As the NFL season goes on, sports bettors must play a tricky balancing game. Preseason priors still matter, but the happenings on the field should gain more and more weight as the sample size grows. Deciding how much value to place on early 2021 NFL trends can greatly influence betting decisions.
TheLines decided to put some NFL teams on trial, judging a few early-season developments. How much should you believe in these, and how should they affect your bets going forward?
Mo Nuwwarah and Eli Hershkovich bounced their opinions back and forth.
True or False: The Cowboys Are A Legit Super Bowl Contender
Eli: I admittedly wasn’t high on the Cowboys heading into the season, but their production on both sides of the ball has me pulling a 180.
Not only does Dallas boast the fourth-ranked offense in EPA per play, but they also slot in at No. 9 on the other side of the ball. A large part of that defensive success stems from a ball-hawking defense, forcing the second-most takeaways per game (2.5) behind Buffalo. This category might not seem sustainable, but keep in mind that when Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn was operating the controls of the Seahawks’ defense (2013-14), they delivered an above-average turnover rate as well.
Mo: I wasn’t too excited about the Cowboys either, and Week 1 didn’t do a ton for me. Yeah, their passing offense looked good, but Tampa made some silly mistakes to stop themselves from blowing the game open. And Dak Prescott looked noticeably slower following that awful injury.
But they have just looked better and better. Prescott and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore are just ripping through teams and the offensive line looks elite once again. All of the advanced metrics love Dallas’ offense like you said. They rank fifth in passing DVOA and first in rushing.
I’m finding myself buying in a little to this defense. I love their speed and aggressiveness. Micah Parsons got schooled Week 1 by Tom Brady’s play action game but he’s learning. And Trevon Diggs looks like a potentially elite corner.
Mo: I do think Dallas belongs in that second tier of contenders. I can’t shake the feeling Coach Mike McCarthy will cost them everything in the playoffs, but this is a really strong team. Believers hammered the value out of their futures numbers this week at some books, but I think if they have a losing streak I’d be looking to buy in. And on a game-to-game basis, this is a team that will be awesome in positive scripts because of how well they run the ball. I’m looking to bet them live against bad run defenses when ahead.
Eli: I mentioned the Cowboys’ Super Bowl price looked valuable after their Week 3 win over the Eagles. It’s still the most appealing option on the board if you’re looking for a futures bet.
True or False: Bengals Have A Good Team
Early 2021 NFL trends: The Bengals have been among the early surprises, running up a 3-1 record with advanced metrics like EPA and DVOA rating both the offense and defense highly.
Mo: The betting community’s No. 1 whipping boy coming into the season as far as coaching goes was my guy Zac Taylor. While I have to say I was frustrated it took him so long to let loose and start throwing on Jacksonville, he has a team called the Bengals 3-1 with the metrics saying this isn’t a total mirage.
How can you not be impressed by Joe Burrow? Unless you’re a PFF intern, I guess. The guy has 22 TDs and 9 INTs in his pro career playing on teams with atrocious offensive lines and often in negative script. He’s sixth in EPA/play so far at the QB position.
Eli: I’m with you on Cincinnati’s offense, but I’m not there with Lou Anarumo’s defense. In the Bengals’ three wins, they’ve been gifted with:
- Vikings: 12 offensive penalties for 116 yards
- Steelers: An inept Ben Roethlisberger (4.8 yards per pass attempt)
- Jaguars: Urban Meyer (just kidding, but they nearly lost outright to the league’s second-worst team, per our power rankings)
Even with Packers stud corner Jaire Alexander out (shoulder), let’s use this game as a barometer test before giving Cincinnati too much credit in the market.
Mo: I’d watch for what Taylor does with this offense. Last season, I felt like they had the right idea letting Burrow sling it a million times, but they’re among the lowest teams in passing play percentage so far. Maybe they just want to protect their franchise QB, but I’m not fully in on trusting this team until they start airing it out again. My feeling is between overcommitting to the run and a defense playing above its talent level, this team is a little overvalued in the market right now.
Eli: Unless the market continues to back the Bengals this week and bumps the spread down to Packers -2.5, I don’t see any pregame value in that one. But if their winning ways somehow continue, we might be betting the Lions as home underdogs in Week 6.
True or False: Cardinals Have An Elite Defense
Early 2021 NFL trends: Some expected a big season from the Cardinals offense, but few imagined an elite defense (sixth in DVOA, fifth in EPA/play) would drive them to the league’s best record.
Eli: Arizona’s defensive success needs to be examined through the lens of its offense first. MVP favorite Kyler Murray and his explosive offense is one of four teams since 1970 to post at least 30 points and 400 yards in each of their first four games. They’ve also generated the second-highest EPA/play — behind only the Chiefs.
But in the two games that the Cardinals faced a two-possession deficit (vs. Vikings, at Jaguars), their overrated defense allowed an average of 6.41 yards per rush attempt. While that might not appear to be a significant variable, it shows that when opponents establish a ground game and play-action passing attack, they can keep pace with Murray and Co.
Mo: So, what you’re getting at here is you think the Cardinals offense has been put in great positions because of both their offense sustaining drives and their offense scoring points to get the other team into one-dimensional mode and let this pass rush go to work?
I have to say I’m still pretty skeptical of this bunch. Every time I look at the roster, I’m staring at these corners. Byron Murphy had a pretty rough first two seasons — average PFF grade of 56.5 — and Robert Alford was out of football for two years, basically. Their backups are lower-round rookies and a special teams player.
Eli: Those cornerbacks could be under scrutiny in Sunday’s game against the 49ers, especially if Kyle Shanahan conjures up his usual magic on the ground. There’s still plenty of value in the road underdog. Whether Jimmy Garoppolo (calf) or Trey Lance start under center, here’s why I’m betting San Francisco.
Mo: Yeah, I’m looking to sell the Cardinals right now. I feel like people are forgetting this team should have lost at home to the Vikings if not for missing a short game-winning field goal. I don’t think their defense can sustain this, and I don’t trust Kliff Kingsbury one bit. The market has already started to come in with 49ers money and I’m leaning with you there.
True or False: The Bucs Have A Bad Pass Defense
Early 2021 NFL trends: After dominating Kansas City in the Super Bowl, many assumed the Bucs would bring one of the best defenses in the NFL to bear in 2021. It hasn’t happened. The early 2021 NFL trends here show a pass defense ranked 27th in success rate allowed and 21st in DVOA.
Mo: I think everyone probably came into this season with too high of expectations for this group. They got hot in the playoffs last year but they also had some pretty favorable things fall in their favor, particularly with the Chiefs offensive line being unable to give Patrick Mahomes time to beat them.
I’m a fan of Todd Bowles as a coordinator, but I think it’s more based on what he does up front with his blitz packages. The Bucs have been getting torched through the air so far. How much do you think the injuries play in here?
Eli: With Carlton Davis (quad) — the Buccaneers’ best coverage corner — out for at least Sunday’s game against the Dolphins, the Bucs now have four key rotations DBs banged up or out for the time being. I wouldn’t be surprised if even Jacoby Brissett can expose it this weekend.
Mo: I see Tampa Bay as a team I’m looking to fire overs on as often as I can. Their secondary looks very beatable. And teams can’t run on them. They know they can’t. So they wind up passing a ton. On the other side of the ball, the Bucs run the ball less often than almost anyone. It’s just a recipe for tons of overs, and especially after that rain-soaked game potentially dampened expectations, I’m happy to get back on board with Tampa Bay overs.
Eli: Tampa’s secondary has serious short-term issues due to these injuries. As I wrote up this week, I like a bet on Miami at +9 or better.
True or False: Buffalo Has An Elite Defense But A Concerning Offense
Early 2021 NFL trends: While Buffalo has authored three blowout wins after their opening-week loss, their defense has powered their success. Advanced metrics rate them the best in the league by far while the offense hasn’t matched last year’s heights.
Mo: Did Buffalo somehow flip from an offensive juggernaut with a decent defense to the other way around? DVOA and EPA absolutely love this defense, but it’s pretty hard to line up a worse group of opposing offenses. We all see now how bad the Steelers are, and they got to follow with Miami, Washington and Houston with Davis Mills.
The only team they’ve faced with even half of a pulse on that end is Washington.
I think I’m legitimately a little concerned about the offense. They haven’t really dominated anyone aside from Washington. Maybe last year we already saw peak Josh Allen?
Eli: That’s a fair point, and we’ve seen the Bills’ struggle in the red zone the most — with the 10th-lowest touchdown percentage in that category.
The market perception of Buffalo is also fascinating. It was a 4.5-point road underdog on the look-ahead line for this Chiefs matchup, and now it’s down to a field goal. Kansas City’s secondary is clearly vulnerable, allowing the league’s fourth-highest dropback EPA, but can Buffalo take advantage? We witnessed an inefficient Eagles red-zone offense deal with Buffalo’s biggest concern in Week 4.
Mo: This might be the No. 1 thing I’m watching for this weekend. There aren’t many better spots to get right for this offense than a KC defense that has looked out of sorts all year after two straight solid seasons. I’m skeptical of Buffalo, which feels weird to say even though I put them first in my power rankings, but the more I look at this team, the more I wonder if they’re a product of an easy schedule. I think I’ll be on KC this weekend and likely to fade Buffalo against anyone above the creampuff tier until Allen proves 2020 reflects his new true talent level.
Eli: Or can we even get a live bet on the Chiefs at plus-money? Yes, please.