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A Whole Different Ball Game?

Key Numbers in the NFL Pre-Season.

Every football bettor knows how important spreads of 3 and 7 are, given how many games end with a field goal or a touchdown as the margin of victory. But how do these so-called ‘key numbers’ stack up in the NFL pre-season? I was embarrassed that I didn’t know the answer for certain when Gambling Online Magazine posed this very question to me, so I did the research for the last three football seasons and found a couple of surprises that I will share with you here. I think it also serves as a good example of how to approach handicapping research.

First, let me start with the results of the most important key numbers for the last three NFL seasons:

Margin of Victory% of Reg Season Games% of Pre-Season GamesDifference
Major Key Numbers:
317.29.4-7.8
710.98.9-2.0
Moderate Key Numbers:
106.16.80.7
65.74.7-1.0

It looks like the major key numbers are considerably less important during the exhibition season, so now we need to consider two things: Why would this be and what can we do with this information?

If there is no rational reason for the difference in results, then it could likely be just a natural variation in the data (although the number of games involved in the research presents a pretty good sample set, which makes this unlikely. A difference of 1% or even 2% could be due to fluctuations, but 7.8% is very significant). If it can be explained, then we may really be on to something.

The obvious difference is that exhibition games don’t count in the standings and are used to evaluate new players, plays, etc and to get teams ready for the regular season. If coaches are more interested in evaluation/practice than actually winning, then it is possible that they don’t try as hard to keep the game within one score (which would cut the lead to 3 or 7) or to tie the score by going for two point conversions as early in the second half, as they might in regular season. We also know that third stringers often play the fourth quarter, and so there can be less scoring plays and thus fewer opportunities to go for two and tie the game. Tie games are most often broken by late, last second or even overtime field goals, so this is a possibility. If this were truly the case, we would expect to see more games falling around 3 in the pre-season than in the regular season, and as you can see that is indeed the case here:

Margin of Victory% of Reg Season Games% of Pre-Season GamesDifference
13.68.95.3
23.55.72.2
44.37.33.0

Now for one last check. Perhaps the differences in the key numbers are due to a difference in overall margins. Let’s have a look:

Margin of Victory% of Reg Season Games% of Pre-Season Games
0-32424
0-74848
0-105960
0-147175

The numbers are incredibly similar and show that pre-season games have only been slightly tighter in recent years (in fact, the overall average margin of victory in the exhibition season is just over 10 points, compared with just over 11 for regular season for these three seasons). If games were slightly tighter, then we would expect more single score wins, so that, in fact, makes this data even stronger.

Okay, now what can we do with this? First, we know that laying –3.5 on an exhibition favorite isn’t as risky as it is in the regular season so we may be able to find some value opportunities at that level. Second, we know buying points on, off or through 3 is likely not worth the premium books charge in the pre-season. Thirdly, we know that the difference of a half point is far more valuable for spreads of 1, 2 and 4 than it is in the pre-season, so looking to buy points or spending a little extra time shopping for the best line is justified.

When you consider that most pre-season games have low spreads (due to the unpredictable nature of who will play for each team), these suggestions become extra important and should help cut into the books 11/10 edge.

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