A Primer on NFL Spreads 2021

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A Primer on NFL Spreads 2021

Last week I wrote a primer on NFL totals for 2021, and I have written a primer on NFL variance. The “primer” series of articles intends to provide the reader with a different perspective that will be beneficial during the NFL 2021. The intent in this article is the same. 

With the turnover in front offices, coaches, and players on NFL teams, it is arduous to identify teams that consistently perform well against the spread in either direction. But it is not impossible. 

The teams identified in the following sections all meet three general criteria. First, they have a profitable percentage against the spread over the last four seasons. Second, they enjoyed profitable seasons in at least three of the previous four seasons. This shows consistency. Third, there are no changes or other anomalies that portend a shift from this performance level.  

Some teams have been more profitable in the previous three years but are not on this list. The reason for exclusion falls to one of the criteria mentioned above. For example, they had an outlier season that made them profitable overall, but they were inconsistent. What follows is a list of teams that, when all the other numbers are correct, can be trusted to either cover a number consistently or fail to cover a number consistently.

Last season the best performing team against the spread, the Dolphins, failed to reach the playoffs. Three of the worst-performing teams not only made the playoffs, one made the Super Bowl. Despite this, the best-performing teams tend to be the teams that excel in the NFL, and the worst-performing teams tend to be the teams that struggle. Our lists, with few exceptions, match this expectation. 

Best Performing NFL Teams Against the Spread Since 2017

The list of teams that consistently cover the spread is, not unlike those that consistently beat the over, significantly smaller than the list of teams that fail to cover the spread consistently. Still, there are valuable insights with our list of five. 

The chart below highlights the five teams that fit the criteria over the previous four seasons. Unfortunately, the best-performing team on this list needs to be treated with caution this season. All five teams on the chart below have had at least three winning seasons against the spread over the previous four years. New Orleans went a perfect four-for-four in that category. Four teams also possess a win percentage of at least 55% over the last four seasons. Cincinnati is the lone outlier brought down by an anomalous 2019. They still made the list because of their consistent 56% in three of the last four seasons. 

New Orleans Saints

The Saints have been a model of consistency against the spread since 2017. They finished 55.60% ATS in three of the previous four years and 64.7% ATS in 2019. The organization has thrived since hiring Sean Payton and signing Drew Brees. And there’s the rub. Brees retired after the end of last season. This season Jamies Winston takes over at quarterback. There are many in the analytics community arguing that the Saints will not experience a dropoff. 

The argument essentially states that Brees’ arm was dead last season. He could not and did not push the ball downfield, and even his short and intermediate passes lacked zip. They are not wrong. Last season, according to NextGen Stats, Brees ranked 38th out of qualifying quarterbacks in aggressiveness, a stat that measures deep throws into tight windows. Conversely, in his last season as a starter, 2019, Winston ranked first in that same category. 

That was also the year Winston threw 30 interceptions. Brees threw six picks last season. Brees rarely made mistakes. He did not turn the ball over, and he did not take unnecessary sacks. Consequently, his offense stayed on schedule and covered the spread. Winston has a ton of talent and is coached by one of the best in Sean Payton. If he can stay in the top ten in aggressiveness and limit his interceptions, the Saints will remain a team that beats the spread. If he cannot, they will be a high-scoring offense that may find itself in the worst-performing units against the spread by the season’s end. 

Kansas City Chiefs

The only other team on the list that has the potential to drop out of this list is the Chiefs. The Chiefs have improved on paper, yet, oddly, doubts remain. The doubts stem from the fact that last season was brutal for them, ATS, and there are many indicators of a regression

In addition to the reasons listed in that article, their entire division improved. You will also see teams scheme the Chiefs this year in a near prevent approach. They are not going to get the shots downfield with the frequency that they enjoyed in prior years. On top of that, the price of Mahomes’ popularity is baked into their lines. 

You will hear many people this year say, I do not want to bet against Mahomes. I never understood that train of thought. Given the right odds, I would bet against anyone. Still, they can score. I will need some data on the Chiefs this season before deciding.   

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens run a unique offense with an exceptional quarterback. It is tough to prepare for the Ravens, and it shows. Baltimore outscored its opponents by an average of 10+ points per game last season. While my model indicates they will experience a slight regression this season, they will remain a good team ATS. 

Buffalo Bills

There are a lot of people pointing to a massive regression for Buffalo. The argument is premised on the fact that no quarterback in the history of the NFL has ever experienced a year-over-year increase in accuracy that Allen experienced last season. I have written about this in my AFC East and MVP articles. To summarize, yes, he may have a slight regression. There is no reason he will not continue to perform at a top-ten level. 

Allen also improved substantially between years one and two, though often overlooked in the analysis. During the previous two seasons, Buffalo has gone over 60% ATS. The more significant concern is that the books will shade their lines.

The Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals will be underdogs often again this season. Burrow needs to stay upright, and Chase needs to be the man, but the ingredients are there to continue to improve and cover their number. The Bengals have performed over 56% ATS in three out of the last four seasons. Zac Taylor is coaching for his job. They will be aggressive and in games. 

Worst Performing NFL Teams Against the Spread Since 2017

The first thing to remember is that these teams are just as profitable as the best-performing teams. You fade them instead of backing them. 

Houston Texans

I assume a big, big sign at 2 NRG Park in Houston, Texas, reads, “Lasciate ogne Speranza, voi ch’intrate.” In English, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” I have written at length about the unmitigated disaster that is the Houston Texans. There is very little to add. They have a terrible owner, bad coaches, and the league’s oldest and least talented roster. They will be particularly inept this season. 

The Texans have been consistently awful against the spread the last four seasons:

Remember, when fading teams against the spread, we want numbers below 47%. 

Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta will play its way off this list this season. Last year they performed significantly below expectation in several metrics that portend a positive regression this season. The Falcons led in 13 of 16 games last season, but only won four games. They added stud All-Offense Player Kyle Pitts. And Matt Ryan is more trustworthy than any other quarterback in the division not named Brady. New head coach Arthur Smith is creative, especially in the red zone. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

In the offseason, Jacksonville appeared to be a team my model would often be backing this season. Then several things happened that caused a 180-degree reversal. Urban Meyer has not instilled confidence in his decision-making or his offense. Lawrence looks fine. I think the team is far more competitive. They may even play their way off this list to neutrality. 

There are a ton of reasons to expect vast improvement. In addition, the AFC South is a train wreck. Many people I respect are advocating the Jaguars to win the division at 6 – 1 is a solid play. I do not see it. I would be interested at 12 – 1. This will impact their lines and create good spots to fade the Jaguars throughout the season. 

New York Jets

The Jets are finally on a solid path forward. The coaching hires were excellent. In a couple of years, we will see if passing on Fields was a mistake, but there is every reason to believe Zach Wilson will succeed. It is just too early for the Jets to start moving off this list. The Jets will be more competent this season, just not dramatically so.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns are a fantastically interesting team. Professional sports bettors have been backing them for years and losing. Their support was so loud that the average bettor climbed on board. The numbers got worse and worse, as did their performance against the spread. I wish I could tell you I had been fading them, but I was neutral. 

I am backing them to win the AFC North this year, but I am still suspicious of their lines. The last four years almost appear to be the greatest deception ever by some invisible hand syndicate betting back the other side. The Browns have had sub 35% and 30% performances ATS in the last four years. The sub 35% was last year, and there is just something fishy about their numbers. 

I am aware that many people point to the Pythagorean theorem to argue that Cleveland will have a regression. Cleveland’s numbers last season are wonky based on two outlier performances in blowout losses. If you adjust the theorem, as you should, to account for such occurrences and garbage time points, they no longer indicate a regression. 

The data suggests they get off this list in 2021. I am backing them this year. They will be a strong consideration anytime they are plus three or better. I have them in week one at Kansas City.  

Arizona Cardinals

Arizona is in the wrong division and has too many unknowns. They were the last team to make the list, and it will not stun me if they move into the dead zone of 47.7% to 52.3% range ATS. I will be patient and take a wait-and-see approach with the Cardinals. If they remain on this list in 2021, I will fade them in spots.

This team will have good weeks and backers, but they will not have consistency.   

Head to Head

When teams from these lists play each other, and they do this season, it can be challenging to set the right line. Most bookmakers will tell you they are far more comfortable when comparable teams play one another. They dread, say, a matchup between the Texans and Bills. (They will play on October 3) The book will have to thread a number that appeals to nobody. It is not an easy task. The point is there are numerous ways a book can err on numbers in games involving these teams.   

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