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NFL Week 1:
Made for favorites or dogs?

Sep 7, 2004 4:27 AM

The NFL season kicks off this weekend and you can expect plenty of hard hits, excitement, comebacks and memorable surprises.

When analyzing whether Week 1 is better for the favorites or the dogs, it’s important to understand where betting lines comes from. Lines are a combination of team strengths and weaknesses, home field, public perception, off-season moves and statistics from last season.

That final point is crucial for handicappers to understand if you want to try and beat the books. For instance, linemakers put out numbers that are partially based on what happened a year ago. Well, this isn’t last year — this is a brand new season. As we know, football teams can often perform very differently from year to year.

Last season at this time, the Oakland Raiders were a 3-point dog at Tennessee with a total of 46. Those numbers were partially based on the 2002 season, when Oakland had a devastating offense (No. 1 in the NFL) and was the defending AFC champion. As we soon found out, because of age and injuries, last year’s Raiders offense was nowhere near as potent as 2002. Oakland lost 25-20 to Tennessee in that opener, a game that fell under the total. In fact, Oakland went under the total the first three games of 2003, before linemakers adjusted and lowered the total (to 42 in Week 4). Oakland ended up 10-5-1 "under" the total for the season.

The Arizona Cardinals were expected to have a good offense this preseason with the additions of coach Dennis Green and rookie WR Larry Fitzgerald. Injuries to many key skill positions, however, decimated the poor Cardinals in August and the offense never got going. It’s important to keep up on changes from week to week and season to season to put yourself in the best position to locate soft numbers.

So what of Week 1? If you look back at last season’s opening week, the favorites had an 8-7 ATS edge. That’s excellent balance, which is what linemakers prefer. However, if you examine the opening week of the NFL season from 1999-2002, the dogs barked loudly with a 33-21-3 ATS margin.

That’s a good example of how difficult the opening week can be for those who make numbers. In 2002, the dogs went 10-5 ATS in Week 1, with six of the underdogs winning outright. Tampa Bay would end up winning the Super Bowl at season’s end. However in Week 1, the Bucs were a 6-point home favorite over New Orleans and lost 26-20. The Cowboys went from a 4 to 8-point favorite at Houston, yet when the smoke cleared, the books cleaned up as the Texans pulled a 19-10 upset.

Week 1 of the 1999 season also ranked as a dog day afternoon for sports bettors. The dogs went 11-3 ATS, with +9 (Seahawks), +8 (Patriots), and +5½ (Dolphins) dogs winning straight up, and the +10 (Bengals) getting the money in a 36-35 loss at Tennessee. If you like to look at big dogs on the money line, early season games can present surprises.

This is a good example of why a good handicapper doesn’t rely on the law of averages to bail him out. After the dogs went 10-3 ATS on the first NFL Sunday of 1999, novice bettors may have been inclined to think, "The favorite has got to win Monday night." Well the next night on Monday night football, the 5½ point favored Broncos got smoked at home by Miami, 38-21. So much for the law of averages helping the desperate bettor out!