You probably were not paying too much attention in geometry class way back in 10th grade, when we learned about math formulas. In high school, I was more concerned with partying — legal drinking age was only 18, which meant we started around 16 — and chasing girls. Learning about some math formulas was furthest from my mind.
But there is one formula that was drilled into our heads and is hard to forget: the Pythagorean theorem. I’ll spare the details of how it works, but feel free to Google it.
Bill James brought the theorem to light many years ago as a way to indicate a baseball team’s future performance based on runs scored and allowed as it correlates to its winning percentage. From there, a formula was created to apply it to the NFL.
While I am not sure who was responsible, I do know Football Outsiders has researched it as a way to predict a team’s performance the following season based on the prior year’s performance. I have used this over the past 12 years or so to help gauge NFL win totals for the upcoming season.
While it’s only one piece of the puzzle, there are some defnite lessons we can take from it to set us in the right direction on season win totals. So, let’s take a look at what we can learn from this formula from geometry class. Let’s start by applying the theorem to the 2018 season. As an example, the Los Angeles Rams went 13-3 during the regular season and scored 527 points while allowing 384 points. The theorem suggests the Rams should have won 10.9 games and lost 5.1 games. So the Rams won 2.1 more games than they should have based on this formula. When looking at all teams going back to 2007 that won two or more games than they should have and how that correlated to the next season for NFL win totals, we can draw this conclusion: Go with the under on those teams. Since 2007, 21 teams have ft the criteria.
And by fading those teams under the win total the following season, you would have gone 17- 3-1. Of those 21 teams, 17 won three or fewer games the following season compared to the previous season, including all seven teams that won 13 or more games the prior season. This would suggest the Rams will win 10 or fewer games this season despite being tasked with a 10.5 season win number. Let’s take this one step further.
Teams that typically win more games than their numbers suggest likely also had good fortune in close games. The more close games you win, the greater likelihood for many teams that fortune will regress to the mean the following season. The 2018 Rams not only won 2.1 games more than their numbers suggest they should have, but they went 6-1 straight up in games decided by seven or fewer points during the regular season. The Rams had an extreme amount of good luck in close games. By my count, at least four of those six wins could have gone the other way.
When we go look at only those teams among the 21 that won four or more close games than they lost, we fnd they went 13-1-1 under their win total the following season. Before moving on, let’s look at a 2018 team based on its 2017 numbers that qualifed for this situation. The Pittsburgh Steelers went 13-3 in 2017, while their Pythagorean numbers suggested they should have won only 10.5 games. The Steelers were also a fortunate 8-2 in games decided by seven or fewer points in 2017.
In 2018, they slipped back to 9-6-1 while going a more normal 6-5 in close games. And, true to form, they went under their season win total of 10. What about the other side of the coin with teams that underachieved the previous season? Since 2007, there have been 25 teams winning two or more games than their Pythagorean numbers suggest they should have won. We would expect them to go over their win total the following season. Those 25 teams went 16-8-1 versus their season win total.
Let’s look at a 2018 number that ft that mold last year. In 2017, the Cleveland Browns went 0-16 but their Pythagorean numbers suggest they should have won 3.3 games. Despite being marked with a generous six-win total for 2018, the Browns managed to win seven games and go over the number.
Last year, the New York Giants went 5-11 but their Pythagorean numbers suggested they should have won seven games. The Giants were also an unfortunate 4-8 in close games. They are being asked to win six games this year. That total is heavily juiced to the under, meaning you can take plus money on the over six wins, line shop and/or wait and hope for a 5.5 wins to pop at one of your books. If that happens, it will be juiced to the over, but a 5.5 over -150 is fairly equal to six wins fat.
One side note to this is teams that won eight or more games and still underachieved by at least two wins the previous season have gone over their season win total the following year all fve times since 2007. Unfortunately, we don’t have any of those teams in that situation this year.
We can also assign a win total for each team based on projected lines for each team’s games this year. CG Technology projects lines on each game for the frst 16 weeks of the season. Using historical data to project the chance of winning each game based on home/away and line, we can assign a win percentage probability for each game. The Rams, based on this formula, are projected to win 9.9 games, while the Giants are projected to win 6.3 games.
Between the two situations suggesting to either go over or under a team’s win total, following these Pythagorean plays you would have gone 33-11-2 since 2007. This year there are two plays that apply.
Overachieving 2018 team to fade in 2019
RAMS UNDER 10.5 WINS
The Rams overachieved last year and were fortunate in close wins by going 6-1 SU. The NFC West fgures to be challenging in 2019, with Seattle always a tough out and San Francisco continuing to improve while getting back quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from injury. Gone from the Rams this year are guard Roger Saffold, center John Sullivan, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and safety Lamarcus Joyner. Under coach Sean McVay, the Rams have traditionally bullied the weaker teams but struggled to separate themselves from the better teams. They will face nine teams projected to be above .500 in 2019. In addition, they will play the 49ers twice and open at Carolina against a team that fgures to be improved with healthy quarterback Cam Newton back. The 49ers, while only projected to win 7.6 games, are capable of giving the Rams all they can handle. Only three games on the schedule are likely easy wins – two against Arizona and one against Cincinnati in London, with the Rams give up a home game. Even their one other game against a low-projected team (Tampa Bay) could be tougher than expected with coach Bruce Arians returning to face a foe he knew well in his days in Arizona. That makes 12 games against teams that can be very competitive. Even if the Rams go 4-0 SU in those perceived easy games, they will have to go 7-5 SU against their toughest part of the schedule, with seven of the 12 games on the road. Running back Todd Gurley’s health adds to the question marks. My projections suggest only 9.9 wins for the Rams.
Underachieving 2018 team to play
GIANTS OVER 6 WINS
This one won’t be easy. The Giants have not been a good team the past two years and shipped out many of their best players late last year and during the offseason. But we stay true to the numbers and trust the situation. Add to that the Giants are not being asked to win a large number of games, especially if bettors can fnd a play for under six wins. Gone are wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and defensive end Olivier Vernon to Cleveland. They allowed safety Landon Collins to leave as a free agent, following last year’s trade of defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison to Detroit. In addition to several good draft picks, the Giants brought in via trades and free agency wideout Golden Tate, safety Jabrill Peppers and guard Kevin Zeitler. (Tate is suspended the frst four games of the season.) The Giants face only the 26th-toughest schedule in the league and have six games against teams projected to win fewer than seven games. They were 3-4 SU last year against teams that fnished under .500. My projections set the Giants at 6.3 wins. There is one additional team to consider that was close to falling into the category
A second overachieving 2018 team to fade
COWBOYS UNDER 9 WINS
Dallas overachieved last year by winning 10 games, and the Pythagorean numbers suggested the Cowboys should have won just 8.4 games. In addition, they went a fortunate 8-2 in games decided by seven or fewer points last year. That is likely unsustainable again this year. Their win total is set at nine, but my projections suggest only 8.6 wins. The Cowboys will face the league’s 11th-toughest schedule. They will face eight teams projected above .500 and six teams projected to win fewer than seven games, but their games against teams projected above .500 are all very tough. Even if they go 6-2 SU against the weaker teams on their schedule, they would have to go at least 4-4 against projected teams above .500. That could be a reach for the Cowboys, especially when you consider the fact they will be playing top-tier teams above .500. Dallas will get back center Travis Frederick, who missed last year with an injury. But, once again, the Cowboys have suspensions on defense as Robert Quinn is out for two games and Randy Gregory and David Irving indefnitely. Add the unknown status of running back Ezekiel Elliott and factor in Jason Garrett as a poor head coach, and value is added to the under. My projections peg the Cowboys for only 8.6 wins.
Here’s a toast to that 10th-grade geometry lesson to whom we should have given more attention. We hope it helps put a few bucks in our pockets this year