The 2020 NFL season has been different than any season in league history. With no fans in the stands and players hitting the COVID-19 list regularly, leaving their teams shorthanded at a moment’s notice, we are seeing a trend emerge that we rarely see. Underdogs are killing it in the NFL this year. Both straight up and against the spread, dogs are cashing tickets at rates we have never seen before.
There are a million different reasons we can give as to why this phenomenon may be occurring, but as we hit the halfway point of the season, we have plenty of data points to validate that this trend is no fluke. If you have been backing dogs all season long in the NFL, you are getting rich! In this article, we are going to take a look at why the underdogs are playing so well, and more importantly, if you can expect this trend to continue. Let’s get started!
What Do The Numbers Tell Us?
Before we get too deep into what is causing this trend, and if we can expect it to continue, first we are going to take a look at the numbers, to show you that this trend is indeed real and needs to be taken into consideration when making your bets. Against the spread this season, underdogs are winning at a rate of 57% (68-51). To those of you out there that don’t follow sports betting very close, 57% might not seem that great, but trust me, it is.
One other trend that has been even more shocking, is that the public seems to be catching on to the underdogs winning, and when a team is backed by the public, and the line moves towards the dog, the underdogs are winning at an absurd rate of 68% (38-18).
The public rarely takes underdogs, and the public rarely gets it right, when they do. To see a trend so strong that your average bettor has not only figured it out, but has also found a way to take advantage of it, is shocking. A quick glance at team’s against the spread records shows us a whopping seven teams that are undefeated against the spread when underdogs. In total, thirteen teams have winning percentages north of 70% when they are getting points. That is almost half the league!
Team’s ATS Record As Underdogs
- LA Chargers 3-0
- Arizona Cardinals 3-0
- Green Bay Packers 2-0
- Pittsburgh Steelers 2-0
- Tennessee Titans 1-0
- Seattle Seahawks 1-0
- Kansas City Chiefs 1-0
- Minnesota Vikings 4-1
- Atlanta Falcons 3-1
- Denver Broncos 5-2
- New York Giants 5-2
- Chicago Bears 5-2
- Cincinnati Bengals 5-2
Why Are Underdogs Winning?
Now that we have shown you that dogs have been crushing, we are going to take a look at why. Is this just some random variation fluke? Has home field advantage gone away with no fans in the stands? What effect does COVID-19 have on the betting lines and team’s performances? Are the books just getting it wrong and are failing to adjust? Let’s dig down a little deeper and see what we can find.
Any time you are looking at statistics or data, you have to be very careful to not draw strong conclusions on data that could just be random variation. This is particularly true if you have a small sample size of data, as weird things can happen in the short term.
I am always very careful to not overreact to small sample sizes of data. Just like in the above example, a trend can be super strong in one direction, but that doesn’t mean that the trend is real and will continue, as it might just be a short-term variation in the data.
But when I look at a sample size that is half of the NFL season, that is affecting both good and bad teams from all divisions in both conferences, I can say with a reasonable rate of confidence that this isn’t just a statistical anomaly. This is real, and something is causing it to happen. So, now that we have determined that this trend is not a fluke, we have to get to the bottom of why it is happening, to identify the root cause.
In statistics, we call this root cause analysis. Understanding what is causing the data to skew is extremely important when trying to forecast the future. If you know what event or environment is causing the data to skew, you can use those events or environments to predict if the trend will continue. Let’s take a look at an example below.
Has Home Field Advantage Gone Away With No Fans?
We just talked about how home-field advantage is something that the books look at when setting an NFL line. As a general rule, home teams get roughly three points worth of advantage when playing at home. If you see a home team in the NFL laying -3 points, just know that the books see those teams as evenly matched, and the three points is representative of where the game is being played. In nearly all cases, if that identical matchup is recreated in the road team’s stadium, you would see the other team now favored by that same three points.
Playing at home is a big deal. Part of that is not having to travel, and part of that is having your hometown fans cheering you on. How many times have we seen the Kansas City Chiefs pick up a delay of game penalty or a false start penalty when the crowd at Arrowhead Stadium is so loud the opposing team’s offense can’t hear the play call or the snap count?
Is there home-field advantage in the NFL in 2020?
According to Drew Lock, “Absolutely not — except for the fact that you have to travel and you might be a little tired."
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) October 28, 2020
But this year, without fans in the stands, we just aren’t seeing the same level of home-field advantage as we have in the past. Home favorites are generally a solid bet in the NFL. But right now, there are only nine teams that have a winning record at home when favored against the spread. There are ten teams that have yet to even win a single time against the spread as home favorites.
It hasn’t just been home teams struggling to cover either. On a straight-up wins and losses basis, home teams aren’t playing well and are losing much more than normal. Right now, home teams are just 60-59 straight up on the year. We talked earlier about the fact that in no NFL season in a generation have we seen home teams with a losing record. Halfway through 2020, it looks like that longstanding trend may be coming to an end.
Is COVID-19 Causing Issues?
In short, the answer to that question is a definitive yes. We have seen COVID-19 wreak havoc on several NFL teams this season. We have seen games canceled and postponed, and lots of high-profile players have missed action due to a positive Corona Virus test. Former league MVP Cam Newton, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephen Gilmore, and Detroit Lions starting quarterback Matthew Stafford are just a couple of high-impact players that have lost action to COVID-19.
The Las Vegas Raiders were forced to play without their entire offensive line last week in Cleveland against the Browns. The Tennessee Titans saw fifteen players hit the COVID-19 injured list. The San Francisco 49ers had to play without Kendrick Bourne, Trent Williams, Brandon Aiyuk, and Deebo Samuel last night on Thursday Night Football, and not shockingly, they got blown out.
The NFL fined the the Raiders $500K, coach Jon Gruden $150K and took a 2021 sixth-round pick for repeated COVID-19 protocol violations, sources confirmed to ESPN, first reported by Yahoo.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 6, 2020
The reason that COVID-19 related injuries are causing so much bigger of a problem than normal injuries is for two main reasons. First, they come in big groups. We have seen several teams that will have an explosion of either positive tests or contact traced individuals that are forced to quarantine, and entire swaths of a team can be taken out all at once. These injuries come with almost no notice and leave teams scrambling to figure out a game plan.
The second reason that COVID-19 is hurting teams more than normal injuries, is that they aren’t able to practice or hold meetings when they have an outbreak. The first thing that every team does when they have a positive test is they close the team facility. It can be very hard to properly game plan in the NFL if you are trying to hold your team meetings and walkthroughs digitally.
When a guy sprains his ankle and misses a game or two, he can still come to practice and watch and sit in on meetings. With COVID-19, not only can’t that player participate with the rest of the team in any way, the entire team now has to try and game plan without being able to be together at the team facility. This has led to a lot of unprepared teams that are losing games that they shouldn’t.
Will This Trend Continue?
Both of the key factors that we talked about above as to why home teams just aren’t performing all that well aren’t going to change any time soon. Some teams are letting in a couple of fans to games, but it’s not going to be enough to really influence the play on the field. And sadly, it looks like COVID-19 is something that teams are going to have to deal with at least for the rest of this season, maybe longer.
As a former Las Vegas bookmaker, I would like to say that the sportsbooks are going to get ahead of this and adjust the lines to compensate for the changes. But unfortunately, for the bookmakers, there really isn’t a great way to adjust to what is going on. The reason that sportsbooks can post such accurate numbers and win year in and year out is because they trust the data.
The 49ers' roster has been depleted this season.
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) November 5, 2020
Your average sports bettor likes to bet with their hearts instead of their brains. The books don’t play that game. The books look at the cold hard facts and set the lines accordingly. They are able to be consistent because the data is consistent. But right now, we are all swimming in uncharted waters, and the books don’t know much more than we do about what comes next.
Never before have we seen full teams forced to quarantine, or play on Tuesday nights, or not be able to hold team meetings and practices the week of a game. All of this uncertainty makes it very hard for the books to have a strong opinion and set sharp lines. That leaves the door wide open for handicappers like me and you, to take full advantage of the chaos.
How Can You Take Advantage Of It?
So, we have established that there are several legitimate root causes that are driving this recent trend of underdogs winning, both straight up and against the spread. We have also established that those factors aren’t going away anytime soon and that there really isn’t any way for the books to accurately adjust, as uncertainty is kryptonite for the heavily data influenced bookmakers.
That tells me that this trend just might continue, and you need to take advantage of it. I wouldn’t go full nuclear and start betting every underdog blind, but you have to make sure that you keep this trend top of mind. There are four teams that have been elite as favorites this season, despite the strong trend otherwise. I would think that you won’t want to jump in and start fading these teams right away.
Teams With Elite Records as Favorites
- Kansas City Chiefs (5-2)
- Green Bay Packers (4-2)
- Seattle Seahawks (4-2)
- Indianapolis Colts (4-2)
None of those teams are all that surprising that they are having a lot of success, as they are four of the best teams in the NFL this year. If you steer clear of fading those four teams and rather focus on teams that have really struggled against the spread, you are going to make a lot more money. There are five teams that stick out as having performed particularly poorly ATS as favorites.
Teams With Poor Records As Favorites
- Dallas Cowboys (0-5)
- Atlanta Falcons (0-4)
- Tennessee Titans (1-5)
- Philadelphia Eagles (1-4)
- New Orleans Saints (2-5)
Each of the above teams are teams that tend to attract a lot of public action. The Cowboys, Falcons, and Saints are always some of the most backed public teams, which keeps them as bigger favorites than they should be and has led them to struggle against inflated spreads. As home favorites, these five teams are a combined 3-16 ATS. If you see Dem Boys or the Dirty Birdz laying a bunch of wood at home, you can confidently jump on the other side and get paid.
If you want to win betting on the NFL, you have to put in the work. Identifying and taking advantage of trends like this one are a major key to long term success. This is the stuff the pros look for, and if you want to win like a pro, you have to do your homework like a pro. Thanks for reading, and make sure you stay tuned to TheSportsGeek all season long, where we do the deep digging for you, so you can make money betting on the NFL in 2020!