Here's the first thing you need to know about betting win totals in the NFL: when in doubt, take the under. Remember, everyone likes to talk about beating Vegas, but talking about Vegas is like talking about beating eTrade. They are just making a market and taking a cut. The public, and their expectations about how a team will perform, is what truly sets the market. The public is who you have to beat.
Why take the under? Because the public likes the overs. It's a simple matter of math: unless the New York Giants beat a team of gridiron-loving aliens Space-Jam style, the NFL will finish every year with a .500 record: 256 wins, 256 losses. But, if you add up the win totals for every team that were just published by Cantor sportsbook, you don't get 256. You get 262.5.
So is beating the house just a simple matter of taking every under? No, because you have to pay Vegas for the privilege of betting on their market, also called the vig. If you were to bet every single under this year, the expected bet value is -90%. (Betting the over, by contrast, would have an expected outcome of -250%.)
Let me quickly define expected bet value. Obviously, every bet is either a win or lose. Expected bet value is, if we could make the bet multiple times, how much we would win on average. A bet with a positive value is what we are after. As long as we make enough of them and do the work right, the individual outcomes don't matter; we will come out on top in the end. In investing, we would call this an expected ROI, or return on investment.
We have to be smart about which teams we take. To that end, I have calculated expected win totals AND 95% confidence intervals for each team. The confidence interval is just as important as the win total, because it will change my opinion about whether to bet a number depending on if the vig is -110 or -130. Put simply, the more confident I am that a team can beat the total, the higher the expected bet value, and the more likely I am to take it. Here are my top 10 bets.
(Full disclosure: Note that, while I will be revisiting these bets throughout the year, I don't plan on actually laying any money on these myself, as this is a new, as-yet-untested betting system I am trying out here. Plus, I don't like tying up any significant portion of my bankroll on bets that don't pay out for 8 months.)
10. Atlanta Falcons OVER 9 wins (+105)
Last year: 10-6
This year: 9-7
Expected bet value: 7.3%
Yes, after talking about unders for 500 words, I'm starting off the an over bet. Don't worry, the unders are coming later. I've actually got 4 overs and 6 unders in my 10 bets here, but the unders are all higher expected value. This bet is a function of the +105 moneyline. The most likely outcome for Atlanta, in my estimation, is 9-10 wins this year. However, because Vegas is paying you to take this side of the bet - everybody else wants the under - the slightly better than 50/50 shot of winning has a positive expected value outcome.
9. Miami Dolphins OVER 7.5 wins (-110)
Last year: 6-10
This year projection: 9-7
Expected bet value: 7.7%
In general, there are three reasons I'll bet a team: they were better/worse than everyone thought last year; their strength of schedule changed significantly between this year and last year; or an offseason roster change has resulted in the team being over/under valued. Miami falls into category 1: they were an unlucky 9-7 team last year.
8. New Orleans OVER 10 wins (-125)
Last year: 13-3
This year projection: 12-4
Expected bet value: 13.3%
Here's the biggest category 3 change on the board. The Saint's offseason turmoil is well documented. Head coach suspended, multiple players suspended, and QB Drew Brees still isn't under contract. However, they still play in an incredibly easy division and Brees, one way or another, will be back. I see a less than 10% chance that they go 9-7 or worse.
7. Kansas City UNDER 8 wins (-110)
Last year: 7-9
This year projection: 5-11
Expected bet value: 15.0%
KC was lucky to even get to 7 wins last year, grabbing a couple of late season victories after changing head coaches. Maybe Todd Haley was the problem, but I don't think Romeo Crennel is the solution.
6. Tampa Bay UNDER 6 wins (-120)
Last year: 4-12
This year projection: 5-11
Expected bet value: 16.2%
Firing the worst head coach in football was probably worth a win, but that's all I'm crediting them with.
5. San Fransisco OVER 10 wins (+105)
Last year: 12-4
This year projection: 11-5
Expected bet value: 17.8%
This is my last over bet on the board, and I was honestly surprised to see it one float to the top. So surprised, in fact, I had to go back to their schedule to see where their wins will come from. If they go 6-0 in their weak division, they have to go 4-6 against GB, DET, MIN, NYJ, BUF, NYG, CHI, NO, MIA, and NE. MIN, NYJ, and BUF are Ws. GB (away) and NE (away) are probably losses. That leaves them to win one of NYG, DET, and CHI at home.
If you have anymore doubt, look at that moneyline: +105. That means the public, who LOVES to bet overs, is fading SF this year. If you are on the wrong side of the public, you are probably doing it right.
5. Indianapolis UNDER 5.5 wins (-135)
Last year: 2-14
This year projection: 4-12
Expected bet value: 21.7%
Swap in Andrew Luck for Curtis Painter last year, does this team get 4 more wins? I don't think so.
3. New York Giants UNDER 9.5 wins (-120)
Last year: 9-7
This year projection: 7-9
Expected bet value: 23.9%
This one hurts me, but setting aside their glorious postseason last year, NOBODY thought this was a good team last year. They were one Tony Romo lob pass from staying home this past offseason, and probably firing their coach. Plus, this year the schedule gets tougher - in fact, they have what I figure to be the toughest schedule in the NFL this year; their out of division schedule includes games against GB, PIT, BAL, SF, and NO. They still play in one of the toughest divisions in football. I'll be delighted to be wrong about this one, but expectations are low.
2. Denver UNDER 9.5 wins (-120)
Last year: 8-8
This year projection: 6-10
Expected bet value: 25.2%
I know, I know, Peyton Manning. 6-10 might be low, but 10-6 is WAY too high. We all know that Denver was lucky to even get to 8 wins last year. Here's an over/under for you: how many games until Manning's neck explodes?
1. St. Louis UNDER 6 wins (-120)
Last year: 2-14
This year projection: 3-13
Expected bet value: 35.4%
Sam Bradford, aka David Bromstad from HGTV's Color Splash, is going to be out of the league in 2 years. They were terrible last year, and have the second toughest schedule in football this year, with two divisional matchups against SF, plus GB, NE, and DET. In fact, the only truly bad team they have on the schedule is TB, and that game is on the road. St. Louis fan(s), you have a rough season ahead.