Betting the NFL Preseason
By Steve Rieder @AvoidtheVig
Want to bet NFL Preseason Football? You most certainly can, unless, of course, you want to bet more than a dime. Sportsbook have $1,000 limits on the preseason. Why would bookmakers have such low limits on inconsequential games when they allow five figure bets in the regular season? The answer may be a mix of being distracted by the MLB, fluidity of information, and straight up fear. Regardless of the reason, there is one thing for certain: The NFL Preseason is a great opportunity to make money.
The main stream media will have you believe if you bet the preseason, you have an issue. We see you Trey. When I started betting, I told a friend that I was betting the WNBA. He asked where I draw the line. The answer was simple: I will bet any time on anything I can make money on. The preseason is ripe for the picking and if you are not willing to bet it because of perception, you are missing out on perhaps the only opportunity to bet the NFL where you have a consistent advantage on the house.
In order to effectively bet the preseason, throw out everything you think you know about the NFL. The best teams in the league may be horrible bets in the preseason. The opposite may be true for the weakest teams. Follow these keys and you are greatly increasing your odds to make money in the preseason.
The first and most important concept to handicap is simply identifying the coach. If you have blindly bet the Ravens to win their last 17 preseason games, you would be 17-0. Identifying coaches like John Harbaugh, Mike Zimmer, and John Gruden who seem to value the preseason more than your average coach, can you give you a leg up in your handicap. Conversely, fading coaches like Sean McVay who has stated emphatically that Matt Stafford will never play a preseason game as long as he's the head coach of the Rams can be a profitable endeavor. There are coaches that simply value preseason and prioritizing winning and others that don't.
Identify the teams that have motivation to win. For example, teams that have struggled the previous year in the regular season, teams that are winless in the preseason, etc. are all potential betting opportunities. As the preseason progresses, blindly playing 0-1 teams against 1-0 teams is a profitable endeavor. That trend gets even better when the 0-1 team is at home. In week 1 of the 2019 preseason, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots destroyed the Detroit Lions 31-3. Detroit was held to 21 passing yards...for the game! The Lions coach? Former New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. Don't tell me Belichick didn't have motivation to hand it to his former co-worker. It was personal. Find the teams that are motivated and exploit the opportunity.
Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston are in a quarterback battle for the void Drew Brees left behind. Both players have had success on NFL Sundays. Hill in particular does much of his damage on the ground, which is has underrated potential for taking advantage of preseason defenses. With both players looking to take advantage of the opportunity and secure the starting position it can be expected that they will try to make the most of their increased opportunity. Other teams that have quarterback battles are the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears. Identifying talented backup quarterbacks like Gardner Minshew and rookies Mac Jones and Trey Lance can lead to actionable opportunities. Also, you should look for deep quarterback groups like the Raiders and Chargers.
Surely, weather should be taken into consideration when betting any outdoor sport. But this is even more true in the preseason. When there is inclement weather, teams overreact in these exhibition contests. After all, it is a meaningless game. This is a tremendous opportunities for unders to cash easily. The game no longer becomes about winning, but escaping unscathed and healthy. It is also prudent to be mindful that you take this into consideration when betting sides. For instance, in week 2 of the 2019 preseason, Andy Reid stated that he would play Patrick Mahomes for the first half. After an hour weather delay, the first half changed to just one drive. A solid KC bet fell flat with their star QB sitting on the sidelines.
Coaches lie constantly. In the regular season, you should never believe what comes out of their mouths. The preseason is a different story. Coaches have no reason to lie when it comes to a meaningless game. They usually will tell you how long the quarterbacks are playing, how much time the second unit will see, or if they plan on sitting the starters entirely. Things can certainly change, like in the aforementioned example of Mahomes only playing one drive instead of one half, but that is exception to the rule. When Nagy stated that he was sitting all 22 starters against the Giants in week 2 of the 2019 preseason, you should have been scrambling to take the G-Men. Find the beat reporters on Twitter and get the reports as they are being tweeted. If you can get to that information before the books do, you could be in line for a profitable payday.
FIRST TIME COACHES
It may be irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but newly hired coaches would love to start out on the right foot with a victory. When the game comes down to the wire, the neophyte coaches may be more aggressive than an average, experienced coach in search of that victory. This trend becomes even more prevalent when the freshman coach is at home for the first time, particularly if they have zero wins on the ledger.
HALL OF FAME GAME
The Hall of Fame Game has gone under in eleven consecutive years. These teams play an extra exhibition game which takes place in the first week of August. The coaches do not game plan. I'm not even sure they know all the names of their players yet. They have one goal, avoid injuries. Take the under in the Hall of Fame Game no matter how low the total looks. Just this past Thursday, the Steelers Cowboys game opened at 34, but closed at 31.5. The game ended 16-3.
In an effort to drive interest, the NFL has been scheduling games away from their home stadiums and sometimes out of the country entirely. Teams that are normally home are now only home on paper. Traditionally, home teams receive an automatic three points to the spread. When both teams are away, neither team receives additional points. In 2019, the Rams opened up as a three-point favorite against the Cowboys. However, the game was in Hawaii. The Cowboys were bet up and quickly became favorite. The closing line was off by over 6 points at most books from the opening line. The reason? That is a great question. Maybe the books just valued the Rams that much higher than the rest of the world. Maybe they failed to notice that Sean McVay really doesn't care about the preseason. Or maybe the oddsmakers were lazy. Maybe they saw the Rams were listed second and just assumed they were the home team. Don't underestimate the ineptitude of a disinterested oddsmaker. Identify these potential opportunities and get ready to pounce if they make the same mistake again.
1-0 vs 0-1
Perhaps the longest running trend for the preseason is the 1-0 team versus the 0-1 team. Coming into this preseason, blindly betting the winless team in week 2 of the preseason against an undefeated team is a winning bet 62% of the time since 1994.
During the regular season, the key numbers of 3 and 7 are absolutely vital. In the preseason, it is significantly less so. Coaches have an unwritten rule to avoid overtime at all costs. Trailing teams will go for two or bypass game-tying field goals to avoid the extra period. This makes 1 and 2 significantly more valuable than during games that actually count. Although buying any points in the preseason would be ill-advised, shopping various books to get the best number can be the difference between a winner and a loser. Similarly, betting the moneyline instead of laying the 1 or 2 can have a similar effect.
Typically, a +EV bettor only places bets when the line isn't accounting for something. Cluster injuries are rarely correctly priced in the marketplace and is a tried and true advantage when betting on games that actually count. However, cluster injuries are still impactful, if not more so, in the preseason. Cluster injuries occur when there are multiple injuries to a position group. When a below-average offensive tackle is out, there probably isn't a change to the line. However, if he is the third tackle or offensive lineman ruled out, it can significantly impact the game. This is especially true for the preseason when coaches generally do not want to play their starters for long periods of time. In this example, the backup offensive linemen may have to switch their traditional positions to cover for the absent players. Identifying cluster injures to position groups in the preseason can put you on to bet you previously hadn't considered.
Traditionally, teams do not game plan against an opponent for the preseason. Coaches are more concerned with their own schemes and determining which players to start, keep, or cut for the regular season. On the surface, this may seem like a hindrance to betting the preseason, but it actually may create unrealized value. Defenses that tend to blitz throughout the preseason game can wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Without watching game film and preparing for exotic blitzes, third and fourth-string offensive linemen may be overwhelmed with the constant barrage of blitzes. Spotting the defenses that continue to pressure the quarterback late into games can be "play on" teams.
TAKE IT ALL INTO CONSIDERATION
When deciding who to bet, do not rely on any one aspect of the handicap. Regarding the aforementioned example: the Giants/Bears game featured a 1-0 team against a 0-1 team. 62% of the time, that's a winless team being victorious. However, handicapping games is complicated and, oftentimes, downright convoluted. Sure, history was on the Bears side, but the Giants have a deeper quarterback rotation with a potential quarterback controversy. The Giants have been disappointing the last few years and traded away/released their best players on both sides of the ball this offseason. They are extremely motivated to win and change their losing narrative. On the other hand, the Bears coach, Matt Nagy, pretty much declared the preseason insignificant. Before the game, it was reported that Nagy intended to sit all 22 starters. Had you just relied on the 62% trend, you would be walking into a loser. When handicapping the preseason, make sure you take all aspects into consideration when deciding who to bet.