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Picking Winners in NFL Exhibition Games

If the Wiseguys Can Do It, So Can You

Conventional wisdom says making serious bets on NFL exhibition games is the telltale sign of a degenerate gambler.

Truth be told, no one ever made a score listening to CW. Of course, by the time August rolls around, lots of baseball bettors are either broke or bored, and are ready for a diversion. So when the books start posting numbers on preseason NFL games, it’s everybody into the pool.

While Joe Sixpack bets a few quid on TV games but truly believes these “practice” games are unpredictable, wiseguys are picking their shots and cleaning up. They’re not doing it with superior handicapping. As a matter of fact, deep matchup analysis is probably the least important factor in picking preseason winners.

That doesn’t mean you can justify throwing darts, and forget about the grunt work that needs to be done. Homework that pinpoints bettable plays is crucial.

There are several approaches that the casual to dedicated player can follow and have a better than even chance of showing a profit.

The first is trends and angles. You must be able to distinguish between a meaningful trend and one that is simply a worthless, after-the-fact compilation of coincidental occurrences.

There is a plethora of this material available on the Internet and in football annuals that are on newsstands every summer. Instead of going through a fancy dissertation about how to cherry pick usable material, we’ll give you a few specific examples. Those with intuitive abilities will see the types of value judgments that should be made in evaluating trends and angles.

Some teams historically hit the ground running. It would be part of their corporate culture, if they had one. So file it under tradition.

Last year, Oakland opened its exhibition season as a 6-point home favorite over Dallas. There was little fluctuation in the line, and the Raiders’ 21-14 cover gave them a 10-1 record ATS in their last 11 opening preseason games.

In Week 1 this year, Oakland opens at Dallas, where they should be a small favorite. Get down on them early.

Over the past 21 years, Denver is 18-3 ATS in opening preseason games. Last year, the Broncos opened -4 and went off at -3 vs. Dallas, covering easily 20-6. This year’s opener is with the Bears, so give it a hard look.

By carefully scrutinizing totals and team tendencies, you can get a nice leg up on other selected preseason contests. Case in point is the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots. In their first preseason game in 10 of the last 11 years, they have gone under the total. But in their final exhibition game, they have gone over eight of the last nine years.

This is a big contrast, i.e., 1-10 vs. 8-1 over a span of just four weeks. A very graphic example of how far an offense can lag a defense early on, and how rewarding it can be for those who pick up on it

By the exhibition season finale, Denver is generally in high gear offensively. Over the past 15 years, the Broncos have played 13-2 to the over. However, last year their 35-7 victory over the 49ers came in under the total, which went off at 43.

We include that as a reality check for those who think trends are a slam dunk. The oddsmaker has access to the same info we do, and does make adjustments.

Another winning method is to play coaches, either betting on those who emphasize getting off to a winning start, or against those who are perhaps under less pressure and are simply getting the team ready for the regular season.

Can Jon Gruden install a strong enough offense at Tampa Bay to complement its stalwart D? Can Steve Spurrier emulate not only his collegiate winning ways as an NFL head coach, but will his insistence on running up scores work in the pros? Paying close attention to their training camps, and what the head coaches say about their new teams, will give us the clues we need to make a profit on the Bucs and Redskins.

During the NFL preseason schedule, an extraordinary number of games go off between -2½ and -4. Last year, in the first full weekly schedule, 11 out of 15 fell within those pointspreads.

Oddsmakers don’t like to get too far out on a limb in these early games. So, if you are aware of something that could influence a game to go past a cookie-cutter line, that’s the time to pull the trigger.

Where do you find such info? During preseason, coaches are generally quite open regarding game plans, strategies, etc. A veteran QB coming back from an injury might be given extra playing time, or a college hotshot might be getting a long look from the coaches.

All these clues are available to those willing to do the legwork. Several websites, including, should be regular perused. You’ll be surprised at how much insight relative to beating pointspreads is at your fingertips.

You’re looking for an edge, not a guarantee. And if you look hard enough, you’ll find enough edges to move past that magical 53 percent that is considered the breakeven point for beating the bookie’s 11-10 advantage.

During the regular season, a vast group of bettors, called followers, like to ride the coattails of the successful betting syndicates and wiseguys. However, there are so many false leads put out by these sharps, that followers are frequently whipsawed.

Syndicates are ruthless in doing what will give them the number they want on a game, and they are not bashful about putting out a play in which they hope to push a number with other peoples’ money, then come back and take the other side, getting an inflated price.

This deviousness is not part of their preseason modus operandi. So, by carefully monitoring line moves, a savvy bettor can pounce on games that someone else has determined to be a strong play. That someone else has a winning record.

Let’s look at the movement on a couple of 2001 preseason games to get a feel for being a follower.

In preseason Week 1, Carolina opened at +5½ at Jacksonville. Money poured in on the Panthers, driving the closing number down to +3. When the dog got beat 18-16, the cover was good even for those who came in late and took the worst of it.

In preseason Week 2, Atlanta opened +1 at Washington, but by game time had attracted enough support that the Falcons went off as -3 favorites. Players who got on the bandwagon were rewarded and bookies got crushed when Atlanta easily covered 27-6.

Monitoring lines in the computer age is relatively easy, and simply requires patience and diligence. However, not everyone has access to computers. They’re not at a disadvantage. Scorephones and pagers are just as fast with line movements. But trying to monitor numbers via your daily newspaper is very 1960-ish. The line you are looking at today was printed yesterday.

The books take measures to protect themselves against getting beat up by sharps in the preseason. Limits are low, games come down quickly or are not even posted, and the public insists on putting too much emphasis on information that has already been factored into the number.

But, at the end of the day, NFL preseason can offer solid plays and be more profitable than the regular season. While it requires a somewhat innovative mindset and emphasis on different factors than regular season games, the same common denominators for success are intact: work hard, work smart.
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