How to account for cheap points in NFL handicapping

September 11, 2019 11:52 PM

Football bettors must acknowledge and account for cheap points.

That’s an important theme entering Thursday night’s NFC South battle between the Tampa Bay Bucs and the Carolina Panthers (NFL Network, 8:20 p.m. ET). Both teams played in games last Sunday that featured many cheapies.

Tampa Bay’s 31-17 home loss to San Francisco featured three interception returns for touchdowns. If you didn’t watch, any perceptions drawn from seeing that 31-17 score will mislead from what was actually more like a 17-10 Niners grinder.

Believe it or not, Tampa Bay won total yardage 295-256, yards-per-play 4.5 to 4.3, and third down conversions 45% to 36%. Very good defensive numbers all things considered. But, Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston threw three interceptions, two of which came all the way back.

Bottom line…Tampa Bay’s defense played better than casual followers were thinking. It’s better to draw conclusions from game stats than final scores. 

Carolina’s 30-27 home loss to the Los Angeles Rams didn’t feature any defensive scores. But, each offense had a very cheap TD drive off field position. Carolina cashed in a 5-yard drive, the Rams a 10-yard drive. Take those out, and it’s a 23-20 game that stays Under 49.5 rather than the perceived shootout.

And, again, we have one of Thursday night’s defenses playing better Sunday than the final score suggested. Carolina held the explosive Rams attack to 349 yards, 4.8 yards-per-carry, and 183 passing yards. Los Angeles didn’t break through for a long TD drive until 2:51 remained in the third quarter.

Bottom line: Carolina’s defense played better than the final score suggested, and the Panthers probably would have sprung the outright upset of the defending NFC champs if they hadn’t lost the turnover category 3-1. 

Sharps who focus on computer modeling understand game stats, and adjust for cheap points. That’s part of why the opening Over/Under of 51 in Thursday’s matchup dropped to 50 or 49.5 earlier in the week. Weather forecasts could influence additional line moves between now and kickoff.

What stats should new bettors focus on when studying box scores? 

  • Yards-per-play is respected by many sharps because it does so much heavy analytical lifting. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn just by logging this data from every game.
  • Total yardage, though it is best to de-emphasize what happens on garbage-time drives.
  • Third-down conversions. Modern football is all about “staying ahead of the chains.” This will keep you focused on what head coaches and coordinators are prioritizing.
  • Length of scoring drives. Superior offenses will go the distance from 60 yards out or more on a regular basis. Struggling offenses (particularly early in a season) may have trouble doing that twice per game.

All of those categories are important for evaluating offensive and defensive skill sets. You can determine your own definition of “cheap” points from drive charts. Smart bettors won’t give offenses credit for non-offensive scores, or too much credit for field position pay dirt. And, they won’t blame defenses for offensive screw-ups.

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