Just when it seemed Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys were down and out, trailing 41-14 early in the fourth quarter Sunday, a strange thing happened. In fact, something strange is happening all over the NFL.
The on-field product is morphing into a futuristic video game, with scoring at an all-time high. Old-school football bettors and oddsmakers are scrambling to adjust to a game that has changed before our eyes.
“It’s a passing league now,” William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said. “It’s just crazy numbers.”
Prescott completed 41 of 58 passes for 502 yards and four touchdowns while leading a crazed comeback by the Cowboys, who closed their deficit to 41-38 before falling to the Browns 49-38. Cleveland scored 31 points in the first half against a dreadful Dallas defense. The game flew over the total of 56½.
Trends come and go, and statistical extremes usually regress to the mean, so oddsmakers and more seasoned bettors are trained not to overreact to small sample sizes. Still, the recent over-the-total trend in the NFL looks like a sign of new times. After Monday’s two games stayed under the total, Overs finished 7-6-2 in Week 4 and are 36-25-2 (59%) for the season.
The BetMGM average closing total for the first 13 games in Week 4 was 49.0, and the average final score was 54.2.
Kenny White, a veteran Las Vegas oddsmaker and analyst for Don Best Sports, noted the average closing total was 45.5 in Week 1, 46.2 in Week 2 and 48.0 in Week 3. The average final score has topped 52 points for three consecutive weeks. In Week 3 of the 2019 season, the average total was 44 with an average score of 46.9.
“I remember when 42 was a high total,” said Vinny Magliulo, VSiN oddsmaker and Gaughan Gaming sportsbook director. “I remember the days when we started totals at 39 and adjusted from there. Now we start at 44, and most of the time we’re adjusting up.
“From our side of the counter, we’re moving numbers quicker. We have learned that we need to move totals quicker. There are a lot of professional bettors who know you have to bet some underdogs and Unders, but there’s some reluctance to bet Unders now because these teams are scoring at such a high rate.”
Bogdanovich said the betting public is “blindly” playing Overs and cashing in on the trend. Most so-called sharps resist a change in philosophy and still look for value in Unders.
Last week, sharp bettors targeted the Chargers-Buccaneers opening total of 45 as too high and bet it to a closing number of 42. Wrong move. Tom Brady passed for 369 yards and five touchdowns to rally Tampa Bay from a 24-7 deficit to a 38-31 win. Brady is the oldest starting quarterback in the league.
Rookies are even lighting it up. The Chargers’ Justin Herbert passed for 290 yards and three touchdowns in a loss to Brady’s Bucs. Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick, passed for 300 yards and a touchdown in the Cincinnati Bengals’ 33-25 victory over Jacksonville — and over the total of 49½.
Reasons for the rising scores range from more passing to declining defenses to rules implemented to help offenses and discourage hits on quarterbacks.
“This first month has looked like a training camp of sorts for some teams, especially for the defenses, and the offenses are way ahead of the defenses,” Magliulo said. “There’s hitting, but there’s no tackling. Everybody is talking about how the game is changing and there’s more passing, but there’s really not much defense.
“If you have an offense that’s capable, you’re never out of a game. The Seattle defense is awful, but who cares? The Seahawks are 4-0, and they can win any game with Russell Wilson and their offense.”
The league’s top three scoring offenses belong to Green Bay (38.0 points per game), Seattle (35.5) and Dallas (31.5). The Seahawks rank last in pass defense (401 yards per game), and the Cowboys rank last in scoring defense (36.5).
Just as there are extremes, there are exceptions. The league’s worst scoring offenses belong to the Giants (11.8) and Jets (16.3). The closing total was 49 in the Giants’ 17-9 loss to the Rams on Sunday. The lowest total on the Week 4 board was 41 in the Broncos-Jets game, which Denver won 37-28.
The highest totals this week are for Minnesota-Seattle (58) and Las Vegas-Kansas City (57).
Sometimes quarterbacks boost scoring in unintended ways. In Week 3, the Jets were held to seven points, but Sam Darnold threw two pick-sixes in a lopsided loss at Indianapolis. The Colts lead the league in scoring defense (14.0).
High scores are due to a combination of factors, with an increase in passing atop the list. Mobile young quarterbacks such as Prescott, Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are changing the game, while old-schoolers Brady and Aaron Rodgers are adapting. Defenses are bad and look worse because of penalties for automatic first downs that keep drives alive. Meanwhile, kickers are booming more 50-plus-yard field goals than ever.
“Hopefully, it’s just one of those things that happen,” Bogdanovich said. “Hopefully, it’s not a league mandate because people like offense. When you throw the ball, you’ve got a chance for any kind of call you want, and they have been changing the rules forever to help the offenses.”
It takes the courage of a rattlesnake hunter to bet Unders.
At some point, the scores will come down. Illnesses and injuries will hamper offenses — Patriots quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham looked incompetent Monday night while trying to replace Cam Newton — defenses should start to improve and the weather will take a turn for the worse.
But for now, footballs are flying, totals are inflated and the trend has been overwhelming.