Are the outcomes of prime-time NFL games making bettors just a little shy about gambling on the favorite?
It’s not necessarily a logical trend, which is to say there’s no significant trend of shocking upsets taking place on Sunday Night Football or Monday Night Football. The Rams and the Chiefs posted solid wins over the Bears and Chargers respectively in Week 11, and Week 12’s Sunday and Monday night games were won in blow-out style by favored San Francisco and Baltimore.
But it’s the most-significant late-night result of the season (arguably) and the most-recent Thursday night contest which could be influencing the gambling public.
On November 11th, the then-unbeaten San Francisco 49ers hosted the Seattle Seahawks and lost 27-24 in overtime, mostly thanks to Jimmy Garoppolo’s barely-50% passing accuracy mark. On Thanskgiving, the (-7) New Orleans Saints visited woeful Atlanta and did manage to cover the spread 26-18, but Drew Brees’ game was quiet compared to QB Matt Ryan, who made favorites’ bettors feel anxious enough to pass on leftovers until 11 PM.
NFL gamblers have seemed wary of most marquee favorites in Week 13, whether or not they’re on national TV. Los Angeles not a popular pick against the underdog Arizona Cardinals, the Green Bay Packers’ point spread is tightening vs the New York Giants…and Pittsburgh opened as a field-goal favorite at Heinz Field only for high-rollers to flock to the visiting Cleveland Browns.
There are exceptions of course – Philadelphia is a popular pick to win and cover at Miami – but not for Houston and visiting New England. Teams have been covering against New England if not winning straight-up – the Brady Bunch is 7-4 ATS in 2019 but has won its last 2 games by a combined 11 points. Perhaps that trend has swayed bettors to pick the Texans in Sunday night’s contest, but Houston’s shrinking on the ML (+175) in addition to a narrow (+3) point spread.
As for this Monday night, it’s the same story – Seattle opened as a field-goal favorite vs the visiting Minnesota Vikings on MNF but if the Las Vegas line has threatened to move in any direction, it’s toward the Norsemen.
Are the majority of fans all wet, or are we about to dry-heave through nervous final moments in a bunch of NFL games? Let’s look closer at 4 games and see if any favorites are apt to have an easier, breezier Sunday (or Monday) than advertised.
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
Now here’s an interesting rematch. It’s been only 15 days since Myles Garrett acted-out in the worst possible way in a prime-time Cleveland vs Pittsburgh contest at FirstEnergy Stadium. With Garrett out of the picture indefinitely thanks to his selfish actions, it would be a wonder if the Browns hung together and made a charge down the stretch in 2019-20.
But the Dawgs are getting it done, or at least it looks that way. With Cleveland coming in on a 3-game winning streak, gamblers have turned opening lines which gave Pittsburgh a slight nod as the favorite into Las Vegas odds that favor the Browns (-140) by a substantive margin.
The principle figures in the mid-November dust-up will not be taking the football field in the 1st quarter at Heinz Field. Mason Rudolph, the instigator-slash-victim of Garrett’s violent antics, has been demoted to 2nd-string QB in favor of Devlin Hodges after going 50% with a pick last week.
Hodges was effective-enough to lead a game-winning drive and earn another start while avoiding the ignominy of losing to the 2019 Cincinnati Bengals. Hodges finished 5-for-11 for 118 yards, highlighted by a 79-yard TD strike to James Washington early in the 3rd quarter. Pittsburgh was without 2 key cogs in Juju Smith-Schuster and James Conner last week, and it’s no guarantee that either player will make it back onto the field.
It appears as though we will see at least 1 more week of rookie 4th-round pick Benny Snell Jr. carrying the load for the Steelers, but he was somewhat lackluster against a poor Bengal run defense last week, rushing for 98 yards on 21 attempts. Hodges will need more help from his OL’s run-blocking if successful pass-blocking for 4 quarters is to be a reality…even at home.
Baker Mayfield will run into much-stronger resistance vs the Steeler defense and may receive a fresh round of criticism after this weekend’s performance on the road. I’m going with Pittsburgh against the public. There’s a feeling that the Steelers can make the playoffs after all, and revenge could be as sweet as a 7-5 record.
Pick: Steelers (+140)
L.A. Rams at Arizona Cardinals
The 6-5 Rams (-3) are trying to keep playoff hopes alive. McVay’s team has lost 2-of-3 heading into Sunday, and struggled to contain Lamar Jackson and the Ravens last week in a 45-6 loss on Monday Night Football. Handicappers seem convinced that while Arizona and L.A. carry disparate W/L records, the clubs are much more tightly-matched when analyzed statistically.
I don’t go-in for a lot of points-per-game averages – they’re contingent on game-situations and schedules and used as filler in a lot of pregame touts. But take a look at some of the Rams and Cardinals’ overall stats and the similarities are striking. The Rams have a slight edge with 22.6 PPG as opposed to the Big Red’s 22.5 PPG, while Los Angeles and Arizona are within 1 yard of each other of total offense, as the Rams average 365.1 YPG and the Cards are at 365.8 YPG.
It doesn’t quite stop there as just 3 sacks separate the clubs defensively. 8-year veteran pass-rusher Chandler Jones is still getting it done for Arizona, as his 12.5 take-downs are good for 2nd in the NFL behind only Cameron Jordan of the Saints. The former Super Bowl champ has tallied 4 sacks in the last 3 weeks.
Arizona has lost 4 straight and will not make the postseason this year, but QB Kyler Murray has played his tail off trying to make-up for a flaky defense. Every week, it seems, Murray is getting more comfortable in the passing game, and the wunderkind could finish the year with well over 500 yards rushing and a handful of rush TDs. Bettors love underdogs when the QB could potentially out-play the favorites’ signal-caller. Jared Goff of the Rams was intercepted twice last week by Baltimore, bringing his season total to 12 to go along with just 11 TDs – a hideous ratio in modern NFL or FBS football.
But gamblers are overlooking that the L.A. offense as a whole presents more problems for the Arizona defense than Murray and Larry Fitzgerald can combine to cause for the Mountain Goats.
Pick: Rams ATS
New England Patriots at Houston Texans (SNF)
New England is trying to stay 2 games ahead of the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East, and Houston is trying to reign supreme in the AFC South. The Texans are currently 1 game ahead of the 6-5 Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts, who will square off on Sunday, meaning 1 of the pursuing clubs has to lose (unless there’s a 75-minute tie). New England and Houston have each won 3 out of 4, underscoring Baltimore’s dominance in late autumn has the Texans and Pats have each been defeated handily by Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in that stretch. The defending champs have since bounced back, winning 2 straight with an improved defensive effort.
Despite the defending league champions “defending” quite well, Houston is just (+3) for SNF after opening at closer to a TD-underdog’s line.
Not that you can’t still imagine the visitors winning by a score or more. The Patriots defeated the Eagles in Philly 17-10 in Week 11 and were able to keep the #1 offense in the NFL out of the end zone in last week’s 13-9 win against the Cowboys. Bill Belichick is known for putting together terrific offenses, but his defense is also putting up landmark numbers. New England’s secondary boasts 2 of the NFL’s best in CB Stephon Gilmore and S Devin McCourty, and the pair have combined for 9 of New England’s 20 interceptions this season. McCourty’s 5 has him tied for the NFL league lead with Minkah Fitzpatrick, while Gilmore has 4 despite opposing QB’s rarely throwing the ball anywhere near him.
Houston is considered a tough opponent at home, however, as the Texans boast a 4-1 W/L record as hosts. Bill O’Brien’s club took its beating at the hands of the Ravens 2 weeks ago but was able to bounce back against the Colts last week to move to the top of the division. Deshaun Watson has a key weapon returning in the form of WR Will Fuller V, and the pair was instrumental in holding off Indy in Week 12. Fuller was targeted 11 times, hauling in 7 passes for 140 yards, and was able to distract some defensive focus away from DeAndre Hopkins.
I can see the Texans trying to grind-out a win with Carlos Hyde on the ground and clock-control on the scoreboard, taking advantage of Tom Brady’s limited timing and mobility in his 40s. If the Pats offense can’t spend all night figuring out how to score, Houston should be able to hold New England to less than 25 points and have a decent shot to win in the 4th quarter.
Pick: Under (46.5)
Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks (MNF)
I was a year early touting Rashaad Penny to make a difference in the NFC race. Words of (ahem) wisdom from my preview of 2018-19:
The big news not enough people are talking about is Rashaad Penny, (Seattle’s) sneaky-awesome 1st-round pick at tailback. Penny rushed for 1000 yards in his last 5 FBS games, has no major injury concerns, and gallops with a physical style that will help the Seahawks look like the Seahawks again.
If you can’t close your eyes and imagine Penny clawing for key yards as the clock winds down in the NFC Championship, dunk your head in some Pacific Ocean water and try again.
Happy to try again, but that wasn’t really an inaccurate thing to say about the San Diego State product. He just needed a little more time. Penny barely touched the ball in Seattle’s upset defeat of vaunted San Francisco, but he had a magnificent day in the Seahawks’ 17-9 victory over the Eagles last Sunday, and looks like the type of beast who can potentially transform a backfield.
That helps make the Seattle rushing attack dynamic again, and makes Russell Wilson all the more dangerous on play-action. You’ve also got to like the improvement of a less-star studded defense in the Pacific Northwest. Even the 30 points allowed to Baltimore in October looks more impressive now that Jackson is abusing every other defense he sees.
Not that Minnesota (+3) is coming into Monday night like a lame duck. The 8-3 Vikings have won 6 of their last 7 games as the Kirk-Cousins-Must-Go choir has had its volume yanked down. Cousins only missed 6 passes in a 3-TD performance to beat the Broncos 2 weeks ago, and a bye week has helped the Norsemen injury report shrink to well under 10 players.
The red flag on a Minnesota wager is that the Vikings haven’t beaten an elite team. The Vikings have lost to comparable-strength clubs like the Chiefs, Packers, and Bears in 2019, and had more problems with visiting Denver than a front-running team ought to have had.
I’ve seen too many good teams fall in the noise and aura of CenturyLink Field to think that it’s anything but likely to happen again on MNF this week.
Pick: Seahawks ATS
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.