Week 1 of the NFL season kicked off with extremely limited attendance, but it provided the usual unexpected and wild finishes. Tom Brady dropped his debut with the Bucs, Philip Rivers couldn’t lead the Colts to a win, and Washington pulled off a comeback win in Ron Rivera’s first game as the head man in D.C..
There are tons of results and trends to sort through after a wild week, and in an effort to keep you updated throughout the 2020-21 season, TheLines is providing weekly updates to our Power Rankings.
The futures landscape is constantly changing, and after one week the Chiefs are now tied with Ravens as Super Bowl favorites with +550 odds at DraftKings Sportsbook. The Saints (+1000) and 49ers (+1200) are the favorites from the NFC. For a full breakdown of the futures betting landscape, check out our Super Bowl futures page.
The Power Rankings below look beyond futures odds and predict the actual potential of each team on a weekly basis, helping fans think ahead when placing bets at sportsbooks.
Odds are always changing based on results and teams are just getting warmed up after experiencing no preseason and a training camp without as many contact reps.
Here are Nate Weitzer‘s NFL Power Rankings, along with betting odds courtesy of online sportsbooks in the US.
2020 NFL Power Rankings: Week 2
How to use NFL Power Rankings
Stay tuned for updates to our power rankings all season long! These can serve as a valuable tool for placing NFL futures bets or planning how to bet on NFL games.
Of course, you have to account for factors such as travel time, home field advantage, and injuries as the season progresses. Yet early in the season, it’s possible to go against the betting public by sticking to your own process.
Bettors tend to overreact to recent results and are very reactionary in an “update league” like the NFL. Therefore, the betting market shifts to these reactions.
If you stick with the raw data, i.e. metrics on offensive line play, a quarterback’s record at home, and turnover differential, you might be able to cash big early in the season before oddsmakers and the betting public adjust. Trust your data and stay one step ahead with a comprehensive Power Rankings system.
How to handicap NFL games
What does it mean to “handicap” a game? At first, it might seem that you’ll be running advanced metrics and spitting out numbers and point spreads. In reality, handicapping is a fancy bettor’s term for preparing and researching. There’s dozens of game factors that need to be taken into account like injuries, matchups, and metrics but also market factors like line movement and public biases.
First are the surface-level factors that can determine a game like home field advantage (though in 2020, that is severely diminished), key injuries, and the weather. For injuries, don’t just browse the fantasy football injury report– a diminished offensive line or defensive secondary can be devastating to a team’s performance. For example, the Washington Football Team was able to record eight sacks on the Eagles’ Carson Wentz and overcome a 17-point deficit and underdog odds due to three key offensive line absences for Philadelphia in Week 1 of the 2020 season.
Traditionally, the home team is given a 2- or 3-point advantage for playing in their home city in front of their home fans. Even without fans in attendance, travel takes a toll on visiting teams and has some (albeit diminished) effect on the line. Also needed for consideration is the weather: rain, wind, and snow can hurt a pass-heavy offense and cold weather might hurt warm-climate teams. Teams playing at altitude (Denver) may also have an advantage over teams that don’t frequently play at altitude (Miami).
Strength of schedule is useful when looking at futures bet. For example, the Houston Texans averaged 23.6 points per game against the 13th-toughest schedule in the NFL in 2019. In 2020, the Texans were scheduled the 8th-toughest schedule in the NFL and traded away star receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Using this information, we can determine that the Texans are likely to see a negative regression in points per game. Strength of schedules are also broken down positionally and should be taken into consideration, as well.
Beyond those easily-identifiable factors are matchups, schemes, and metrics. If you aren’t a film junkie, don’t worry– there’s plenty of Twitter follows and websites that can help you break it down and make it easily understandable.
Look for size advantages in receivers and defensive backs; players like Julio Jones can make life difficult for a 5’ 8” corner and the Falcons might gameplan to exploit that advantage. Other positional advantages to keep in mind: pass rushers against inexperienced/struggling offensive tackles and athletic pass-catching tight ends against linebackers who struggle defending receivers. Schematic advantages are also worth noting. For example, seasoned vets like Josh McDaniels (Patriots offensive coordinator) or Mike Zimmer (Vikings defensive coordinator) will have an advantage against a first-year play-caller.
Advanced metrics can be telling and expose weaknesses in teams, but with thousands of metrics out there, it can be difficult to tell which are really helpful. NBC’s Warren Sharp is a great resource for finding advanced metrics that make significant differences in outcomes. A quick tab on stats worth paying attention to:
- Yards per play (rather than total yards)
- Expected points per drive (rather than points per game)
- Air yards per attempt (rather than passing yards thrown)
- 3rd down conversion
These numbers will break down the efficiency and effectiveness of an offense (or defense, if you’re going with allowed) and remove the “garbage time” numbers plenty of players can pile on. Contrary to the belief that stats never lie, stats can actually be the best liars when used incorrectly.
If you’ve really got a handle on the NFL game, a popular focus recently has been on coaches’ understanding of analytics and their willingness to utilize probability factors in their gameplan. For example, failing to use analytics and probability both cost the Cowboys and Broncos opening-week wins (rushing on third and long, hoarding timeouts, settling for field goals inside the three yard line, etc.). Older coaches who’ve rejected the use of modern analytics can move lines (especially over/unders) and are worth keeping tabs on.
Outside of the game itself, bettors should understand how lines move and react to sharp bettors and the general public. One thing to remember about public betting: they are easily and drastically influenced by recency bias and nonsequitur trends. For example, Sammy Watkins almost always comes out in Week 1 and dominates, but disappears for the rest of the year. Yet year-in and year-out, Watkins is picked up in thousands of fantasy leagues with hopes that he continues his streak. This affects statistical futures from the droves of public bettors that go and bet his over in receiving yards and moves the line up (say, from 405.5 yards to 425.5 yards).
Sharp bettors (professionals and those who prepare correctly) can take advantage of moving lines and get better odds for their wagers. Taking the Watkins example, bettors who take the under now have 20 more yards of breathing room and a higher probability of success. The same goes for good players who play a poor Week 1 (ex. Saquon Barkley). Their futures will decrease due to the public all betting under their totals, and gives sharp bettors more space to work with when betting overs.
This tactic is known as fading the public and has a long track record of success.
Power Rankings vs. Power Ratings
Everyone sees Power Rankings just about everywhere you look– SportsCenter, the Herd, just about every website– and those are useful in their own right. The concept is simple, just a 1-32 list of the best team to the worst team. Maybe it’s based on metrics, maybe it’s based on the eyeball test, maybe it’s both.
Power Ratings differ quite a bit despite sounding similar. Ratings quantify the numerical advantage one team has over another based on past scores and season performance. Ratings are drawn exclusively from quantifiable metrics (though those metrics may differ person to person) and are used to help predict future scores and outcomes, rather than saying Team X is just better than Team Y and should win.
How to build your own Power Rankings
For those looking to rank teams 1-32 based on last season, the games ongoing this season, and a looking quickly at the depth chart, you can do just that. However, it likely won’t serve as a useful tool when it comes to betting, especially against the spread; you’ll want to build (or find) a set of power ratings first. That way, you’ll have a more accurate and quantifiable justification to your rankings and remove potential biases.
To create these power ratings, begin with ranking the teams according to projected number of wins. This will give you a base to work with rather than working from scratch. Assign a number to each team, starting at the top with 16 and running down to the bottom where the last ranked team receives -16. From there, adjust the numbers– 16 through -16, with zero being the middle– based on projected point totals, defensive ranks, and personnel. If interested, look up formulas on expected point differentials to create a more pinpoint rating for each team.
Putting it together
Once you have your numbers, compare two teams (numbers in parentheses are hypothetical power ratings): Indianapolis (12) @ Los Angeles Chargers (-8).
The difference between these teams ratings, 4, is now your theoretical point spread. Add in a 2.5-point advantage for the home team (Los Angeles) for an adjusted point spread of 1.5 in favor of the Colts.
Now add in your factors (injuries, metrics, etc.) to fine-tune your spread. Derwin James is out for the season and creates a massive disadvantage for the Chargers’ defensive secondary (the numbers on this are worth looking up) and should benefit the Colts at least half a point. Your final spread for this game comes out to Colts -2 (-110) @ Chargers.
Now, take your projected spread of -2 and compare it to the Vegas lines. Say the opening line comes out to Colts -4.5 (-110) @ Chargers. That should be an easy bet, since our projected point total is -2 and we would take the Chargers to cover. The process will take some refining and new factors will emerge as the season goes on, but this is the basic process in handicapping your own NFL games.
Not only will this help you quantify point spreads and decide on feasible spreads, but it will help you dig deeper and find new metrics that create a new dimension of understanding for betting on the NFL.
2020 NFL Pre-season Power Rankings
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