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How to Get a Statistical Edge When Betting Against the Spread (NFL)

by June 8, 2020

Whether you’re new to sports betting or a betting pro, our Sports Betting Strategy and Advice page is for you. You can get started with our 101 section — including 10 Sports Betting Tips for Beginners — or head to more advanced strategy — like Key Numbers When Betting Against the Spread — to learn more.

Whether you like to bet a few bucks on a Sunday to give yourself something to cheer for at the bar, or you like betting on the NFL consistently to make money, someone’s probably told you that you’re wasting your money.

They are not technically wrong. If you look at a single bet, it’s impossible to guarantee that you’ll make money. Their mistake, however, is that they are massively over-reacting to the inherent uncertainty of playing the odds. Our job, as bettors, isn’t to only pick winners. Instead, it’s to mitigate that uncertainty that your more-cautious friend so correctly identified.

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Indeed, by following a simple set of rules, and by paying attention to a specific set of statistics, you can minimize your risk. Below, I will attempt to pass on some things I’ve noticed while working in the betting industry. They won’t guarantee that you’ll make money, but they may help you to start betting with a statistical perspective.

The first thing worth looking into is what we mean when we say a “statistical edge.” When you bet ATS, you’re being asked to bet on a situation that the bookies see as a coin flip, and you’re being charged at -110 odds to do so. If the event in question was literally a coin flip, it would be impossible to make money over a large time scale. You would be betting on a 50/50 chance at odds that implied you had a  52.3% chance of winning. Based on these odds, so long as you only bet on ATS lines that you think have greater than 52.3% chance of paying, you will end up making money.

The key thing to realize, in this case, is that we’re looking to take advantage of the rule of large numbers — there’s no such thing as a perfect bet, but as long as you trust your systems and spread out your budget over a range of bets, you can maximize the chance that your statistical edge will emerge.

To start finding the ATS lines that will cover over 52.3% of the time, it’s important to research weekly matchups, but you’ve got to do the right research. Below are the most important statistical categories you to note when betting ATS:

Passing Efficiency

If you only bet based on one thing, it should be how well a team can pass. It’s atrociously easy to fall into the trap of looking at a team’s overall passing output and assume that they are a good passing team. In fact, if you backed the 10 teams who passed for the most yards per game last season, only three of them would have performed above break-even ATS. However, if you flipped your focus to passing yards per attempt, of the top 10 teams, six performed above the break-even.

While this argument is oversimplifying at best and statistically misleading at worst, it serves to illustrate an important point. I cannot stress enough the importance of switching your focus from cumulative stats to efficiency-based metrics.

Fourth-down decisions

There’s currently no single place an NFL team can get more of a competitive advantage in a game than with the way they approach fourth down. It feels counterintuitive for betting ATS, but, even though good teams are handicapped, you still want to bet on the best teams and against the worst teams.

The place where public opinion struggles the most is in quantifying how much better a truly exceptional team is than an average one. Backing the best teams that make the smartest decisions is a good baseline for your weekly bets, as handicap lines are almost never long enough when there’s a big difference between the two teams.

Turnovers

There are always exceptions to the rule. Where these exceptions are most likely to be found in the context of NFL betting is in teams that give the ball away too much. While interceptions, by virtue of their irregularity, are inherently high variance, I have a really hard time backing a team with a turnover-prone quarterback.

Defensive efficiency

Week-to-week defense is the hardest team statistic to predict, and it’s heavily influenced by a team’s schedule. As such, it should be the very last thing you look at. However, there are times when defensive performance can be the deciding factor in whether or not to place a bet. For example, betting against teams with a “good” defense (as perceived by the public) when they play against efficient offenses is often a shrewd move.

Conclusion

These are the most important statistical categories. If you walk away from this article with a single concept in mind, it should be this: when looking at the above categories, you should recognize that the distribution of quality is by no means linear.

This means that you should pay particular attention to the teams that are significantly above average in any respective category. Basically, the difference between the most efficient passing game and the 10th-most efficient is significantly larger than the difference between the 10th and the 20th. Pay the most attention when teams that rank in the top-10 are playing against teams that rank in the bottom-10 — that’s where you’ll find the greatest advantage.

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Ethan Summers is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Ethan, check out his archive.

Betting 101, Betting Tips, How-To, NFL