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This Is The Year Of The Massive NFL Betting Line

When the Minnesota Vikings closed as 16½-point favorites over Washington last Thursday, it was the eighth time this season that one NFL team was favored by more than two touchdowns over another in the Vegas line, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s data.

Is that a lot? Well, yes.

The 2019 regular season isn’t even halfway over (Week 9 of 17 is this week), and this is already the fifth-most games in a season since 1978 with a team favored by more than two TDs.1 The record number, 15, was set in 1992, and that season also saw eight such games occur through Week 8. So no matter how you look at it, we’re on pace this year to break — or at the very least rival — the record for most lopsided games in a season.

Two touchdowns is kind of an arbitrary threshold, of course. But that is also the number at which oddsmakers usually tend to pump the brakes when they’re setting a point spread. “In the past, 14 [points] was kind of the golden number in the NFL,” said Ed Salmons, who is vice president of risk management and oddsmaking for the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas. “It’s hard to give a professional team more than 14 points in a game.”

Without a doubt, though, that has changed this season.

Some of it might have to do with the quality of talent at the top of the league. Two teams — the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers — are undefeated, with both posting historic point differentials through eight weeks. Overall, six clubs (New England, San Francisco, New Orleans, Green Bay, Minnesota and Kansas City) have an Elo rating of at least 1615 at full strength, which is roughly the marker of a championship-caliber team according to our favorite measure of team strength.2 With such a strong crop of contenders, they are naturally going to be involved in more lopsided contests as the season plays out.

However, the bigger culprits are probably found at the bottom of the league. Salmons told me that the sheer ineptitude of the league’s worst teams — some of which is suspected to be on purpose — has caused oddsmakers to reconsider their old rule of thumb about issuing lines larger than two touchdowns.

“Now you kind of self-handicap, and say to yourself, ‘Would you bet this team if they were getting 14½ [points]?’ And you’re like, no way,” Salmons said. “So then you just kind of dare yourself to go higher and higher.”

According to Salmons, the turning point for oddsmakers has been this year’s woeful 0-7 Miami Dolphins squad. The team spent all offseason deflecting speculation that it was tanking, but a 59-10 thrashing by the Baltimore Ravens in the opening week did nothing to dispel the suggestion. From there, Miami’s underdog lines were off to the races: The team was getting 18 points against New England in Week 2, 22 against Dallas in Week 3 — the sixth-largest line in PFR’s database — 15 against the Chargers in Week 4, 17 against the Bills in Week 7 and 14 against the Steelers on Monday night.

Of the eight games with a spread over 14 points this season, half involved the Dolphins.3 The only time Miami’s opponent was favored by fewer than double digits was in the so-called Tank Bowl against an equally atrocious Washington team. (And even then, the line was Washington -6.)

“I think the thing that really led to this [trend] was that New England-Miami game,” Salmons said. “I think we put up 16½ or 17 originally, and it just kept climbing and climbing. There was no professional [bettor] who wanted any part of Miami in that game. I think that game kind of gave the oddsmakers a lot more confidence.”

In general, confidence is a big factor in the trend toward larger lines — particularly when it comes to factoring in team-building strategies (like tanking) and key absences.

“The oddsmakers have gotten a lot smarter about knowing how much a quarterback is worth,” Salmons said, pointing to the Chiefs-Packers game — which the SuperBook set at Chiefs -4 12 days before the game but flipped to Packers -3 (and eventually closed at Packers -5) after Patrick Mahomes was injured. “They’re better at knowing how much the drop-off is from this quarterback to that quarterback.”

So with a proliferation of bad teams and QB injuries, the 2019 season has created the perfect environment for huge point spreads. It’s also helped that, early on at least, the big favorites were covering those margins. Of the first six games with the line exceeding two TDs this season, the favorite covered five times. But in the most recent two — including Minnesota, which was 7 yards away from going up 17 on Washington before being stopped on fourth down with 32 seconds left — it didn’t. And bookmakers might be starting to sense that they’ve pushed the lines as far as they’ll go anyway.

“You’re more bold with [these lines], but there’s a point where the professionals see value in them,” Salmons said. “That’s when you try to back away from it some. It’s definitely a cat-and-mouse game, trying to go high.”

Still, as long as the NFL rewards the worst teams with the highest draft picks — and teams build bad rosters accordingly — we could be looking at the potential for historic mismatches in the Vegas line over the weeks and years to come.

Looking Ahead: Week 9

Best matchup:4 No. 4 Minnesota (-0.5) at No. 12 Kansas City, 1 p.m. ET Sunday

Although Ravens-Patriots is the highest-quality game of the week based on Elo alone, both of those teams are all but assured of playoff spots already, which reduces the stakes a bit. The game that best mixes playoff importance, team quality and matchup closeness, then, sees the Vikings and Chiefs square off at Arrowhead Stadium. With Mahomes almost certainly sidelined for another week, K.C. will once again turn to backup QB Matt Moore after he played surprisingly well in a close loss to Green Bay on Sunday night. The Chiefs rely heavily on Mahomes, and Elo downgrades them to an average team without him, but Andy Reid also has enough coaching tricks up his sleeve to keep Kansas City competitive until the reigning league MVP returns to action. As for the Vikings, they rank fourth in Elo and seventh in our Super Bowl odds, with Kirk Cousins playing quite well over his past four games. Because the Packers have started the season strong, Minnesota has only a 25 percent chance to win the NFC North, but that number would go up to 34 percent with a win here, and the Vikings’ playoff chances would rise to 84 percent as well. Because the higher-rated team (Minnesota) is on the road, however, Elo thinks it’s only a slim 53 percent favorite, making this the biggest toss-up of Week 9.

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 9

NFL matchups for Week 9, ranked according to various factors

Matchup Rankings
Favorite Underdog Favorite’s Win prob Quality Evenness Importance QBs
4 Vikings at 12 Chiefs 52.7% 2 1 4 3
1 Patriots at 7 Ravens 56.7 1 7 12 2
11 Colts at 20 Steelers 53.4 6 4 2 11
10 Eagles vs 14 Bears 63.7 4 9 5 7
8 Texans at 21 Jaguars 65.4 5 10 1 8
23 Raiders vs 17 Lions 53.7 10 5 6 4
9 Cowboys at 29 Giants 75.1 11 11 8 6
19 Panthers vs 15 Titans 55.5 8 6 3 14
3 Packers at 18 Chargers 62.2 3 8 10 1
24 Broncos vs 22 Browns 53.2 12 3 7 12
13 Seahawks vs 25 Buccaneers 76.1 9 13 9 5
27 Jets at 31 Dolphins 53.2 14 2 14 13
5 49ers at 28 Cardinals 75.3 7 12 13 9
16 Bills vs 30 Redskins 78.5 13 14 11 10

Game Quality is based on the Elo Ratings of both teams. Evenness is based on how close the game is to 50-50 pregame odds. A game’s importance is based on how much it swings the playoff odds of the teams involved. A game’s Quarterbacks are judged on the QB Elo ratings of the two starters.

Biggest playoff implications: No. 8 Houston (-4.5) vs. No. 21 Jacksonville, 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday, at Wembley Stadium (London)

Potential shift in playoff odds: 30.2 total percentage points

It seems like we highlight an AFC South matchup in this space every week, but maybe that’s what you get in a division where every team is .500 or better. This time, it’s the Texans and Jaguars from London, in one of those early-morning NFL specials stateside. Deshaun Watson and Houston scored an important bounceback win over Oakland last week to keep pace with the surprising Colts at the top of the division. The Texans’ division odds would rise from 39 percent to 50 percent with another victory, and they’d have an 82 percent chance of making the playoffs as well. But a loss would knock those odds down to 17 and 48 percent, respectively, so there’s a lot on the line here. Meanwhile, Gardner Minshew’s Jags stopped a two-game slide with back-to-back wins of their own, keeping their playoff odds at 30 percent. That number could rise to 52 percent with an upset of Houston but would drop to 18 percent with a loss. As far as midseason AFC South games from London go, this one is huge. And as an added bonus, this is the sixth-best International Series game in the U.K. ever, based on the combined Elo of both teams. Yay!

Best QB duels: No. 2 Aaron Rodgers (GB) vs. No. 12 Philip Rivers (LAC); No. 8 Tom Brady (NE) vs. No. 10 Lamar Jackson (BAL); No. 9 Kirk Cousins (MIN) vs. NR Matt Moore* (KC)

* Moore is replacing No. 1 Patrick Mahomes, who reportedly has an “outside chance” to play but is most likely out for Week 9. Moore would rank 23rd among starters based on his QB Elo rating.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here. I am currently in 487th place!) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 8

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 8 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
CHI 67% CHI 58% LAC 17, CHI 16 +8.8
BUF 58 BUF 54 PHI 31, BUF 13 +2.8
PIT 78 PIT 82 PIT 27, MIA 14 -0.7
LAR 84 LAR 86 LAR 24, CIN 10 -0.8
JAX 60 JAX 62 JAX 29, NYJ 15 -0.8
GB 58 GB 60 GB 31, KC 24 -0.9
MIN 88 MIN 90 MIN 19, WSH 9 -1.0
SEA 74 SEA 74 SEA 27, ATL 20 -1.8
NE 86 NE 86 NE 27, CLE 13 -2.0
IND 74 IND 73 IND 15, DEN 13 -2.2
NO 88 NO 83 NO 31, ARI 9 -3.3
HOU 73 HOU 70 HOU 27, OAK 24 -3.8
DET 76 DET 72 DET 31, NYG 26 -4.3
SF 74 SF 67 SF 51, CAR 13 -6.2
TEN 66 TEN 55 TEN 27, TB 23 -10.6

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

In Week 8, the readers did a nice job of hedging against the favored Bears and Bills (both of whom lost). But overall, it was a tough week for the prognosticators, who lost by an average of 26.8 points, their worst showing of the season to date. There weren’t any outright disagreements between Elo and the readers over the favorite, but the algorithm picked up points by shading in the right direction — particularly by having more confidence in the favored Saints, Texans, Lions, 49ers and Titans. Elo now has a 6-2 record against the field in 8 weeks so far this year.

Still, congratulations are in order to J A WILLIAMS, who led all (identified) readers in Week 8 with 348.0 points, and to Bill Fish, who grabbed the full-season contest lead with 694.1 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 8.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. That’s as far back as PFR’s Vegas line data goes.

  2. Two more — Baltimore and the L.A. Rams — aren’t very far behind, either, at 1595 apiece.

  3. Two more involved Washington, and the Jets and Giants had one each.

  4. Based on a combination of matchup evenness, or how close to 50-50 odds the game has; matchup quality, in terms of the harmonic mean of both teams’ QB-adjusted Elo ratings; playoff impact; and the quality of the opposing starting QBs.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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