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Can impressive run for NFL single-digit road underdogs continue?

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Hopefully,  you’ve caught wind by now of the amazing season that single-digit road underdogs are enjoying in the NFL. If not, hopefully it’s not too late.

I know some of my VSiN colleagues have been turning readers’ attention to this phenomenon for much of the season. Here, I break down some of the details of what has been a remarkable run by small road underdogs this year, and explain some of the reasons for why I believe it is happening.

Overall, for the season, single-digit road underdogs or those catching between 1 and 9.5 points, boast an eye-opening record of 35-34 SU & 47-21-1 ATS (69.1 percent). The separation of the double-digit underdogs is noteworthy, too, as those teams are just 4-9-1 ATS this season, so clearly there is something to this. But how unusual is this 69.1 percent point spread winning rate? It would be the highest this century by 12 percent if it were to stay at the current rate. Naturally, however, we can expect some regression.

In only one week, Week 7, were these small road ’dogs not profitable for bettors, and over the last two weeks, these teams have gone 14-3 ATS. Looking more closely at the results for patterns, here are the records of single-digit NFL road ’dogs in 2021 by game type:

  • Non-divisional conference games: 13-13 SU & 19-6-1 ATS.
  • Divisional games: 13-8 SU & 14-7 ATS.
  • Nonconference games: 9-13 SU & 14-8 ATS.

Obviously there are some significant differences in the outright success rates for these groups, but overall, in terms of point spread success, all three have been quite strong.

Harrison Bryant and the Browns were single-digit underdogs when they beat the Bengals, 41-16, in Cincinnati on Nov. 7, 2021.
Harrison Bryant and the Browns were single-digit underdogs when they beat the Bengals, 41-16, in Cincinnati on Nov. 7, 2021.
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What are the reasons for this small road ’dog phenomenon? I can think of three:

The NFL has great balance this season

There is just one team with fewer than two losses in the NFL. There are 13 other teams that have either four or five wins. In other words, the number of dominant teams is not at the level it has been in previous years. This in itself leads to underdogs being able to compete well in games against supposed “better” teams.

NFL home-field advantage is virtually nonexistent

Two weeks ago in VSiN’s Point Spread Weekly, I released my annual True Home-Field Advantage ratings in college and pro football. I determined that the actual true home-field advantage of NFL teams in the last 3¹/₂ seasons has been about 1.04 points. This falls way short of the average perceived home-field edge that bettors believe exists, usually around 2.5-3 points. It also falls well short of the average home-field line applied to teams in the 2021 season, 2.0 points. In essence, bettors are getting almost a free point every time they back a road team this season.

Could bookmakers be intentionally sabotaging bettors?

The numbers discovered in studying the relationship between opening and closing lines are absolutely startling: When a line has moved toward a single-digit home favorite over the course of the week, the road ‘dogs boast an incredible 15-10 SU & 21-4 ATS (84 percent) record. Are bookmakers intentionally pricing these small home favorites low early so that the betting public will bite on them?

Will the amazing small road ’dog trend continue for the rest of the season? I have to advise caution going forward, for a couple of reasons, one theoretical and one statistical.

My theoretical reason for recommending that bettors hit the brakes on backing this small road ’dog phenomenon is that the deeper we get into each NFL season, the more the teams are defined. The better teams gain confidence and are motivated by the higher stakes associated with late-season games. The lesser teams find the motivation level declining week after week as they draw closer to playoff elimination.

From a statistical standpoint, the combined record of the single-digit road underdogs in the first nine weeks of the last three seasons has been 137-81. If you include the 2012 season, you’d get a record of 182-108 ATS. In looking at the rest of the year in each of those fast-starting seasons, however, single-digit road ’dogs combined to go just 85-98 ATS (46.4 percent) the rest of the way.

There’s always a chance this runs further. I would, however, still recommend sticking to some key principles in deciding which of the small road ’dogs are the best options each week:

  • Avoid the road ’dogs that can’t score, regardless of the opponent.
  • Don’t fade the best teams at home, you might win some, but overall it’s not usually a profitable strategy.
  • Continue to follow those line moves and go against the public money when they move toward the small home favorites.

No matter how this NFL single-digit road ’dog phenomenon winds up, it has been a crazy start to the season and figures to be an interesting subject to follow the rest of the way.

Steve Makinen is editor of Point Spread Weekly, VSiN’s digital magazine for sports bettors.

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