Better team than record?
Perhaps not

Nov 11, 2003 5:02 AM

The halfway point of the NFL season is a good time to step back and reflect. As a handicapper, it’s wise to find teams that have developed either an inflated reputation or are underrated due to disappointing overall records.

Think of the difference in perspective of a 5-3 record versus 3-5. The 5-3 team is looking like a strong possibility for the postseason, while the 3-5 team’s coach may be looking over his shoulder, wondering if the ax is about to fall. Yet we could be looking at two teams that were basically the same, save for a last second field goal and a punt returned for a touchdown.

Two plays out of the entire season may well have a two game swing in the won-lost column. In contrast, the long baseball regular season allows no great sense of urgency for teams in the early going.

Consider that after 16 games in the 2003 major league season, only half of the six division leaders (Yankees, Kansas City, Seattle, Montreal, Cubs, San Francisco) made the playoffs. The eventual champion Florida Marlins were 7-9.

The brevity of the NFL schedule is in part why underdogs have historically been a smarter play. The charts we’ve fashioned is our way of searching for football’s version of the Marlins.

The below 55 percent breakout was designed to capture the .500 teams without including too many above the line. Those less than 45 percent are designed to only include teams with a (significantly) losing record.

At first glance the numbers are impressive. To hit 63 percent against the NFL point spread is good going in anyone’s books. Most below 55 percent produce anywhere from 10 to 15 plays per year on average. The 45 percentile may show five to 10 plays.

There is a lot of logic behind the results. We know underdogs have historically been much stronger plays than favorites in the NFL, that teams can quickly become over or under rated on the basis of their final scores and won-lost record alone, and that teams with positive stats may possess the capability to win future football games.

There were certainly some other factors we tested that did not show such strong results, which may suggest the strong performance of the listed factors can be attributed to casting a wide net. If you have examined enough sequences of coin flips you might start seeing "patterns."

Nevertheless, teams with good statistics in key areas are a reasonable bet to play above their performance, despite uninspiring records. Back them as underdogs!

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers jump off that list, showing up in four of the five positive indicator categories. The Bucs must surely rate as the team with the most under-achieving won-lost record.

Keep an eye out for teams that may not have shown results in wins, but have put up some numbers elsewhere. This is a truism for all sports.

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