Most NFL fans and analysts focus on meaningful games in the season’s final weeks, but there are inevitably those games in which one team has clinched its playoff position and decides to rest its starters. These games, meaningless to at least one team, lose a lot of their luster and are seemingly impossible to handicap.
Unfortunately, the recent bowl season has acclimated us to the process of trying to handicap games in which at least one team doesn’t have its full allotment of players. The degree of tanking varies: Some teams sit their stars for the entire game, while others might play them for a quarter or two to keep things in sync. Making matters worse, there seems to be a recent trend in which teams that are eliminated rest key players to preserve their health.
Despite the uncertainty, many bettors have trouble staying away from these games. They figure with betting lines so far out of whack, oddsmakers must be making a mistake. Hats off to those bettors, as I will illustrate that these games hold a ton of value.
In recent years, there have been more than enough of these games in the final week of the regular season to draw some conclusions. Last year, there were three. The general rule of thumb is if the line looks too abnormal or if it moves significantly throughout the week, you can expect some kind of resting-starters strategy. Those are the two giveaways: line not normal or line moving rapidly. The trickiest spot is if a team plays late but its playoff prospects are affected by an early game. Those lines can change dramatically by the minute as playoff scenarios play out. Of the four finales that qualified as resting-starters games in 2019, three of them saw a line move of at least 7.5 points.
I used to try to stay away from these games until I saw some of the trends that have developed. In most cases, bettors would rather play games in which the teams’ motivational levels are somewhat equal. However, if you are a bettor with access to a database in which you can interchange starters and backups and then measure the line variation, perhaps it is you who has the actual advantage in these games.
For the purposes of this article, I have taken a snapshot of the last 13 years of regular-season finales and pulled out those in which one of the teams either rested its starting quarterback entirely or pulled him at some point in the game. These are games in which the lines differed wildly from their projected power-rating line, or alternatively, moved significantly all the way up to kickoff. In almost all of the cases, the teams resting key starters were playoff qualifiers that had nothing to gain by winning. As you look at the chart, perhaps you can recall being on the right or wrong side of these contests.
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One important point to note is these are professional athletes playing these games, and all of them are playing for their livelihoods. Therefore, don’t assume that the players on the field are going to roll over just because their team decides to sit its stars. In most of these games, the playoff-qualifying team has more wins and is naturally deeper. In some cases, the motivation might be greater for the playoff-qualifying team versus an opponent merely playing out the string.
In the chart, you’ll see the team resting its starters in gray, with the opponent, betting line, score, SU winner and ATS winner. I’ve also detailed the totals. Please note that this may not be a complete list. There may be other resting-starters games in which the point spread wasn’t affected enough to make the list. Still, for our purposes, the list shown gives us a great idea of the type of results you can expect when handicapping these types of games.
Interpreting the results
In no way is handicapping these games as easy as simply backing the team playing at full strength. In fact, if anything, we would recommend playing the underdog or road team if you were to follow a set path. Since 2011, underdogs in these resting-starters games are on a 17-6 ATS run. Here are some other trends to consider:
— Over the last 10 seasons, the team resting its starters has a nice ATS edge of 15-10-1 in regular-season finales. However, they are just 11-15 outright.
— Over the last 13 seasons, teams resting starters against opponents with at least six fewer wins are just 7-8 SU and 5-8-2 ATS.
— Lately, road teams have performed exceptionally in resting-starters games, going 12-8 SU and 14-5-1 ATS over the last nine seasons, with six outright upsets.
— History has shown that following the biggest line moves has paid off in resting-starters games. Since 2017, nine games have seen line moves of at least five points in Week 17. Bettors are 6-2-1 ATS in such games.
— Games of this nature tend to be higher scoring than expected, as the Over is 22-9 since 2010.
— Bettors tend to bet down the totals for these games, with an average open of 42.8 and an average close of 41.3.
In general, there are some nice trends and other strategies for betting these resting-starters games. My best advice: Don’t assume that resting equals tanking. You’ll also want to avoid an automatic downgrade of the quarterback position when the backup plays. Bettors have had a tendency to do this in recent years and it has cost them, as Under bets have lost consistently in these games.
If you’re wondering which teams have already declared their strategies for Week 18, this is what we know as of Monday.
— Packers: Green Bay has wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and is listed as a 3-point favorite at Detroit. This equates to about a 10-point deduction off of the Packers’ power-rating edge over the Lions, meaning we are likely to see minimal or no time from Green Bay’s top players.
— Buccaneers: Tampa Bay has won the NFC South and is still in play for the No. 2 seed, but oddsmakers have installed the defending-champion Bucs as just 8-point favorites at home against the reeling Panthers. That’s about a 7-point deduction despite coach Bruce Arians intimating on Monday that he’s playing to win.
— Bengals: Cincinnati QB Joe Burrow, after his magnificent performance in a division-clinching win over the Chiefs on Sunday, hinted that he would play this week if he “had to” in reference to a minor knee injury. With his team sitting as 3-point dogs in Cleveland, it seems unlikely that he’ll play. Cincinnati has a long-shot chance of getting the AFC’s top seed, but that would require a Kansas City loss to Denver on Saturday plus plenty more help Sunday. Keep an eye on the Chiefs game if you plan on taking advantage of any of these trends with the Bengals.
— Eagles: Philadelphia clinched a wild-card spot Sunday and has little to gain in its game on Saturday versus Dallas. As of Monday, the team and coach Nick Siranni were “talking through” resting their starters. Dallas, on the other hand, has hinted at playing to win and taking a shot at moving up in the NFC standings.
Stay tuned to the news all week long for the latest on teams revealing their plans, and good luck in Week 18.