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NFL betting: Underdogs have been covering at a surprising rate this season, but why?

Frank Schwab
·4-min read

The NFL is unpredictable.

It’s highly competitive and the gap between the best and worst teams isn’t huge. An argument can be made that the Pittsburgh Steelers are the best team in the NFL and the Dallas Cowboys are the worst, and the point spread for Steelers vs. Cowboys this week is only 13.5 points. In college football, two-touchdown spreads — or more — are a way of life.

Yet, this NFL season has reached peak unpredictability in at least one measure. Underdogs are covering the spread at a remarkable rate. After underdogs went 10-4 against the spread in Week 8, with seven dogs winning outright, underdogs’ record against the spread this season improved to 68-51 (57%).

Maybe it’s just random variance over a half of a season, which isn’t enough to draw any sweeping conclusions. Or perhaps there are reasonable explanations for the underdogs’ dominance.

Underdogs have been reliable this season

There’s an even stronger trend is emerging for underdogs, albeit in an even smaller sample size. When the line moves toward an underdog — the Colts going from +3.5 against the Ravens this week to its current line of Colts +2.5, for example — the underdog’s record against the spread is 38-18 (68%). When bettors like an underdog enough to move the line, it’s worth paying attention.

If you think there’s something to this trend other than randomness, you can still find value getting points. Oddsmakers are not shifting any lines as a result of the underdogs’ success. They’re betting on it all evening out by the end of the season.

“The dogs have performed well to start the season,” BetMGM sportsbook manager Matt Cosgriff said. “However, those positive results for the pooches do not impact how we set lines. Historically, betting streaks like the underdogs are on this season tend to regress to the mean. Don’t bet on underdogs just because they have been covering.”

That’s not slowing bettors down. According to BetMGM, as of Wednesday underdogs were getting a majority of bets in half of the 14 games on the NFL schedule this week. Casual bettors generally prefer favorites. The underdogs’ success has been undeniable though.

Whether it can continue is a tougher question to answer.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) were one of the underdogs that won straight up last week. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) were one of the underdogs that won straight up last week. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Lack of home-field advantage has been clear

Last season road underdogs had a good season. The erosion of home-field advantage has been a theme for a few years. Then 2020 happened, and we’ve seen it slip even further. There hasn’t been a game played with a full crowd in attendance, and many have been played in front of no fans at all.

Whether the lack of fans is the cause, home-field advantage has all but disappeared. According to Covers.com’s data, home teams are barely above .500 straight up, with a 60-58-1 record. Road teams are 64-55 (53.8%) against the spread , and road underdogs are 45-32 (58.4%). Still, home teams usually get a little bit of a bump on the point spread. Eight of 14 NFL home teams are favored this week.

COVID-19 disruptions have affected the season. In Thursday night’s San Francisco 49ers-Green Bay Packers game, both teams will be without key players due to positive tests or players being on the reserve/COVID-19 list due to close, high-risk contacts. Maybe the lineup changes — there have been many high-profile injuries too, perhaps due to the lack of a preseason — have fed into the unpredictability.

We’ve all heard the NFL is built on parity, and there seems to be even more of it this season. There are only three teams left with fewer than two losses, and technically we’re not even halfway through the season. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the last undefeated team, the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks have one loss each, and that’s it; the 29 other NFL teams all have lost at least twice. It’s hard to find teams to trust each week against the spread, and that’s probably not changing. There aren’t many great teams, which lessens that typical gap between the best and worst teams. When there’s not much difference between the best and worst teams, and there’s not much home-field advantage either, it makes sense to take the points.

If you’ve been backing underdogs all NFL season, you’re doing well. Bettors have to decide if it will continue. Oddsmakers don’t believe it will and aren’t adjusting their lines. If this is more than random variance, you still have chances to cash in.

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