Meaningless games? Not to NFL bettors

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At the end of every NFL regular season, there are games in which one team, having clinched its playoff position, decides to rest its starters. Some teams sit their studs completely while others seek to keep them in sync by having them play a quarter or two. Making matters worse, a recent trend has seen teams that are eliminated from the postseason resting key players in order to preserve their health. Despite this uncertainty, and the difficulty that comes with handicapping teams that aren’t at full strength, many bettors have trouble staying away from these games. They figure that with lines so far out of whack, oddsmakers must be making a mistake. Hats off to those bettors, as I will illustrate that these games have proved to hold a ton of value.

In recent years there have been as many as six of these games in Week 17. Last year there were four. The rule of thumb is that if the line looks very abnormal or it moves significantly throughout the week, you can figure that the coach of the playoff-bound team has indicated he will rest at least some of his starters. Those are the two giveaways — unusual line or line moving rapidly. The trickiest spot is when a team’s playoff prospects are affected by an early game result and they play late. These lines can change dramatically as playoff scenarios play out. Out of the four games that qualified as “resting starters” games last year, three saw a line move of 7.5 points or more.

I used to stay away from these games until I saw some of the trends that have developed. In most cases, bettors prefer to play on games in which the teams’ motivation levels are equal, or at least more measurable. However, if you are a bettor who has access to an individual players’ database from which you can easily interchange starters and backups and measure the line variation by doing so, perhaps you have the advantage in these games.

For the purposes of this article, I have taken a snapshot of the last 12 years of Week 17 games 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 in favor of the backup. These are games in which the lines differed wildly from their projected power rating line, or alternatively, moved significantly all the way up till kickoff. In almost all of the cases, the teams resting the key starters were playoff qualifiers that had nothing to gain by winning the game. As you look at the chart, perhaps you can recall being on the right or wrong side in these games.

One important point: These are professional athletes playing these games, and all of them are playing for their livelihood. Therefore, don’t assume that just because a team decides to rest its studs that the rest of the team isn’t motivated to win the game. The truth is that the playoff-bound team is naturally deeper. In fact, its motivation may also actually be greater since the opponent is merely playing out the string, looking forward to a tropical vacation the week after the game.

On the chart, you will see that I have logged the opponents, highlighted the “resting starters” team in gray, and given you the line, score and which team won, lost and covered. I’ve also detailed the totals. Please note that this list is not official and there may be other games over the years that may have qualified but the point spread wasn’t nearly as affected. Still, the list gives us a great idea of the type of results you can expect when handicapping these dreaded “meaningless” games.

Interpreting the results

In no way is handicapping these games as easy as just backing the team that is playing at full strength. In fact, if anything, we would recommend playing the underdog or road team if you were to just follow a set path. In fact, since 2011, underdogs in the games in which teams rested  starters are on a 15-5 ATS run. Here are some other trends to consider.

* Over the last nine years, teams resting their starters have a nice ATS edge of 13-9-1 in Week 17 games. However, they are just 10-13 outright.

* Teams resting their starters against opponents that had at least six fewer wins are just 7-7 SU and 5-7-2 ATS over the last 12 seasons.

* Home underdogs resting their starters are on a 3-1 SU and ATS run when getting 6.5 points or more, as if they are motivated by the oddsmakers’ perception of their chances. However, the Texans did lose in this scenario a year ago against a Titans team that was playing for its playoff life and went on to reach the AFC title game.

* Road teams have performed exceptionally well in games when a team rests its starters lately, going 11-6 SU and 12-4-1 ATS over the last eight seasons, pulling six outright upsets.

* History has shown that following the biggest line moves has paid off for bettors in “resting starters” games. Since 2017, eight Week 17 games have seen line moves of 5 points or more from open to close. Bettors are 6-1-1 ATS in such games. Consider that as you track the Week 17 lines. Last year, the Titans and Jets won outright against teams resting starters.

* Games of this nature tend to be higher scoring than expected, as Over the total is 19-9 since 2010, with the games producing 42.9 points per game on totals averaging 41.1.

* Bettors tend to bet the totals for these games down as they open on an average of 42.5 and close over a point lower typically at 41.1.

Summary

In general, there are some nice trends and other strategies to use for dealing with the “resting starters” games. My best advice is to not assume that resting starters equals tanking the game. You’ll also want to avoid automatically downgrading the quarterback position with the backup in place. 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 this weekend, this is what we know as of Tuesday 12/29:

* PITTSBURGH already has named Mason Rudolph as its starting quarterback for Sunday at Cleveland. Other key players also will sit for the Steelers as they have wrapped up the AFC North. The Browns’ playoff prospects rest on winning Sunday’s game.

* KANSAS CITY wrapped up the AFC West and the top seed in the AFC weeks ago and will rest quarterback Patrick Mahomes and others on Sunday when they host the Chargers. This game has seen an adjustment of over 14 points, according to most power ratings estimates.

* BUFFALO has the No. 2 seed at stake in the AFC on Sunday, and coach Sean McDermott’s decision to rest starters was being described as tricky. With the Steelers employing the strategy, I wouldn’t hesitate to think that the Bills will do the same as they take on Miami, a team also fighting for its playoff life. 

Good luck with this year’s Week 17 games on Sunday.

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