Small NFL road dogs flourishing

November 9, 2021 08:46 PM
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Hopefully by now you’ve caught wind of the amazing season that single-digit road underdogs are enjoying in the NFL. If not, hopefully it’s not too late. I know some of my VSiN colleagues have been turning readers’ attention to this phenomenon for much of the season, but as they often say, sometimes you can’t just tell people, you have to show them. With that in mind, I thought I’d break down some of the details of what has been a remarkable run by small road underdogs this year, and explain some of the reasons for why I believe it is happening.
Overall, for the season, single-digit road underdogs or those catching between 1 and 9.5 points, boast an eye-opening record of 35-34 SU and 47-21-1 ATS (69.1 percent). The separation of the double-digit underdogs is noteworthy, too, as those teams are just 4-9-1 ATS this season, so clearly there is something to this. But how unusual is this 69.1 percent point spread winning rate? Take a look at this list below detailing the single-digit road underdog records for each NFL season since 2000, sorted by ATS winning percentage: 
Season: Overall single-digit road dog records SU & ATS (percent)
2021: 35-34 SU & 47-21 ATS (69.1 percent)
2000: 60-92 SU & 84-63 ATS (57.1 percent)
2015: 60-94 SU & 82-65 ATS (55.8 percent)
2006: 65-84 SU & 80-65 ATS (55.2 percent)
2002: 53-101 SU & 83-68 ATS (55.0 percent)
2012: 53-88 SU & 75-62 ATS (54.7 percent)
2019: 53-83 SU & 73-61 ATS (54.5 percent)
2009: 48-84 SU & 69-58 ATS (54.3 percent)
2018: 49-99 SU & 75-64 ATS (54.0 percent)
2020: 52-82 SU & 72-62 ATS (53.7 percent)
2011: 52-87 SU & 71-62 ATS (53.4 percent)
2014: 55-103 SU & 82-73 ATS (52.9 percent)
2010: 56-93 SU & 76-70 ATS (52.1 percent)
2004: 57-102 SU & 80-74 ATS (51.9 percent)
2016: 57-107 SU & 79-77 ATS (50.6 percent)
2008: 50-98 SU & 73-72 ATS (50.3 percent)
2003: 52-114 SU & 79-80 ATS (49.7 percent)
2007: 47-91 SU & 62-69 ATS (47.3 percent)
2001: 46-96 SU & 64-73 ATS (46.7 percent)
2017: 43-90 SU & 59-69 ATS (46.1 percent)
2005: 44-112 SU & 66-85 ATS (43.7 percent)
2013: 37-106 SU & 62-80 ATS (43.7 percent)
As you can see, this year’s winning percentage of 69.1 percent would be the highest this century by 12 percent if it were to stay at the current rate. Naturally, we can expect some regression, however. Let’s compare this year’s results through nine weeks of the previous 21 seasons:
Season: Overall single-digit road dog records through Week 9, SU & ATS (percent)
2021: 35-34 SU & 47-21 ATS (69.1 percent)
2012: 28-47 SU & 45-27 ATS (62.5 percent)
2020: 32-43 SU & 46-29 ATS (61.3 percent)
2019: 34-41 SU & 44-31 ATS (58.7 percent)
2000: 32-47 SU & 45-32 ATS (58.4 percent)
2002: 32-47 SU & 45-32 ATS (58.4 percent)
2009: 28-40 SU & 37-30 ATS (55.2 percent)
2015: 27-52 SU & 41-34 ATS (54.7 percent)
2010: 28-42 SU & 37-31 ATS (54.4 percent)
2004: 34-50 SU & 44-37 ATS (54.3 percent)
2007: 27-47 SU & 36-31 ATS (53.7 percent)
2016: 30-49 SU & 38-35 ATS (52.1 percent)
2011: 24-46 SU & 35-33 ATS (51.5 percent)
2003: 29-53 SU & 40-39 ATS (50.6 percent)
2018: 23-55 SU & 37-37 ATS (50.0 percent)
2017: 28-45 SU & 33-35 ATS (48.5 percent)
2014: 27-56 SU & 39-42 ATS (48.1 percent)
2006: 27-41 SU & 31-35 ATS (47.0 percent)
2008: 20-54 SU & 31-41 ATS (43.1 percent)
2001: 18-42 SU & 25-35 ATS (41.7 percent)
2005: 21-65 SU & 34-49 ATS (41.0 percent)
2013: 17-50 SU & 26-39 ATS (40.0 percent)
Again, this year’s numbers represent the greatest success for betting single-digit road underdogs through this point in any season of the 21st century. Interestingly, you should recognize that of the top four seasons on this chart, three of them have come in the last three years. I’ll have some more thoughts on this later. 
For those of you wondering how consistent this trend has been in the nine weeks of the 2021 NFL season, these are the single-digit road dog records by week:
Week: SU & ATS
Week 1: 5-4 SU & 7-2 ATS
Week 2: 3-3 SU & 5-1 ATS
Week 3: 5-5 SU & 6-4 ATS
Week 4: 5-5 SU & 6-4 ATS
Week 5: 3-4 SU & 4-3 ATS
Week 6: 2-2 SU & 3-1 ATS
Week 7: 2-4 SU & 2-3 ATS
Week 8: 6-3 SU & 7-2 ATS
Week 9: 4-4 SU & 7-1 ATS
In only one week, Week 7, were these small road dogs not profitable for bettors. In fact, over the last two weeks, these teams have gone 14-3 ATS!
Looking more closely at the results for patterns, here are the records of single-digit NFL road dogs in 2021 by game type:
In non-divisional conference games: 13-13 SU & 19-6-1 ATS
In divisional games: 13-8 SU & 14-7 ATS
In nonconference games: 9-13 SU & 14-8 ATS
Obviously there are some significant differences in the outright success rates for these groups, but overall, in terms of point spread success, all three have been quite strong.
What are the reasons for this small road dog phenomenon?
If you studied the records by season for the first nine weeks, you will see that this trend of small road underdogs winning big for bettors has not been a single-year craze, rather a three-year trend. In that span, the combined record of these teams has been 137-81 ATS. That is a winning percentage of 62.8 percent and 56 games over .500. Had a bettor been fortunate enough to bet $100 on each of these games, they would have profited $4,790. With that said, are there any reasons why the trend is so definitive in 2021? I can think of three:
1. The NFL has great balance this season
There is just one team with fewer than two losses in the NFL. There are 13 other teams that have either four or five wins. In other words, the number of dominant teams is not at the level it has been in previous years. This in itself leads to underdogs being able to compete well in games against supposed “better” teams.
2. NFL home-field advantage is virtually nonexistent
Two weeks ago in Point Spread Weekly, I released my annual True Home-Field Advantage ratings in college and pro football. I determined that the actual true home-field advantage of NFL teams in the last 3 1/2 seasons has been about 1.04 points. This falls way short of the average perceived home-field edge that bettors believe exists, usually around 2.5-3 points. It also falls well short of the average home-field line applied to teams in the 2021 season, 2.0 points. In essence, bettors are getting almost a free point every time they back a road team this season.
3. Could bookmakers be intentionally sabotaging bettors?
The numbers discovered in studying the relationship between opening and closing lines are absolutely startling: When a line has moved toward a single-digit home favorite over the course of the week, the road dogs boast an incredible 15-10 SU & 21-4 ATS (84 percent) record. Are bookmakers intentionally pricing these small home favorites low early so that the betting public will bite on them? It’s said that Brent’s “friends in the desert” are the ones in the know; perhaps this is all the proof we need.
Which teams have done best/worst in the small home favorite or small road underdog role?
The following charts detail the records of the NFL teams in the line scenario I have been detailing.
The first chart shows that only three teams in the NFL have winning records as small home favorites, those being Dallas, Chicago and Green Bay. The Cowboys are scoring a lot of points in those situations, while the Bears and Packers are yielding very few. On the opposite end, of the three teams showing records of 0-4 ATS or worse, all three are failing to get the expected level of play out of their quarterbacks and their defenses.
The second chart shows us that four teams are boasting records of 3-0 ATS as single-digit road underdogs, and all four are among the best teams in football, each leading their respective divisions. The six teams that have failed to win a game yet in the small road dog role also share some common traits, most notably that their offenses have struggled in 2021. In fact, in their small road dog games, all six have averaged 14 points per game or fewer. Naturally the worst dogs are those with no bite, and these teams haven’t had it.
Will the amazing small road dog trend continue for the rest of the season?
Naturally anyone reading this piece really cares about only one thing … will this trend continue for me to take advantage of?
I have to advise caution going forward, for a couple of reasons, one theoretical and one statistical.
My theoretical reason for recommending that bettors hit the brakes on backing this small road dog phenomenon is that the deeper we get into each NFL season, the more the teams are defined. The better teams gain confidence and are motivated by the higher stakes associated with late-season games. The lesser teams find the motivation level declining week after week as they draw closer to playoff elimination. Perhaps these teams are down because of injuries, coaching or chemistry issues as well. It’s much easier to be a cohesive unit when things are going well, and it’s much easier for teams to question themselves when they are not. Thus the separation between the haves and have-nots tends to grow, and it’s tough for oddsmakers to quantify this later in the season when they are using same-season stats and analysis for their baseline ratings.
Naturally I love to have my theories backed up by strong statistical data, and I believe we have that for the last three seasons. As I showed earlier, the combined record of the single-digit road underdogs in the first nine weeks of the last three seasons has been 137-81. If you include the other season that was in the top four of the first nine weeks chart (2012), you’d get a record of 182-108 ATS. However, in looking at the rest of the year in each of those fast-starting seasons, single-digit road dogs combined to go just 85-98 ATS (46.4 percent) the rest of the way.
There’s always a chance this runs further. However, I would still recommend sticking to some key principles in deciding which of the small road dogs are the best options each week:
1. Avoid the road dogs that can’t score, regardless of the opponent.
2. Don’t fade the best teams at home, you might win some, but overall it’s not usually a profitable strategy.
3. Continue to follow those line moves and go against the public money when they move toward the small home favorites.
However this NFL single-digit road dog phenomenon winds up, it’s been a crazy start to the season and figures to be an interesting subject to follow the rest of the way.
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