The National Football League just completed a regular season with nearly no fans in the stands. I was wondering if that made a difference in the advantage a home team enjoys and how that translated to win/loss totals.
Turns out, it mattered, as this is the first season this century where visitors won more games straight up than home teams in the NFL. Now, it was by a narrow margin, the record for home teams this year in straight-up results was 127 wins, 128 losses and one tie. In studying home field advantages this season as opposed to past years, revealed something else I was not aware of.
While home teams have won straight-up every year reviewed until this season, home teams had not had a winning record against the point spread since 2005. In four of five years between 2001 and 2005, NFL home teams had a winning mark against the point spread, but none since.
It is the people who make a living separating bettors from their money doing their best work. Whenever there is an advantage that the public cashes, the books adjust the point spreads just enough to undercut the known edge.
I knew they had done that with home team underdogs, teams that won between 56% and 64% every year in the 70’s and 80’s, but now split the point spread decisions down the middle even while teams listed as dogs at home are winning a slightly higher percentage of games straight-up.
But, it wasn’t until I was checking on how home teams did this year as opposed to past seasons that I stumbled onto another edge the books have whisked away from public money, home teams in general.
In the six seasons between 2000 and 2005, home teams won 876 of the 1520 games played, winning 58% of the games. But in those same games, their percentage against the point spread was 49% winners. Since 2006, home teams winning percentage is two percent lower, 56%, with the winning percentage against the point spread once again sitting at 49%.
So, what do we have here?
We know that trying to beat the books is to go up against the smartest people in the game and taking advantage of what they do is the best method at making money from point spread results. I expect we would have trouble finding anyone on the street that thinks the advantage in the National Football League lies with the visiting teams. And while they would be right when straight-up results are the criteria, the more important number for me, and perhaps you, is how teams do against the point spread.
And, surprise, this century the league has shifted the advantage to a consistent 51% for visiting teams against the number. This season, even when the visitors won more games than the home teams for the first time on record, the books kept steady with the point spread results, again favoring the visitors by a 51% margin.
I love numbers, but recognize they can be manipulated to reveal almost anything if a person is searching to prove an already established thesis instead of simply allowing the facts to dictate the answers.
We have some interesting stats for this week’s playoff games. For instance, the Washington Redskins enter the playoffs with a losing regular season won/loss record, only the fifth time this has happened.
The first two times teams with losing records made the playoffs was in 1982, the year the league endured a seven week strike two games into the season and finished with an expanded playoff format after playing only nine regular season games. The two teams that got into that postseason with a losing mark, the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions, both lost their first playoff game.
But, in more recent years, 2010 and 2015, a pair of teams won their divisions with a losing mark and both went on to win their opening postseason game on their home field. The Seattle Seahawks upset the New Orleans Saints ten years ago, and the Carolina Panthers beat the Arizona Cardinals five seasons ago.
In other words, teams with a losing mark opening the postseason at home have never lost their first playoff game.
You want to play those odds when Washington hosts the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night?
We’ll be checking to see what the books say, and follow their lead.