What closely tracking spread results has taught us at the NFL's quarter-season mark

 

Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston runs a turnover into the end zone The recent Monday night matchup between the Chiefs and Redskins was supposed to mark a major milestone in this young NFL season. Based on the league schedule, it should have been the point at which exactly a quarter of the season's games had been played. However, since a Week 1 matchup between the Bucs and Dolphins had been postponed because of Hurricane Irma, the KC-WAS tilt actually ended up being the penultimate checkpoint game.

Still, there was a milestone that took place that night. Not a planned one, like the game itself should have been; just a standard NFL occurrence that surprisingly hadn't yet occurred this year.

I'm speaking, of course, of that wacky last-second touchdown that padded the scoreboard with meaningless points and sent the betting universe into an absolute frenzy. Not only did it snatch away winnings from anyone who picked the Redskins to cover a +6.5 spread, it was the first instance in any of the opening 64 games in which a spread result swung in the final two minutes of a contest.

You may have just read that statement and now find yourself wondering, "Really? Are you sure about that?" And if you do, your answer is yes. One hundred per cent yes.

Here at Live Bets, we've actually been closely monitoring results against the spread (ATS) since day one of the 2017 NFL campaign. For every game that's taken place, we've kept tabs on how decisive the covering team's result is and how badly the other team fell short.

All of that data is displayed in the table below. In each cell where a team and week intersect, we've listed that team's result, whether it was the favourite or underdog (and by how much), if it was at home or away, and the final score. The colours marking the cells signify the quality of a team's cover (or its failure to do so). To the right of the coloured cells are three columns that denote a team's total points based on the Live Bets scoring system, how that total ranks against the competition, and how a team's strength of schedule ranks based on Football Outsiders' DVOA metric.

When all of that data is laid out in one place, trends quickly start to emerge. Here are a handful that stand out, along with some ways in which you can use them to your advantage in the coming weeks.

Live Bets data about NFL performance against the spread

Chiefs' winning ways extend to the spread

Kansas City has captured the attention of everyone around the league with its consistency in the win column, but its consistency against the spread has been formidable in its own right. Despite playing the eighth-hardest schedule in the league thus far, KC has put up two decisive covers on the road and two shaky ones at home. Andy Reid's squad is a tough and well-rounded bunch that is just as comfortable in a shootout as it is in a grind-it-out battle—something that couldn't be said of it in past years, but applies now thanks to the savvy play of Alex Smith and his explosive offensive weapons.

What's slightly worrisome about the Chiefs is, that if they keep rolling like this, their lines will start to inflate and make covers more difficult to come by. And with their home covers against Washington and Philadelphia proving to be extremely shaky, KC bettors may not be so fortunate in upcoming home matches against the Steelers and Broncos. Still, the Chiefs are getting a very favourable -1/-1.5 line (depending on where you check) for their showdown in Houston this week. For a team like Kansas City that is way more polished than Houston, that's about as good as it gets.

San Francisco is quietly making bettors rich

If you throw out the rough Week 1 loss against Carolina—which seems like a reasonable thing to do, considering the 49ers were playing their first game under a new coach and had completely reshuffled their roster with mostly young pieces—San Fran is on a three-game cover streak, with two coming against top-15 DVOA teams. Their two point loss to the Rams was one of the gutsiest covers of the season, not to mention one of the most entertaining games thus far. Plus, it's as if oddsmakers haven't caught on yet to the fact that they battle hard. Even after the admirable efforts against Seattle and LA, the 49ers were given a perplexing +6.5 line in Arizona—which they proceeded to cover easily, nearly winning the game in overtime.

Whenever San Francisco is being undervalued against a good opponent, it should be a no-brainer pick. A line like the one they have in Indianapolis this weekend (+1.5) is a bit tougher to gauge, since there's so little margin for error. But this scrappy bunch will break through with a win eventually, and this could very well be the Sunday it happens. 

Underdog Lions and Bills greatly outperforming expectations

Matthew Stafford scrambles with the ballDid you know the Lions have been either 2.5- or 3-point underdogs in every game this season? And did you know that, save for a heartbreakingly close call against Atlanta, they could be decisively undefeated against the spread?

Indeed, thanks to the NFL's highest-paid quarterback (Matthew Stafford) and the rest of Jim Caldwell's balanced squad, the Lions have made a lot of other people richer as well. For them to continue doing that though, they'll have to start doing it as favourites as well, beginning against the Panthers at home this weekend. That game should serve as a good litmus test for assigning the team a proper rating, considering that the Lions' schedule has ranked 26th in DVOA difficulty so far. Regardless, it's clear that this is a competitive group, and one to keep an eye on—especially when it's an underdog.

Meanwhile, Buffalo has emerged largely out of nowhere as both an AFC East contender and a spread darling. Tied with Detroit as the second-best ATS performer under the Live Bets ranking system, the Bills have either covered or pushed in every game they've played. And aside from being a seven-point home favourite against the Jets, they've been underdogs in every single contest. Somewhat shockingly, they are underdogs (+3) again this weekend at Cincinnati. That game could make for a good pick if you believe in this Bills team and are (justifiably) skeptical of a Bengals squad whose only win came against the lowly Browns. With winnable games coming up for Buffalo against the Bucs, Raiders, Jets, Saints, and Chargers, the Bills could be an attractive option a lot of those weeks.

Pats and Seahawks are down, but probably not out ATS                

When you enter a season as a defending champ or perennial contender, that tends to come with some expectations. Thus far, neither New England or Seattle has managed those very well. Each has one decisive cover and three rough ATS losses. Can we expect those ratios to start changing anytime soon?

In New England's case, believers can at least point to its schedule—the toughest in the league through four games—and imagine things tilting. Matt Patricia's defense is a legitimate concern, though, and could haunt bettors if the team can't protect a lead. The smart money's on the D figuring things out against Tampa, New York (Jets), Atlanta, and San Diego over the next four weeks; but be weary of large spreads with the Patriots.

Seattle's schedule is far less forgiving, as it has been the 30th most difficult through four games. But Tennessee and Green Bay could both be contenders, San Francisco is scrappy, and Seattle looked great against Indianapolis, so this might just be a case of a veteran team taking some time to re-establish itself. There'll be little margin for error in the coming weeks against the desperate Giants and suddenly resurgent Rams, Texans, and Redskins. But inflated lines for those latter two teams could play right into Seahawks bettors hands considering Seattle's historical dominance at home.

Home and road teams have been almost as even as you can get

Oddsmakers must really know what they're doing, since after four weeks of play, road teams have covered the spread just as often as home teams. Seriously. If you look at the 59 games that have been played in which there was a clear home team and a team that clearly covered the spread (this excludes the two London games, the two games that ended in a push, and the postponed game), home teams covered in 29 instances and road teams covered in 30. The only way things could be more even than that is if one of the home teams that pushed had actually covered. But alas, we'll have to settle for near-perfect symmetry instead.

Pounce on Chargers and Cardinals if their stocks dip any lower

Philip Rivers is hit by an Eagles defenderHave the Chargers and Cardinals been total ATS disappointments this season? Absolutely. They come in at 31st and 32nd, respectively, in the Live Bets rankings. Neither has managed to cover a spread yet, and Los Angeles has the added challenge of overcoming a pitiful home crowd whose paltry number of seats are usually filled more by fans of their opponent than they are by Chargers faithful. With star running back David Johnson lost for the year, Arizona has had a difficult time generating offense. Both teams began the year with the playoffs looking like a real possibility, but that hope has been more or less extinguished.

Even if the playoffs are out of reach, though, it doesn't mean that these teams can't turn things around against the spread. While they haven't even been in covering range during most of the fourth quarters they've played, they have kept things reasonably close to the spread. LA, for example, has been 1,2, 12, and 4 points away from covering in its first four games—all while playing the league's ninth-hardest schedule.

Arizona inspires a bit less faith, having underachieved with the fourth-easiest schedule; but what that means is that it could start transitioning from being overvalued to being undervalued. Football teams are a bit like stocks in the sense that their betting value lies in how they are perceived, not necessarily in how good of a product they represent. As we've seen with San Francisco thus far, a bad team can be a bettor's best friend. Look for the Chargers and Cardinals to enter that territory if their stocks dip any lower.

Half the league has been wildly inconsistent

This is why it's dangerous to read too much into the first four weeks of play in the NFL. We still don't really know what a lot of teams are, in terms of quality. Are the Falcons closer to the team who demolished Green Bay at home or the one that laid an egg against Buffalo in the same building? Was it a fluke when the Panthers got crushed at home by New Orleans, or was it a fluke when they marched into Foxborough and stole a rare road win at New England a week later? What's going on with the Ravens, who looked like a well-rounded team for two weeks before getting stomped back-to-back by the comparably inconsistent Jaguars and Steelers (the latter of whom might just be having some troubles on the road). The Bears, Bengals, Cowboys, Packers, Vikings, Saints, Giants, Jets, and Titans have all displayed a significant degree of inconsistency as well, making the majority of games every weekend difficult to gauge.

Expect things to start leveling out soon. The second quarter of the season is where we start to get a sense of who is for real and who has just played some fluky games. Keep in mind that injuries may be playing a role in things also. Green Bay has been using patchwork offensive lines every week, Minnesota is already on its third-string quarterback, New England misses Julian Edelman, etc. If a lot of spreads scare you away right now, that makes total sense. Just give it some time, and check back soon at Live Bets for more information!