have the opinion that NFL offenses rely on skill and finesse while defenses rely on size and strength. That’s just not the case—playing defense in the NFL is just as difficult and perhaps more so than playing offense.
This mis-characterization of preseason NFL totals isn’t limited to ‘squares’ and recreational players. When I first started handicapping the NFL I received advice to ‘look Under in preseason games’. After awhile I noticed that these preseason NFL ‘Unders’ didn’t have a particularly good success rate. Yet there were plenty of otherwise very sharp handicappers that kept writing them off as the result of ‘variance’ and going back to the window the following week to play more ‘Unders’.
Of course this is a generalization and there are plenty of handicappers that have evolved beyond the ‘all Unders all the time in preseason’ mindset. This does serve to illustrate how ‘conventional wisdoms’ in sports betting are dangerous to your bankroll and that not even ‘sharp’ bettors are immune.
FACTOR #2: IT’S NOT EASY TO SET A NFL PRESEASON TOTAL
At the outset of this article we mentioned that the best way to play preseason NFL totals is to take an approach that is ‘counterintuitive’ to the way you’d handicap a regular season total. One reason for this is that the things that work during the regular season—matchup history, weather, statistical data, etc.–doesn’t work in the NFL preseason. There’s no uniform ‘process’ to handicapping preseason NFL football meaning that not only do you have to be creative it’s the most effective way to approach exhibition games.
Here’s what many people forget—if it’s difficult for even ‘sharp’ handicappers and professional sports bettors to calculate ‘their’ line and score projections for a game guess who else it’s difficult for? That would be the guy on the other side of the window setting the lines at the sportsbook. They don’t have it any easier than you or any other bettor. They’re used to setting lines through a more or less systematic process and that just doesn’t work in the preseason. One of the really profound things I learned when I was first coming up in the sports betting game was that whenever the linesmaker struggles to set a price on the game that’s an excellent time to find good value opportunities.
We’ll revisit NFL preseason handicapping down the road. Since there are few uniform approaches to matchup analysis it’s helpful to have some actual betting lines and games to work with. One thing that is salient to handicapping NFL preseason totals is the same thing that has such a huge impact on handicapping NFL preseason sides—the ‘goals’ or ‘priorities’ for the coaches involved.