Home field advantage is often tossed around as one of the most important factors when deciding which teams to bet on in a given game or season. And to a degree, that is understandable, given what kind of boost a team’s home fans can provide during a contest. Whether it is cheering to throw off the opposing offense’s rhythm or quieting down so the home team’s quarterback can relay the team’s signals, there are definitely benefits to backing home teams in the NFL. But are home teams in the NFL being misused by bettors?
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to successful NFL betting is the battle between public perception and reality. Often, what the betting public thinks it sees heading into a week of games is not what will reliably happen, as oddsmakers tend to do a good job of setting lines that can lead the public astray. And one of the biggest ways that they do that is by weaponizing home field advantage in the NFL to neutralize it for some teams and accentuate it for others.
Home Team Traps
Think back over the last few years of NFL games, and you will be able to recall a team that has won a lot of games on its home field. The New Orleans Saints have won plenty of games in the Superdome, and the Seattle Seahawks have been good at home as well. But just being able to win games at home doesn’t matter to most NFL bettors, unless those teams can cover the spread in the process. And that is the disconnect that a lot of bettors have when it comes to betting on home teams.
Many think that laying points with a home favorite who is thought to do well at home is the be all and end all, and that it gives them the best chance to beat the spread en route to a handsome payday. But if betting on the NFL was that easy, bettors would be able to simply punch up the Saints on a regular basis en route to some serious riches. As we all know, that is not how any of this works, and bettors have to dig deep to find the right spots to bet on favorites, underdogs, teams coming off of a loss, home teams, and away teams in a combination that allows them to win long-term.
Looking just at the 2017 season, a perfect example of this phenomenon was the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle was favored in five of their eight home games in 2017, based largely on the fact that they have traditionally been a very good team at home. Bettors backed the Seahawks in droves in those games, thanks in large part to that historical data over the previous few seasons when the Legion of Boom defense and Russell Wilson combined to create a formidable team.
The problem for Seahawks bettors last year was the fact that the Seahawks just weren’t that good. The defense was aging and experienced injuries to key players like Richard Sherman. And the team’s chemistry was unraveling on a week to week basis, as defensive players were sick of the treatment that Russell WIlson was receiving and were overly aggressive with him during practices as a result, if reports out of Seattle are to be believed.
Seattle only managed to go 4-4 straight up at home last season, and were even worse against the spread. The Seahawks went 2-6 against the number at home in the 2017 season, with the Seattle Sounders of MLS finding the Seahawks’ home field to be more hospitable than the Seahawks did. If nothing else, this was a great lesson in home teams not always being a good option against the spread, especially when the team in question is one whose home field advantage is constantly hyped up in the media.
The same thing can be said about Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome. New Orleans went on a long run, many years ago, where they covered very consistently at home. But that run has led many to think that simply betting on the Saints when they are the home team will result in a cover. As of late, that could not be further from the truth.
Over the last two seasons, the Saints are 8-8 at home against the spread during the regular season. That is an unimpressive mark, as going .500 will lose you money in the long-term when you factor in the vig that you have to lay down on each wager. The Saints are 1-0 against the spread in home playoff games during that time period, to be fair, but over two seasons, backing the Saints at home for those 17 games would put you ahead by 0.2 units. Needless to say, there are much better values out there.
Also worth an honorable mention here are the Steelers, who have gone 8-10 against the spread at home over the last two seasons, despite all of the hype surrounding their skill players like Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. One of the most notable games in that stretch was their failure to cover in their 2017 season opener at home against the lowly Cleveland Browns.
So which teams have been covering the spread at home on a more consistent basis? The answer to this question can vary from year to year. But overall, there tend to be two groups of teams that perform well against the spread at home. There are teams who are outperforming expectations in a given season, along with teams that just consistently are at the top of the league and can cover the spread reliably at home as a result. Knowing which of these two groups a home team is in, if they are in either one, is a great way to find some value and increase your chances of profiting when betting on the NFL.
The Best of the Best
When it comes to teams that are at the top of the league, you can usually spot them right away. This can be done either by knowing that they are perennial favorites to win the Super Bowl, or by seeing just how well they have played throughout a given season, and knowing that they are in the midst of something special during that campaign. Either way, spotting when a team is vastly superior to its competition is the goal here.
A great example of that is the New England Patriots from the 2016 season. The Patriots went onto win Super Bowl 51 at the end of that year, with their thrilling come from behind win over the Atlanta Falcons in overtime. But before that, the Patriots were destroying teams against the spread at home, with the Gillette Stadium faithful propelling them to great result after great result.
New England went 6-2 against the spread during the regular season during that campaign, and 2-0 against the spread during the playoffs. And it’s not like the Patriots weren’t favored to win big in some of those home games. The Patriots were favored by at least a touchdown on five different occasions during that season, including three games where they were favored by at least 10 points. And one of the most impressive things about the Patriots that season was the fact that they covered as double-digit favorites in all three of those games.
In fact, New England was favored by as many as 17 points at home during that season, during their home playoff game in the divisional round against the Houston Texans. The Patriots covered the spread in that game, winning 34-16. They were also 16-point favorites against the New York Jets, another number that they decimated when they beat their division rivals 41-3.
During that 2016 season, the Patriots covered the spread at home with three different starting quarterbacks. They used Jimmy Garoppolo to beat a 5.5-point spread against the Dolphins in the second week of the season, and Jacoby Brissett to win a pick ‘em against the Houston Texans in week three. All of that happened during Tom Brady’s football deflation suspension, making an incredible season against the spread even moreso.
But what puts the Patriots in the class of home teams that are constantly at the top of the league and better than their opponents when they are hosting games is the fact that the Patriots can have performances against the spread like that on a consistent basis. The team went 6-4 against the spread at home in 2017, bringing their overall record against the spread at home over those two years to a whopping 14-6. That proficiency at home would be good for a return of 7.4 units over two seasons, just by backing the Patriots at home without asking any further questions. That is the mark of a team in the elite class of the NFL.
Also in this class over the last couple of years has been the Philadelphia Eagles. With Carson Wentz brought in as the face of the franchise, the Eagles have been great at Lincoln Financial Field. They went 7-3 against the spread at home in 2017, including a 5-3 mark at home during the regular season. They also went 6-2 against the spread at home in 2016. That combined record of 13-5 is good for a 7.7 unit return on investment over two seasons, putting the Eagles just ahead of the Patriots in that category over the last two years.
Of course, it’s not a total surprise that the Eagles and Patriots are at the top of this list right now, given that they are the last two teams to win the Super Bowl and faced off in Super Bowl 52 to end the 2017 season. But teams like that at the top of the league can often dominate at home, and it is worth tracking their performances against the spread to see if there is some value in backing them as favorites on their home turf going forward.
Under the Radar Finds
On the other side of things, you have the teams every year that outperform their expectations, and manage to rack up covers at home as a result. These teams are harder to find than just betting on the Patriots or Eagles, but can be just as rewarding as you can often get better line value in exchange for the talent gap between these teams and the ones that sit at the top of the NFL. As any seasoned bettor knows, balancing value and roster talent is a constant battle, but one that can be won by finding some diamonds in the rough.
One team that has qualified as being a diamond in the rough team over the last few years has been the Buffalo Bills. Their results straight up and in the standings have not been pretty over the years, but their advantage at New Era Field have been exemplary over the years and have made them worth a long, hard look whenever someone is locking in their picks for the week.
When it comes to these hidden gem teams, you aren’t going to want to lock in on them automatically like you would with the Patriots and Eagles (although you don’t want to lock in any team automatically in any week, and should take each game on a case-by-case basis). Instead, it is smart to evaluate these types of teams in each game and find out which weeks they should have a clear advantage over their opponents. Those advantages combined with great home field advantages will be the way to maximize profits with teams that fly under the radar.
Over the last three seasons, the Bills have gone 13-10-1 against the spread at home. While a two-unit profit over three seasons isn’t some amazing feat, picking your spots with the Bills has been extremely profitable, as the team has been in some advantageous situations throughout that time that have made them more profitable than their raw record against the spread.
For example, the Bills have done a great job in the last few years against teams that have traveled to Buffalo from the west coast. The thought of a west coast team traveling across the country to play a 1pm Eastern time game is a concept that has become overvalued by many bettors, but the Bills have actually seen it work out to their advantage in recent seasons. They have beaten the Broncos and Arizona Cardinals straight up during that time period, and covered the spread as underdogs in the process.
The New York Jets fell into this category in 2017 as well, as they put up a massive 7-1 record against the spread at home last season. Many thought, going into the season, that the Jets would be one of the worst teams in the NFL last year. Some even thought that they would fail to win a single game. But the Jets had a very respectable 2017, and their ability to outperform the expectations that were set for them coming into the year led to such a huge year against the spread at home.
The big flaw with these teams is that their window to cover the spread consistently can close pretty quickly for a few reasons. These teams tend to still be at or near the bottom of the standings at the end of each season, hence their status as live underdogs in the years they provide a great return on investment. That usually leads to things like coaching changes or personnel changes, which can impact their ability to deliver against the spread in future seasons, as the team has to adjust to the changes they’ve made.
Then there is the fact that the betting public eventually catches onto what these teams are capable of if they do stay the same, which takes away a lot of their value in subsequent seasons. Earlier, we mentioned that the Saints were once a great team against the spread at home. Well, after years of positive results for the Saints at home, and years of sports media personalities drilling their proficiency at covering the spread into everyone’s head, the value that was placed in the Saints faded away over time.
How To Find the Next Hidden Gem
So how do you spot a team that is set to exceed expectations and provide plenty of value for your spread bets heading into a season? The first thing to look for is the type of changes that a team made heading into a season. And remember, these don’t have to be flashy changes, but just have to be changes that will make a team better than people think they’ll be.
A great example of a change that can fly under the radar but can be extremely profitable is a coaching change that doesn’t make a lot of headlines. This generally happens with inexperienced coaches or coaches who haven’t had success in the league previously. But, as plenty of teams have shown in the recent past, these changes can positively impact a franchise for years.
The Los Angeles Rams are the perfect example of the impact that a non-buzzworthy coaching change can have on a team. They hired Sean McVay to replace Jeff Fisher, and many pundits openly mocked the hire thanks to McVay’s youth and inexperience. But just a couple of seasons in and McVay is already being considered one of the best coaches in the league. The hire of Matt Nagy by the Chicago Bears in 2018 could end up working the same way, as his innovative offensive concepts have drawn comparisons to McVay and could lead to a strong season against the spread for the Bears.
There is also the possibility for personnel changes to positively impact a team’s return on investment against the spread as a home team. Again, the most valuable changes are ones that don’t receive a lot of fanfare, as flying under the radar is often a great way to become valuable against the spread. These moves often happen on defense or on the offensive line, rather than at quarterback or the skill positions where the media attention tends to rest.
The best example of this coming into the 2018 season is the acquisition of guard Josh Sitton by the Miami Dolphins. Sitton is a veteran offensive lineman, and provides one of the best run blocking and pass blocking combinations in the league from the interior line positions. Of course, that last sentence would bore most football fans to death, and therefore his acquisition wasn’t talked about much. And the Dolphins covered at home in the first week of the season with him in the lineup. Unfortunately, he was lost for the season after week one, and it will be interesting to see how the team performs in his absence after the strong start.
Strength of schedule is also something worth looking at heading into each season. Teams that finish in last place in their division tend to be assigned an easier schedule than their counterparts higher in the standings, as least for a couple of games out of the year. Those games, if any are at home, will be winnable games and games that could very well result in a cover. While this isn’t a huge angle to take, it can be something that can result in an extra win or two.
When all is said and done, the teams with the best home field advantages in the NFL currently are the teams at the top of the sport. The New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles are elite teams both at home and on the road, but over the last couple of seasons have both contributed massive returns on investment to anyone who has backed them against the spread consistently over those periods of time.
But it is important to know that there are plenty of other teams out there who can cover the spread on a regular basis as a home team. If you can dig up information on which teams quietly have improved from year to year, you will be able to find those teams for yourself and discover value against the spread that will vastly improve your chances of having profitable NFL season after profitable NFL season.
Jay is a sports writer who has been featured on Deadspin, BetAdvisor. In addition to penning wager previews and features, Jay has broadcasted for MAAC school as well as ESPN Radio’s Northeastern Affiliates.