How head-to-head trends can aid NFL bettors

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

June 2, 2020 09:36 PM
Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson
© Imagn

Bettors use various ways of reasoning to finalize their plays, from a flip of the coin to predictive analysis to hanging on the words of experts they trust. If one method you trust is simply looking at how teams have fared against one another recently, this report should have an impact on you.

I’ve gone through the 2020-21 NFL schedule and calculated head-to-head trends between the teams in each matchup. This includes wins by team, by home and road, by favorite and underdog, and by totals. I’m sharing some of my favorite angles, specifically a favorite one for each week that I might use as the basis to wager on a game.

These angles might not be the most profitable trends I found but rather ones I think will have a bearing on this year’s matchup. For instance, the Chargers play the Dolphins on Oct. 25 in Miami. Those teams have gone Under the total 15 of the last 16 times they have played. Obviously, that’s a noteworthy trend, but with both franchises making wholesale changes in the offseason, they will be different teams than we’ve seen in recent years, so I can’t reasonably predict how impactful that trend might be.

I’ve included the point spread currently offered by PointsBet along with my analysis as to why the trend figures to come into play. If you agree with any of my assessments, give them a shot at your favorite sportsbook. 

A top NFL head-to-head series trend for each week

Week 1

Sept. 13: Cleveland at Baltimore

— Road teams are on a 16-5 ATS run in head-to-head series

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): Baltimore -8

—Analysis: AFC North rivalries are so fierce that laying points is usually dangerous. Underdogs are fueled by the disrespect they receive from the betting world. Combined with strong familiarity for visiting teams, this also leads to the minimizing of home-field advantage. In Week 1, the Ravens will be laying a significant number at home to the Browns. When we last saw Baltimore, it was laying an egg in a playoff loss to Tennessee, essentially wiping out a legendary regular season. How is this team’s mindset heading into 2020? As for the Browns, they underachieved in a 2019 season burdened by lofty expectations. With some of that pressure undone, they should play more loosely and be better in 2020. Big divisional underdogs are usually a good play early.

Week 2

Sept. 20: Los Angeles Rams at Philadelphia

— Philadelphia is 11-1-1 ATS vs. Rams franchise since ’95, including 6-0 ATS in Philly

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): Philadelphia -4.5

—Analysis: In the annual home-field analysis I’ve conducted recently, Philadelphia is usually one of the teams that enjoys the biggest home edge. Lincoln Financial Field has usually proven very tough on visiting teams. One opponent that has struggled most when coming to Philly has been the Rams. They are 0-6 ATS in their last six visits. In all, Philadelphia is 11-1-1 ATS in the last 13 head-to-head games, and the Eagles have scored 30 or more in five straight contests, averaging 35.2. This game will be the home opener for coach Doug Pederson’s team, and by most indicators, it could be a tough travel assignment for the Rams.

Week 3

Sept. 27: Detroit at Arizona

— Arizona is 8-1-1 SU and 9-1 ATS in last 10 hosting Detroit

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): Arizona -4

—Analysis: The Lions and Cardinals aren’t divisional rivals, but they play each other so often that they almost could be. The teams have squared off in seven of the last eight seasons and 16 times since ’99. In those 16 games, home-field advantage has proven crucial, with hosts going 14-2 ATS. In 2019, underdog Arizona hosted Detroit in the season opener, turned around what looked to be a sure Lions win late and wound up in a tie. Both teams have enhanced expectations for 2020. The Lions are banking on the return of QB Matthew Stafford to restore competitiveness, while the Cardinals have added WR DeAndre Hopkins via trade and a load of defensive talent through the draft. I’m banking more on the prospects of the Cardinals and figure this line could be even higher should the Lions be 0-2 at the time.

Week 4

Oct. 4: Seattle at Miami

— Miami is on a 5-2 SU and 6-1 ATS run vs. Seattle since 2000

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): Seattle -6

— Analysis: There are games on every team’s slate that look one way and turn out the other. Seattle’s trip to Miami will probably be overlooked by most fans, but in my opinion it is a trap game, especially since the Seahawks have struggled against the Dolphins in recent years. Traveling from Seattle to Miami is one of the longest trips in the NFL. Also, the Seahawks will be coming off high-profile home games against the Patriots and Cowboys and then facing a fellow NFC playoff contender, Minnesota, at home afterward. “Land mine” is the term that comes to mind for this game when I consider that four-week span. Seattle figures to be a hefty road favorite, and the five most recent matchups between these teams have been decided by a TD or less, two coming in the Pete Carroll era. Miami is 6-1 ATS in the last seven head-to-head meetings and figures to at least give the Seahawks a run for their money again in Week 4.

Week 5

Oct. 11: Carolina at Atlanta

— Atlanta is 10-2 ATS in last 12 hosting Carolina

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): Atlanta -7

— Analysis: I found this trend interesting because it dates specifically to the season in which Matt Ryan started his career with the Falcons. He and the Atlanta offense have fared very well at home indoors against the Panthers. On the road, in the less controlled environment, it’s been a much different story. Looking back at the 12 regular-season matchups the Falcons have played at home versus Carolina since 2008 with Ryan at quarterback, they have gone 10-2, both outright and against the spread. In the 10 wins, they have scored a gaudy 32.6 PPG. This is a Carolina team with mixed expectations for 2020, while Atlanta is expected to be in the playoff hunt with its highly respected offense. Don’t be surprised to see Ryan & Co. hang another big number, making it difficult for first-year coach Matt Rhule’s team to stay in the contest.

Week 6

Oct. 18: Washington at New York Giants

— Under the total is 14-3 in the last 17 games of the Redskins-Giants rivalry in New York

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): N.Y. Giants -6 (Total 42.5)

— Analysis: When these teams hook up, particularly in New York, the games turn into defensive slugfests. Part of this is a familiarity with one another, and another part is both franchises’ consistent commitment to the running game in recent years. That’s not to say these teams haven’t boasted prolific offenses in the 17 years of this trend, as evidenced by a 51.5 total in the 2012 contest, but the nature of the rivalry has screamed “low-scoring” lately. In fact, in the 14 games that did go Under their posted totals, the combined average score was a minimal 31.9 PPG. For 2020, both teams face major offensive question marks, and a tight, low-scoring contest should be expected again, regardless of what figures to be a lower total by NFL standards.

Week 7

Oct. 25: Pittsburgh at Baltimore

— Underdogs are 8-1-2 ATS in last 11 games of Pittsburgh-Baltimore rivalry

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): Baltimore -8

— Analysis: The Steelers-Ravens rivalry is arguably the fiercest in the NFL, so it takes some real courage to lay points in these games. Being tabbed an underdog to your most hated opponent is highly motivating, and for pro athletes, finding legitimate sources of motivation is a key to success. In the last 11 games of this AFC North set, underdogs have pulled six outright upsets. For this first meeting in 2020, it will be interesting to see how far this line moves before Week 7. This point spread is set now. Things could be much different for both teams at the end of October. With Ben Roethlisberger back at quarterback and several VSiN experts high on the Steelers’ prospects, this might be a much better time to grab coach Mike Tomlin’s team as an underdog rather than waiting for game week. 

Week 8

Nov. 1: New England at Buffalo

— New England is 15-1 SU and 13-3 ATS at Buffalo since 2004

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): Buffalo -1.5

— Analysis: Optimism is plentiful in Buffalo this year. With Tom Brady having departed the Patriots, fans believe this is finally the year their Bills will take over the division from Bill Belichick’s evil empire. A big step in reaching that goal would be in beating New England head to head, especially in Orchard Park. Hosting Brady and the Pats has become an exercise in futility for the proud Buffalo franchise, which has lost 15 of the last 16 games outright despite going 13-3 ATS. The Bills have been underdogs in 14 of those games and were upset in both games in which they were favored. Is it too early to think the AFC East torch is ready to be passed? According to this trend, it is. I wouldn’t discount New England and its top-ranked defense too much just yet. 

Week 9

Nov. 5: Green Bay at San Francisco

— San Francisco is 6-2 SU and 6-1-1 ATS in last eight versus Green Bay

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): San Francisco -6.5

—   Analysis: Green Bay’s Week 9 contest on Thursday night in San Francisco will be the culmination on a very difficult four-game stretch out of its bye week. We all remember what the 49ers did to the Packers in San Francisco twice last year, including in the NFC championship game. The 49ers proved they were too physical for the Pack, and considering that both teams figure to play much the same style they demonstrated last season, this could again prove too tough a matchup for QB Aaron Rodgers & Co. In the six wins during the stretch on this trend, San Francisco has averaged 34.3 PPG. The Packers have mustered 45 total points in their last three visits to the Bay Area. Difficult scheduling spot. Difficult matchup. You won’t catch this Packers fan bleeding green and gold on Nov. 5.

Week 10

Nov. 15: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh

— Under the total is 9-2 in last 11 games of the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh series in Pittsburgh

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): Pittsburgh -10

— Analysis: Simply put, the Bengals offense has struggled in Pittsburgh, easily explainable in that it is a difficult environment enhanced by the nature of the fierce rivalry. We’ve seen on the field that these franchises hate each other. This has provided for a ton of extra motivation for both defenses. When I look at this renewal of the rivalry, I see a rookie quarterback, Joe Burrow, facing his first test in the land of the Terrible Towels with an offense that will be a work in progress. With more polished Bengals offenses having failed to surpass the 20-point mark in Pittsburgh since 2006, how can we expect Burrow’s unit to get anywhere close? Cincinnati has averaged 14.9 PPG in this trend. With a total that at this point would stand in the mid-40s, this should be a surefire Under wager.

Week 11

Nov. 19: Arizona at Seattle

— Arizona is 4-1 SU and 5-0 ATS in last five trips to Seattle

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): Seattle -7

— Analysis: Certain “assumption” games tend not to play out the way experts predict. For each of the last five years, it was assumed Seattle would easily take care of business against divisional rival Arizona, as the Seahawks have been an NFC power during that stretch with 50 wins, while the Cardinals were generally overmatched. In all five games in this trend, Seattle was favored by at least three points and by an average of 8.8. Arizona has shown up to play every time in what has always been considered a difficult atmosphere. For this 2020 matchup, the resurgent Cardinals will march into Century Link Field on a Thursday night in November, and it would be a mistake to expect them to roll over.

Week 12

Nov. 30: Seattle at Philadelphia

— Seattle is 6-0 SU and ATS at Philadelphia since ’98

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): Philadelphia -2.5

— Analysis: If things go according to this trend, Seattle could be in an important bounce-back game against a fellow NFC playoff contender in the “Monday Night Football” contest after Thanksgiving. Including last year’s wild-card round win, trips to Philadelphia have been quite pleasant for the Seahawks. They were 2.5-point favorites in that postseason tilt. The line for this late November showdown is shown as the exact same number. Coach Pete Carroll’s team won that game 17-9 after six weeks earlier beating the Eagles by that exact score. I won’t call for a third straight 17-9 decision, but considering that the Eagles have scored just 9.3 PPG in their last six home games versus the Seahawks, it would be overzealous to expect Philly to put up a big number. I’ve learned over the years to respect QB Russell Wilson in the most difficult circumstances. On paper, this is a tough spot. I wouldn’t bet against him.

Week 13

Dec. 6: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona

— Rams have won six in a row SU and ATS versus Arizona

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): L.A. Rams -2

— Analysis: For as competitive as the Cardinals have been against the Seahawks, the story has been completely different against the division rival Rams. Since coach Sean McVay took over, Los Angeles has posted a perfect 6-0 SU and ATS record in this head-to-head series. The Rams have dominated on both sides of the ball, winning these six games by an average score of 32.5-9.3. Has the gap closed enough in 2020 to expect the Cardinals to turn the tables? I figured that would have been the case last season when the teams met twice in December. The scores were 34-7 and 31-24. I don’t think laying just two points is too much to ask in what has been a one-sided divisional series lately.

Week 14

Dec. 10: New England at Los Angeles Rams

— New England is 6-1 SU and ATS in last seven games versus Rams

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): L.A. Rams -1

— Analysis: The Rams make the trend list for a second straight week and start a pattern of back-to-back angles focusing on the only two nonconference matchups I cite. The Patriots have been a thorn in the Rams’ side this century, beating them twice in the Super Bowl. Overall, they are 6-1 SU and ATS this century in head-to-head play. The Rams’ only win was a 24-17 road victory in their 14-2 season of ’01. Of course, Belichick, Brady & Co. returned the favor just a few months later in Super Bowl XXXVI. Now that Brady is gone, can Los Angeles finally turn things around? That remains to be seen, but considering that the Rams have scored only 14.1 PPG in these seven contests and the Patriots defense remains intact, it might prove dangerous to assume that result.

Week 15

Dec. 20: Kansas City at New Orleans

— All four games in the Kansas City-New Orleans series since ’04 have gone Under the total

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): Kansas City -1

— Analysis: I’ve seen this game declared as one of the top matchups of the season, pitting Super Bowl contenders in a high-profile nonconference late-season tilt. The Chiefs and Saints have two of the most highly respected offenses in football, so the total for this matchup in the controlled environment of the Superdome is expected to be lofty. I would guess it will be in the high 50s. My numbers call for 56 at this point. The last four games of the Kansas City-New Orleans series have gone Under the total despite posted numbers in the 50s. In other words, all four games were expected to be high-scoring, but all four came up shy of those expectations. This game will be sold as a shootout by whichever network broadcasts it. Most bettors win by focusing their strategy on contrarian thinking. It will clearly be going against the grain to play an Under here.

Week 16

Dec. 26: Cleveland at New York Jets

— Favorites are on a 10-0 ATS streak in the Cleveland-New York Jets series

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): Cleveland -1

— Analysis: This was one of the more profitable trends I uncovered, with 10 straight winners. But I debated whether it was worthy of backing singularly. When I looked more closely and found that the last five instances of it have occurred in the last five seasons, I was sold. With an expanded playoff field this season, this Week 16 tilt could be impactful for two fringe playoff hopefuls. If that is the case, it could be debated as to which team will be favored. Right now, PointsBet shows Cleveland as a 1-point road favorite. Interestingly, the Browns were 6.5-point road favorites on a Monday night last season and won handily 23-3. I couldn’t warrant playing this trend right now, as the line might dictate the opposite come kickoff.

Week 17

Jan. 3: Green Bay at Chicago

— Green Bay is 10-3 ATS in its last 13 at Chicago

— PointsBet point spread (as of June 1): Green Bay -1.5

— Analysis: Week 17 brings us a full slate of divisional games, often with intriguing revenge possibilities and playoff implications. Should Green Bay have any NFC North title or wild-card aspirations on the line, bettors have to like the Packers’ chances. Soldier Field has been a playground of sorts for QB Aaron Rodgers, as he’s had several memorable performances there. The Packers boast an impressive 10-3 SU and ATS record in their last 13 trips to the Windy City. They’ve won nine of the last 10 visits outright. Obviously, it’s tough to bet a Week 17 game right now without knowing the fortunes of each team. But throughout his career, with anything on the line in Chicago, betting Rodgers has been easy money.

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