Handicapping systems for 'Thursday Night Football'

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

June 23, 2020 11:30 PM
Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes
© Imagn

One of the great things about sportsbooks already offering lines for every NFL game in a period of sports downturn is that bettors have plenty of time to handicap these contests. Most of the personnel transactions are in the books, schedules are laid out and power ratings are readily available from a variety of reputable sources. This is certainly enough to get a good start.


I would like to add a closer look at some of the key trends and systems that will help handicap the Thursday night games, which are popular for bettors looking to kick off their football betting weekends with a bang. I believe the difference in scheduling and routine for teams playing on Thursday nights is immense, and that provides a great foundation for finding reliable trend data that can produce profits. As isolated contests, these are also high-profile games that bookmakers scrutinize heavily. Thus, we should capitalize on any advantage we can get.


I logged all Thursday night games since the start of the 2012 season. I chose 2012 because that was the first season in which Thursday night football became a weekly constant. My data sample contains 122 games. In terms of football data, all of those sample sizes are enough to draw conclusions to take advantage of this season.


One key note: Only night games were included in the Thursday study, not the day games played on Thanksgiving. “Thursday Night Football” home teams own a record of 74-49 SU and 63-54-6 ATS (53.8%). Amazingly, totals are nearly split at 61-60-2 in that span.


Thursday night betting systems


With a home ATS winning percentage of 53.8%, we have something reasonable to go on for handicapping. However, here are more specific “Thursday Night Football” angles you might want to consider:

— Dating to Week 7 of the 2017 season, home teams on “TNF” own a fairly significant advantage of 28-11 SU and 24-12-3 ATS (66.7%), including a 5-2 SU and ATS run to close the 2019 season.

— Home-field advantage on “TNF” has really picked up in the second half of the season in recent years, with Weeks 8-16 home teams going 22-6 SU and 22-5-1 ATS (81.4%) since Week 13 of the 2016 season.

— A sharp break exists in the performance of home underdogs in Thursday night games at the three-point line mark. Home dogs of up to three points are on a nice 11-4 ATS (73.3%) run, while those of 3.5 points or more are on a 4-15 SU and 6-12-1 ATS (33.3%) slide.

— Home favorites of seven points or more are on a 22-2 SU and 17-5-2 ATS (77.3%) run on Thursday games since the start of the 2014 season.

— A long-running trend of Thursday night home-field advantage in divisional games has turned lately, with these hosts going just 5-6 SU and 4-7 ATS (36.4%) in the last 11 games. Before that, divisional hosts were on an amazing 17-3-1 ATS (85%) run.

— Intraconference non-divisional games have gone the way of hosts recently, 12-2 SU and 9-3-2 ATS (75%) in the last 14.

— AFC vs. NFC Thursday night games are somewhat rare, but home teams have won three straight SU and ATS, all in blowouts, by an average MOV of 27.7 PPG. Two such clashes are scheduled this year in Weeks 13 and 14.

— Thursday night home teams coming off a win in their most recent game are good bets to continue that momentum. They’re on a 21-7 SU and 18-8-2 ATS (69.2%) surge.

— Thursday night road teams coming off a win have become a trendy bet-against option, as they are just 6-18 SU and 5-18-1 ATS (21.7%) since December 2016.

— When both “TNF” teams are coming off a win, home-field advantage has proven significant at 10-2 SU and ATS (83.3%) in the last 12.

— Thursday night home teams coming off games in which they scored fewer than 17 points bounce back well, going 13-11 SU and 17-6-1 ATS (73.9%) in their last 24. They’ve also gone Under the total in 15 of their last 22 games.

— Thursday night road teams coming off poor offensive performances in which they scored 16 points or fewer are on a brutal 2-13 SU and 2-11-2 ATS (15.4%) slide. They are simply not a good bounce-back option on a short week, as they score just 15.6 PPG in these contests.

— Regarding totals, games with closing numbers of 41.5 or less are on a 14-7-1 Under (66.7%) run.

— More on totals: All but four of the last 18 “TNF” games with a total of 50 or greater went Under (14-4, 77.8%).

— We’ve seen two significant Under trends so far. Which “TNF” games tend to go Over the total? The most prominent matchup is between non-divisional conference opponents with moderate totals between 42 and 49.5. Those games are on a 15-5-1 Over (75%) surge.

— Reaching the 25-point mark is a key benchmark for road teams on Thursday nights. Teams that do are 34-6 SU and 33-5-2 ATS (86.8%) since 2012. For home teams, the benchmark for that level of success is a bit higher at 30 points. Hosts that score that much are on a 32-2 SU and 31-2-1 ATS (93.9%) run in that span.

— Failing to hit the 25-point mark has been disastrous for road teams on Thursday nights, as evidenced by a record of 6-37 SU and 7-34-2 ATS (17.1%) since 2016. For home teams, the chances of winning when failing to eclipse the 17-point mark are minuscule. “TNF” hosts that score 17 points or fewer are on a 1-23 SU slide and are 3-26-1 ATS (10.3%) in their last 30 chances.


Let’s look at the Thursday night schedule. I’ve included the matchups, the teams’ recent “TNF” trends, the current game line as compared with my power rating line, plus my instant reaction.


2020 Thursday night schedule

Week 1: Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs

“TNF” team trends: Houston won last three SU (2-1 ATS), Kansas City 2-4 SU and ATS last six when favored

Game line: Kansas City -10

Power rating line: Kansas City -11

Instant reaction: Historically speaking, it hasn’t been a good idea to bet against the defending Super Bowl champions when they start at home in the season-opening night contest. This figures to be a high-scoring game if the recent head-to-head series history is any indication. The last three meetings have produced 71 PPG, including 82 in the playoff contest in January. But “TNF” totals over 50 have gone Under at a 14-4 rate, and the Texans are going into 2020 without their biggest playmaker after trading WR DeAndre Hopkins. I don’t expect them to score like they have recently on the K.C. defense, which was otherwise stout in the second half of the 2019 campaign. Failing to reach the 25-point mark will doom Houston’s chances.


Week 2: Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns

“TNF” team trends: Cincinnati’s first road “TNF” since ’13 (4-1 Under since), Cleveland five straight Unders

Game line: Cleveland -7.5

Power rating line: Cleveland -5.5

Instant reaction: This will be the first home game for Cleveland in 2020 and the road opener for Cincinnati and rookie QB Joe Burrow. I wrote last week about how effective rookie quarterbacks are as underdogs of three points or more in the first three weeks of the season (20-4 ATS in last 24). This could be a good spot for the Bengals, especially since they are 5-1 ATS in their last six at Cleveland. Plus, divisional home-field advantage in these Thursday night contests has dwindled of late. I’d expect a tight game and wouldn’t be comfortable laying the points.


Week 3: Miami Dolphins at Jacksonville Jaguars

“TNF” team trends: Miami 0-4 SU and ATS slide, Jacksonville 4-0 SU and ATS last four at home allowing 13.3 PPG

Game line: Pick-’em

Power rating line: Pick-’em

Instant reaction: Coming off a pair of divisional games, Miami figures to be in a difficult spot in this Week 3 contest, and bookmakers are doing the Dolphins no favors by installing a pick-’em point spread. Miami isn’t used to winning many road games, much less being essentially expected to. The Dolphins have struggled in “TNF” games, losing four straight. Meanwhile, the Jaguars have thrived in them at home, winning four straight while playing very well defensively. This is another spot I don’t see the visitors scoring a lot of points, so I expect Jacksonville to get the job done.


Week 4: Denver Broncos at New York Jets

“TNF” team trends: Denver 4-1 SU and ATS last five on road, N.Y. Jets 2-6 SU and 4-4 ATS in last eight, allowing 28.3 PPG

Game line: N.Y. Jets -2.5

Power rating line: N.Y. Jets -2

Instant reaction: This is another matchup in which the “TNF” trends directly contradict one another. Denver has been good on Thursday nights on the road, while the Jets have not, particularly on defense. The Jets have a very good chance of being 0-3 when hosting this game, meaning they could be small dogs rather than 2.5-point favorites as they stand now. If you like Denver, I would bet this one now, as the line figures to get worse. If you like the Jets, I would wait till game week. Small home dogs and hosts in non-divisional conference games have fared well on “TNF” lately. Both angles favor New York.


Week 5: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Chicago Bears

“TNF” team trends: Tampa Bay 1-5 SU and ATS last six but won last year, Chicago 3-5 SU and 2-6 ATS since ’12

Game line: Chicago -1

Power rating line: Tampa Bay -0.5

Instant reaction: With Chicago opening with a fairly manageable first four weeks and Tampa Bay playing under the lights for the first time in the Tom Brady era, this could turn into a high-profile matchup. This is another non-divisional conference matchup, which would favor Chicago based on recent trends, as would the thought that the Bucs figure to come in off a home win against the Chargers. I don’t have an overwhelmingly strong opinion on this game, but recent “TNF” results have shown that when in doubt, the hosts are the better option.


Week 6: Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills

“TNF” team trends: Kansas City 3-1 Over last four scoring 30.5 PPG, Buffalo 1-4 SU and ATS last five

Game line: Kansas City -3

Power rating line: Kansas City -4.5

Instant reaction: Kansas City hosts the Raiders four days before this game so figures to be coming off a win. In recent “TNF” action, road teams off a win are just 6-18 SU and 5-18-1 ATS. This is also a tricky spot for the Chiefs in that they sit as three-point road favorites, and small home dogs have thrived on Thursday nights lately. Buffalo has a well-respected defense heading into 2020, and Orchard Park is a tough place to play, meaning it could be tough for the Chiefs to put up a big number offensively. I think this is a good spot to back the Bills.


Week 7: New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles

“TNF” team trends: N.Y. Giants 0-4 SU and ATS last four outscored by 14.3 PPG, Philadelphia won last five SU and ATS

Game line: Philadelphia -5

Power rating line: Philadelphia -10.5

Instant reaction: Although my power ratings suggest this line is off tremendously, as I look at Philadelphia’s schedule, I can see why. The Eagles will be in the midst of a treacherous portion of their 2020 slate, and this divisional contest against the Giants could be easy to overlook despite the rivalry. Before this game, the Eagles will have gone to San Francisco and in-state rival Pittsburgh and then hosted Baltimore. After this one, they will host Dallas. As I indicated earlier, divisional home-field advantage has dwindled lately, and at Philly -5, the point spread is very uncomfortable for me. I’d make this a New York underdog play in a series in which road teams have won four straight ATS.


Week 8: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers

“TNF” team trends: Atlanta 0-3 SU and ATS last three, 7-2 Under last nine, Carolina 1-5 SU and 0-6 ATS last six

Game line: Atlanta -1.5

Power rating line: Pick-’em

Instant reaction: A few weeks ago, I noted a trend of how the Falcons have done well offensively at home versus Carolina throughout Matt Ryan’s career. It has been more hit and miss on the road. However, of late, the Falcons are on an 8-1 SU and ATS surge against the Panthers, and Carolina is starting anew under first-year coach Matt Rhule. Carolina has lost six straight against the spread when playing on Thursday nights and figures to be coming off a loss at New Orleans four days earlier. Atlanta hosts Detroit before this and should come in on an offensive roll. I would expect the Falcons to wind up as larger favorites, and I would back them here.


Week 9: Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers

“TNF” team trends: Green Bay 4-1-1 ATS in last six, San Francisco 2-1 SU and ATS in last three after 0-3 slide

Game line: San Francisco -6.5

Power rating line: San Francisco -5.5

Instant reaction: I’m not sure any team will face a more difficult scheduling spot than the Packers in Week 9 at San Francisco. The 49ers clobbered the Packers twice last year in Santa Clara, and assuming things play out as expected, the defending NFC champs figure to be a force again. After their bye week, the Packers have to travel to Tampa Bay and Houston and then face a critical divisional contest versus the Vikings before this game. I’ve already shown the importance of “TNF” home-field advantage after Week 8. Green Bay has scored just 15 PPG in its last three trips to the Bay Area and won’t project to hit that magic 25-point benchmark that showed so prominently for road teams either. I can’t back the Packers here.


Week 10: Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans

“TNF” team trends: Indianapolis four straight losses (1-3 ATS), Tennessee 3-1 SU and 3-0-1 ATS last four at home

Line: Tennessee -2.5

Power rating line: Tennessee -4.5

Instant reaction: Indianapolis’ schedule after the bye week is loaded with road games and very difficult home contests, at least on paper. Many experts are more bullish on the Colts’ prospects for 2020 than I am, so consider that as I share my opinion on this contest at Tennessee. The Colts have played pretty well in Nashville recently, including two straight outright wins. But in the most recent meeting last December, RB Derrick Henry pounded the Colts for 149 yards on the ground as the visiting Titans won 31-17. That was the Tennessee team I expect to see in 2020, one that figures to be hot if the schedule plays out as expected. Hot home teams have stayed hot on “TNF.”


Week 11: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks

“TNF” team trends: Arizona 3-0-1 ATS last four vs. division, Seattle eight straight wins (6-1-2 ATS in last nine)

Game line: Seattle -7.5

Power rating line: Seattle -8.5

Instant reaction: There is a good chance this line at kickoff isn’t even close to what it is now. At -7.5, Seattle would be a hefty home favorite, and those teams have fared very well lately on “TNF.” But I am in the boat that expects Arizona to be better and Seattle to be worse in 2020, and thus a point spread closer to or even less than Seattle -3 could surface. The Cardinals have fared very well recently in Seattle, going 4-1 SU and 5-0 ATS in their last five trips while putting up 30 PPG. It would seem a difficult schedule spot for Arizona, but don’t discount the chances of an upset.


Week 12: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers

“TNF” team trends: Baltimore 6-1 SU in last seven (4-1-1 ATS in last six), Pittsburgh 2-1 SU and 2-0-1 ATS in last three at home scoring 37.3 PPG

Game line: Pick-’em

Power rating line: Baltimore -3

Instant reaction: This Thanksgiving night contest will feature one of the best rivalries in the NFL. Both teams have played well on Thursday nights of late, and playing at Heinz Field at night is never easy. I am inclined to wait on this game, as I’d like to see how the seasons play out for these rivals and how their earlier meeting goes. In all likelihood, the Steelers figure to be small home underdogs, and this will be a late-season “TNF” game, both situations favoring the Steelers. However, Pittsburgh is another team I’m not as high on as other prognosticators.


Week 13: Dallas Cowboys at Baltimore Ravens

“TNF” team trends: Dallas 2-0 SU and ATS since ’17 as underdog, Baltimore 6-0 SU run at home (4-0 ATS in last four)

Game line: Baltimore -7

Power rating line: Baltimore -5,5

Instant reaction: Baltimore will make its second straight appearance on Thursday night. This will be the first of two straight non-conference battles on “TNF,” and as noted, hosts have dominated the last three such contests, winning by 27.7 PPG. This type of matchup has an aspect of unfamiliarity, and travel and scheduling difficulties must be figured in. Baltimore is one of the AFC favorites in 2020, and even though prospects are high for Dallas as well, this might be the single toughest game on the Cowboys’ slate. I wouldn’t go against the Ravens in this late-season tilt.


Week 14: New England Patriots at Los Angeles Rams

“TNF” team trends: New England 9-1 SU since ’12 (5-1-1 ATS in last seven), L.A. Rams three straight Overs scoring 36.0 PPG

Game line: L.A. Rams -4

Power rating line: Pick-’em

Instant reaction: The other non-conference “TNF” matchup is a rematch of the Super Bowl two seasons ago, when the Patriots turned back the Rams 13-3. I am uncomfortable laying the points with the hosts in this one. In fact, I would lean the other way, and for one reason: The Rams have not been able to score on New England during the Bill Belichick era. In fact, they’ve scored just 14.1 PPG in those last seven matchups while going 1-6 SU and ATS. New England’s defense figures to be very good once again. An earlier trend indicates home teams scoring 17 or fewer points on “TNF” are on a 1-23 SU skid. I’ll back the Patriots in a low-scoring contest.


Week 15: Los Angeles Chargers at Las Vegas Raiders

“TNF” team trends: L.A. Chargers 5-2 ATS last seven vs. division, Raiders 4-0 SU and 3-1 ATS last four at home

Game line: Las Vegas -2

Power rating line: L.A. Chargers -2

Instant reaction: The final Thursday night contest of the season will come from brand-new Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas as the Raiders host division rival Los Angeles. These teams have played a very competitive series of late when the Raiders have hosted, with five of the last six games decided by three points or fewer. Thus, laying many points with either team could be a mistake. This will be in the middle of a three-game homestand for coach Jon Gruden’s team and a rare fourth game of the season in prime time. I don’t have a strong opinion on this game, as I believe both teams could be much better or much worse than expected, and that could change the point spread at kickoff dramatically.

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