On the Question of Points
The 2020 NFL season resulted in historically high-scoring. It was also the oddest season on record, given the pandemic. Bettors will have to decide in 2021 how much of the scoring uptick resulted from the absence of fans and how much is attributable to the game’s evolution. Let’s start with the demonstrable numbers.
The chart above indicates that 2021 was the highest-scoring season ever. It may not leap off the page, but teams scored four more points per game than in 2019. They scored 2.8 more points per game than in 2013, the previous high watermark. There had been extreme swings before. Between 2017 and 2018, scoring jumped 3.2 points per game.
Many are attributing the increased scoring efficiency to the absence of fans. Those in this camp will also point to the improved success teams enjoyed on the road. It is not unreasonable to assume that the increased success of road teams accounted for increased scoring. And that success was predicated on the absence of fans. There is some evidence to support this conclusion. Road teams won more games than in any other year last season.
A different conclusion is that the increased scoring has little to do with the absence of fans. It is, instead, accurately attributed to the evolution of the game. Supporting this conclusion is that there was a similar uptick in scoring between 2017 and 2018, and fans were in attendance at that time. The narrative of the headline tends to disconnect people from the facts. Yes, it was the highest-scoring season ever, but only by a field goal a game. A nearly identical increase happened just two years prior.
It is likely a combination of evolution and attendance. The latter being felt in specific venues more than others. Minnesota, Seattle, and New Orleans can be tough on opposing players from a crowd noise perspective. Sofi Stadium in Los Angeles has excellent acoustics, but it has been a minute since I have seen the LA crowd make noise anywhere other than Staples Center.
Look for a minimal regression in scoring to about 47.9.
The Best Over/Under Teams
It is also helpful to know which teams have consistently performed well against the total in either direction. Consistency is hard to find in the NFL, with frequent changes in the front office, coaching staff, and personnel. We are constantly working with small sample sizes. I have cobbled together a list of teams that have consistently performed against the total during the previous three seasons.
To make the list in either category, the teams must meet three qualifications. First, they must possess a win percentage greater than 54% against the over or under during the previous three seasons. Second, they must have at least two winning seasons against the over or under during the last three seasons. Third, there must not be any readily identifiable anomaly that undercuts the data in question.
The Over Teams
The “over” teams list is far shorter than the subsequent chart of “under” teams. Of the four teams listed in the chart, three are highly likely to have a profitable season against the over. There are a couple of questions surrounding Tennessee. Former Titan Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith is now at the helm of the Atlanta Falcons. Tennessee also has several key data points which indicate a steep negative regression in 2021.
Dallas is, in many ways, the perfect over team. The Cowboy offense will be explosive as long as Dak Prescott remains healthy. Defensively Dallas will struggle to stop even sub-median offenses. Dallas plays both Tampa Bay and Kansas City this season in an added gift from the gambling gods. Those games will be addressed in-depth during the season in the weekly breakdown of the model’s picks for each game.
Similarly, there is no reason to doubt the ability of Tampa Bay to maintain their status as an over team. They brought all the pieces back and will field perhaps the most talented roster in the NFL. Unlike Dallas, their defense is fierce, but team totals, rather than game totals, are a viable option with Tampa Bay.
Kansas City has Patrick Mahomes. They also have elite weapons at receiver, but their depth is shallow. Some murmurings inevitably creep up after a loss in a championship. In this case, the whispers concern whether Tampa Bay provided the blueprint to beat the Chiefs. It is hard to take this too seriously. Tampa has elite pass rushers. They got to Mahomes without blitzing and hung back in variously disguised versions of a Cover 2 defense. It is not exactly a revolutionary thought. It is not as if other defensive coordinators watched that performance and said, ‘oh, hey, why didn’t I think of that? We should pressure the quarterback like that without having to blitz as well!’ Sure, that will be what teams try. It is a question of talent, and few can match Tampa. Kansas City knows this will be the approach and has beefed up its offensive line. They may have to be more methodical at times, but they will still score.
The Under Teams
With eight teams qualifying for the Under list, it is more efficient to address only those teams that might reasonably score their way off the list in 2021. Unfortunately, the most significant concerns are with the three best-performing teams on the list, the Rams, Broncos, and Patriots. All three should be treated with caution.
The Rams’ outstanding defense and Goff’s inability to function effectively in McVey’s offense are the two biggest reasons they are on the list. Goff is now in Detroit, and Matthew Stafford takes over at quarterback for the Rams. The defense will again be a nightmare for opponents. The model is extremely high on the fit with Stafford. The model’s favorite MVP play was on Stafford at +2000.
Denver is a solid bet to remain on this list at the end of the season. Like the Rams, their position here the previous three years resulted from outstanding defense and sub-median quarterback play. The defense remains as stingy as ever. The Broncos have brought in Teddy Bridgewater to take over under center. Bridgewater is an upgrade. However, Bridgewater is not Stafford. He will manage the game, make high percentage short throws, and march the Broncos down the field.
The biggest unknown sits with the Patriots. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones is taking over and will be an improvement over the Newton performance they got last season. That is not a high-bar, and he is a rookie. The defense has a chance to be intimidating, especially the front seven. While the model loves Belichick getting the pieces to live in 12 personnel, Henry and Smith are not Gronk and Hernandez 2.0. In addition, the Patriots placed Gilmore on the PUP list, making him ineligible for the first six weeks.
The great news is that there are a ton of direct matchups between the remaining teams. Of course, Washington and Philadelphia will play twice, and they will both play Denver. Chicago will play Arizona, the Rams, and the Steelers. Pittsburgh and Denver will face each other as well. Those direct matchups are potential high leverage plays as the sportsbook has several ways to make a mistake on those lines.