The preseason comes to an end this Thursday as all 32 teams are in action with 30 getting a week and a half to prepare for the start of the regular season.
Carolina and Denver will have just a week to prepare for their Super Bowl 50 rematch when they open the season in Denver a week from Thursday.
With few exceptions most key starters will see little or no action in the final preseason games. A more important reason to rest regulars is to give coaching staffs a final opportunity to make decisions on how many players to keep at many positions and which players will earn the final roster spots as opening day rosters get trimmed to 53.
Time is dwindling in which to make season long wagers on whether teams will exceed or fall short of a certain number of wins. Known as Season Win Totals the bettor is asked to wager as to whether or not, for example, New England will win more or less than 10.5 games in the 16 game regular season.
In 1990 the NFL increased from 10 to 12 the number of teams to make the playoffs. At that time there were just 6 divisions whose champions made the playoffs along with 4 Wild Card teams. The NFL consisted of just 28 teams.
In the mid-1990s the NFL added Carolina and Jacksonville followed a few seasons later by granting Houston a team to replace the departed Oilers. Finally in 2002, Cleveland got the 32nd NFL franchise to replace the original Browns who had moved to Baltimore, changing its nickname to the Ravens.
Beginning in 2002, the NFL was realigned to consist of 8 divisions of 4 teams each with the winners making the playoffs along with 2 Wild Cards from each conference, for the same total of 12 teams.
In the 26 seasons since 1990 an average of 10.3 teams per season have won at least 10 games. An average of 7 teams have won at least 11. Looking just at the 14 seasons since realignment those numbers are not much different, with an average of 10.8 teams winning at least 10 each season and 7.2 teams winning 11 or more.
Since 1990 at least 8 teams each season have won 10 or more games, with a high of 13 in 2003, 2005, 2010 and 2012. At least 5 have won 11 or more in each season since 1990 including a high of 10 in 2005.
In what is often thought of as a league of parity seems to be anything but based on the past four seasons. Since 2012 at least 11 teams each season have won at least 10 games. In 7 of the past 8 seasons at least 7 teams have won at least 11, including 9 teams in both 2013 and 2014 before dropping to 7 last season.
“Parity” would suggest more teams in the mediocre range of 7, 8 or 9 wins. Yet in 3 of the last 4 seasons, and 4 of the last 6 more teams have had 10 or more wins than have had 7, 8 or 9 wins, a significant departure from the previous 6 seasons when only once did this phenomenon occur. The definition of “parity” may have been in 2006 when nearly half the league – 15 teams – won 7, 8 or 9 games while just 8 teams won 10 or more.
For 2016 no team is held at more than 10.5 projected wins.
The numbers are similar at the opposite end of the standings. While most fans are inclined to think positive and expect their team to have a better than expected season, it is much tougher from a psychological perspective to accept the fact that there are also many bad, in fact very bad teams, at the bottom of the standings.
On average, since 1990, 6.9 teams have won 5 or fewer games each season with 4.6 teams winning 4 or less. Looking at just the past 14 seasons since realignment those averages are 7.5 and 5.0, respectively.
In each of the last 5 seasons, 8 of the last 9 and 11 of the past 13 at least 7 teams have won 5 or fewer games, including 10 teams in both 2003 and 2005.
For 2016 only Cleveland is priced at fewer than 5 wins. The Browns are held at 4.5 wins with the OVER carrying a -160 vig with the UNDER priced at an attractive +140.
With no teams priced at exactly 5 wins the next most lightly regarded teams are San Francisco and Tennessee, both of which are at 5.5. The Titans are held at -175 to play OVER the 5.5 wins whereas the 49ers carry a -110 vig for both the OVER and UNDER.
Despite the relative lack of parity in recent seasons, a total of 18 teams are held at from 7 to 9 wins with just 4 held below 7 wins and 10 at 9.5 wins or more.
In looking to play OVER we might want to look at teams we expect to make the playoffs. There is an excellent chance that teams will do so with a minimum of 10 wins. Since 1990, 82 percent of the teams making the playoffs had at least 10 wins (255 of 312). Since division realignment in 2002 the percentage has been even higher with 142 of the 168 playoff teams winning at least 10 (84.5 percent).
Since 1990 only 12 teams that won at least 10 games did not make the playoffs, including one that went 11-5. Following their 18-1 season in 2007, the 2008 New England Patriots, after losing QB Tom Brady to a season ending injury in the first half of the first game of the season, still managed an 11-5 season but lost the AFC East Title to 11-5 Miami on tie breakers and also lost the second AFC Wild Card to Baltimore on tie breakers.
That season was part of a long stretch of seasons in which the AFC overall was much stronger than the NFC. In 2008 there were 6 AFC teams with double digits wins and each won at least 11 games. Indianapolis was 12-4 in the AFC South but finished second to 13-3 Tennessee.
Further illustrating the lack of parity in recent seasons consider that in each of the past 4 seasons at least 7 teams repeated a playoff appearance from one season to the next. While there has not been great consistency for division winners to repeat from one season to the next only once since 2007 have as few as 5 teams been able to repeat making the postseason from the prior campaign.
On average, since 1990, 6.4 teams have made the playoffs after making them the season before. Since realignment in 2002 that average has been 6.2 teams per season beginning with just 4 that made the playoffs in 2002 repeating that performance in 2003.
In looking at potential OVER candidates for 2016 there are a pair of teams that warrant consideration.
Baltimore since both coach John Harbaugh and QB Joe Flacco joined the Ravens in 2008 have made 6 playoff appearances in 8 seasons, recorded multiple road wins and a Super Bowl title. Prior to going 5-11 in 2015’s injury plagued season, Baltimore had won 9 or more games in each of their playoff seasons. The Ravens are held at 8.5 wins for 2016 with the OVER priced at +105 at the Westgate SuperBook.
Another team on the rise with a nucleus of young talent on both sides of the football with some veterans at key positions is Minnesota. Last season the Vikings won the NFC North at 11-5 (Green Bay was 10-6). The Vikings are held at 9.5 wins with the OVER priced at -135.
As to candidates to fall short of expectations and perhaps even fall into that group of teams that win 5 or fewer games, consider the New York Jets. Taking advantage of what turned out to be a weak schedule in 2015 the Jets went 10-6 but the 10 wins were over teams that went just 62-88 against the rest of the NFL.
And those 88 losses do not include the 10 losses to the Jets. Priced at minus 150 to go UNDER 8 wins, it would take a 9-7 record to lose the play and the Jets face a tougher schedule this season which includes a pair of late season games against New England when QB Tom Brady will have long since been back following his suspension for the first 4 games of this season.
An NFL candidate for an UNDER play is the perhaps soon to be relocated to Las Vegas Raiders. No team has attracted as much preseason hype and praise as have the Raiders. And much of that praise is warranted with their fine young and developing offensive skilled position talent and a defense that has some big playmakers. But are the Raiders perhaps still a season away from meeting those lofty expectations?
While the enthusiasm is justified the record suggests the expectations may be too high. Consider that the Raiders have not had a winning season since their Super Bowl season of 2002. And only twice has Oakland managed to win 8 games, both in 2010 and 2011. Their 7 wins last season, the first under current coach Jack del Rio, followed seasons of 3, 4 and 4 wins since 2011.
Although not from Missouri, I will ask the Raiders to “show me” before plunking down my money to expect them to finish 9-7 or better. And if the first part of the season suggests I might be wrong, there will opportunities to benefit from their new found success over the second half of the season on a game by game basis.
A final point – as the season winds down you may find yourself in a position to hedge your season win plays. Though some advocate in just letting your wager ride there are other who suggest you should lock in a profit when the opportunity presents itself. That is a topic to be discussed later this season when the playoffs are closer on the horizon.
Next week’s column will feature final predictions for the dozen teams to make the playoffs and a forecast for Super Bowl 51 next February. In addition each of the opening week’s 16 games will be previewed with a side or totals recommendation provided.