Back when I was a wee betting slip of a lad, some friends and I used to follow the tips of legendary Racing Post soccer boffin, Kevin Pullein. King Kev's analysis of football markets was always insightful and often illuminating - apart from when it came to recommending a bet. In fact, he would regularly dissect a top-flight game from every which way before deducing that the bookmakers had got their odds about right and uttering his fabled finale: "conclusion: no bet."
While that was a very frustrating take for a legion of loyal followers who only wanted a live wager on that night's televised game, Pullein was right to exercise caution. Key Premier League markets are among the most exposed and solid in the business. Leaving aside the maxim proposing the glorious unpredictability of sport, there is no mystery as to what the odds should be.
Similarly, few markets are more reliable than those on the NFL. Pored over hour-by-hour and channel-by-channel, American Football lines are always sound and hyper-sensitive to changes in key variables. In short, it's hard to steal a winning edge. Still, ever the optimist, let's have a look at how we might:
Key markets and strategy
Match Points Spread
Those clever folk in Sin City try to even up every game to a 50-50 proposition by way of handicap line which offers every game's underdog a chance. And while most sports now balance the scales with handicap markets, few are as informed, well-established or accurate as those on NFL matches.
Superiority quotes range from +0.5pts upwards but not all quotes carry the same relevance. This is because of the "big number" bias which rules in a league where points are almost exclusively scored in stages of 3 points (a field goal) or 7 points (a touchdown with accompanying regulation extra point).
Consequently, the numbers three and seven are known as "big numbers" in NFL punting, as they often determine the margin of victory in a game. Three is the biggest of big numbers on the handicaps, accounting for the precise winning edge in a staggering one-in-seven NFL games. The big numbers to take heed of in handicap betting are: 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, 13, 14, 17.
Total Points Spread
A similar system of preferential "big numbers" also exists when examining the "Unders" and "Overs" on total points in any match (e.g. will a game produce more or less than 42 points?). Again due to the likely incremental scoring nature of American Football, the following numbers for total match scoring regularly crop up: 30, 33, 37, 38, 41, 44, 45, 47, 48, 51. One of these total points "make-ups" happens a third of the time, again a far higher percentage than one would expect from a motley-looking crew. You should prioritise these numbers and bet accordingly. For example, you should be far more confident betting over 40.5 Total Points than over 41.5 Total Points.
The Money Line
The more prosaic, outright outcome of the match: win/lose/tie. The latter outcome is incredibly unlikely - Americans hate nothing more than an unresolved draw, which is one of the reasons Test cricket never took off stateside. Overtime always offers another almost "sudden death" window with which to find the requisite resolution to a tight match.
First/Anytime Touchdown Scorer
A notoriously poor value market but a popular one nonetheless. As with football, punters love to back their favourite players to score, but such is the variety of potential plays at a team's disposal when they're in the red zone, it's difficult to be definitive on target men. However, most quarterbacks have their go-to guys and many coaches' playbooks scream "run" the nearer they get to the end zone. Look at the stats and act appropriately. Also consider trading in the safety net of Anytime TD Scorer (a market which is more readily available when the play-offs begin) which offers worse odds but greatly-reduced frustration!
Understanding the impact of different weather
The NFL prides itself on being unbreakable by the forces of Mother Nature. Sleet, snow, torrential downpours, high winds, even lightning have failed to stop games in the past. So consider the following climatic conditions, especially when trading over or under on points. Check the weather forecasts on game-day but remember that some outfits play inside domes where the outside elements are immaterial!
Rain/Snow: wet conditions on grass render the terrain slower and play gets bogged down. Sloppy surfaces lead to a slippery ball and attritional head-to-heads, often premised on hard-yard running and a reluctance or inability to throw deep downfield. Fewer points are invariably the result.
Cold: certain stadiums (Lambeau and Heinz Field in winter spring readily to mind) get blasted by sub-zero temperatures in winter, with the effect of hardening the ball to a rock-like quality. It's far harder to catch and kick and one-dimensional games can therefore ensue. Make sure your preferred side possesses both a strong ground assault and run defense.
Wind: perhaps the most overlooked game-changer and one which most contributes to low scoring. Sides which rise and fall on the passing game (i.e. proponents of the West Coast offense) will struggle in blustery tradewinds, as will all field-goal kickers. Wind is also the element to which hadicappers react the slowest, giving accurate forecast-readers the chance to play the unders successfully.
Keeping up to date
The following websites provide indispensible aids and insight into some of the latest news, opinion and stats in the NFL:
Injuries: every team sport has its pivotal players who are the key variable in the sum of a side's parts. But this playmaker trend is particularly prevalent in the NFL with regard to its quarterbacks. Offenses can be based entirely around these Goliaths. Therefore if a lynchpin gets taken out - as Tom Brady's ACL tear proved with the Patriots in 2008 - even a strong all-round team can recede into oblivion.
In-running: there's plenty of time to adjust and assess your positions in-play. Regular breaks are cued for commercials, injuries, reviews, timeouts, two-minute warnings and the end of each quarter.
In conclusion, this is a three-hour chess match to savour. A sound and selective strategy, premised on thorough research and keeping the trends in your favour, can also make it time profitably spent.
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