NFL betting: Trying to find an edge on totals

·Betting analyst
·4 min read

The NFL season opened in a big way Thursday night as the defending Super Bowl champions lit up the scoreboard en route to a 31-29 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. The matchup was tailor-made for touchdown-thirsty fans who have been counting down the days until kickoff.

The league showcased two explosive offenses that did not disappoint on the national stage, and bettors who backed the over were the main beneficiaries. A 21-yard TD strike from Dak Prescott to Amari Cooper sealed the over before the 4th quarter even began. The 2021 season started off much like 2020, with over bettors winning big.

Betting NFL totals is more about understanding the environment than it is the teams that take the field. Conditions are constantly changing in the NFL, and last season was the perfect example. Would the limited offseason hurt offenses? How much of an offensive advantage would the absence of fans provide? Enhanced communication at the line of scrimmage made quarterbacks' lives easier on the road. Last season was unique in several ways, but most importantly it was the most high-scoring season in NFL history. The 12,692 points scored shattered the previous record by 707 points. Bettors cashed in early and often as overs won at a 60% rate (29-19) during the season's first three weeks.

Empty stadiums weren't the only factor in last year's scoring surge. Offensive holding penalties plummeted 37% from 2019. Quarterbacks benefited greatly and the conservative behavior from officials made it difficult for the betting market to adjust. The average closing total incrementally increased from 45 to 50 throughout the first five weeks of the season. After those weekly adjustments, over bets only hit at a 48% rate.

Is last year's scoring sustainable?

Sports betting at its core is determining whether information holds predictive value from year to year. What conditions can we anticipate carrying over from the previous week or season? Despite watching last night's 60 point laser show, I believe there are valid reasons targeting unders could be more profitable this NFL Sunday.

Crowd noise: The fans are back in a big way. Home-field advantage has been declining in the NFL, but the fans still play a role in disrupting the opposing offense. A false start or delay of game in the red zone can be the difference between a touchdown and a field goal. Four points can be a massive swing in the total.

New QBs: Week 1 will feature 11 teams with new starting quarterbacks and seven new head coaches. Per ClevAnalytics, rookie head coaches are 1-14 straight up and 4-11 ATS since 2018. We saw Tom Brady struggle in a new system early last season. I'm willing to bet this group doesn't meet market expectations this weekend.

Penalties: Last season's scoring records were aided by a decrease in offensive holding penalties. Early signs from Thursday night point to flags returning to previous rates. Referee Shawn Hochuli led the league in 2020 with 2.5 offensive holding calls per game. He flagged the Bucs and Cowboys a combined six times for holding last night. While the first four were insignificant, the final two came with 2:17 and 1:37 left in the game. Penalties kill drives.

It's Week 1: Typically Week 1 is sloppy. Preseason is shortened and teams are playing starters less to avoid injuries before the season. It takes time for teams to get in sync. This was even apparent in last year's record-setting season. Overs were 9-7 on opening week while they were much more successful in Week 2 (11-5).

NFL totals are very appealing bets because your wager isn't tied to a certain team winning. Everybody loves to bet the over. It's much more fun rooting for touchdowns than punts, but it's ultimately more exciting being on the winning side. Due to the public preference of the over, you can often find an edge on the other side. The average total is 47.3 for the remaining games, which is over two points higher than Week 1 last season.

Solid wagers: SF/DET u45.5 and DEN/NYG u41.5 are two games that I am comfortable with taking the under at the current number.

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