NFL panel picks takeaways: Underdogs, unders the key to success

The Detroit Lions celebrate their last-second come from behind win over the Minnesota Vikings in an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP Photo)

The NFL’s 18-week regular season is in the rear-view mirror and hopefully you had yourself a winning year if you’re a football bettor.

There was a brighter spotlight shone on the gambling side of the sport this season with single-game sports betting becoming legalized in various jurisdictions across North America.

There were also several notable trends that played out this season. Namely if you frequently bet the under and/or bet on underdogs you likely had a fair bit of success, as dogs went 142-127-3 against the spread (ATS) and unders went 141-109 in games that ended in regulation.

The Cowboys (13-5), Packers (12-4) and Lions (11-5) had the best record ATS while the Jaguars and Panthers both went a league-worst 5-12 ATS. When it came to totals, the Vikings were the No. 1 overs team at 11-6 and at the other end of the spectrum the Jags and Broncos had unders cash in 12 of 17 weeks.

Throughout this NFL campaign, a panel of Sportsnet’s NFL contributors previewed each week’s slate of games from a gambling perspective.

Instead of betting on the same set of games each week, the panel – staff writer/host Donnovan Bennett, staff writers Emily Sadler and Mike Johnston, plus fantasy writers and radio personalities Andy McNamara and Matt Marchese – was pigeonholed into selecting one over, one under, one favourite and one underdog, while declaring one their personal lock.

Eighteen weeks and 72 picks later, Andy finished in first place with an impressive 44-28-0 record that included three perfect weeks and a 12-6 mark picking favourites. In fact, he was the only panel member to finish above .500 picking favourites this season.

“An interesting betting trend that stood out to me this NFL season involved the Buccaneers,” Andy said. “The defending Super Bowl champs were just 9-8 ATS despite their impressive 13-4 record. A surprise loss to Washington and getting swept by the Saints certainly contributed, but also that six of their victories came by single digits. Their .500 ATS performance makes it look like the Las Vegas bookmakers may have given the Bucs a bit too much credit when it comes to point spread coverage this season.”

Emily finished in second at 38-32-2, going a combined 24-12 on totals to keep her record strong.

“This season of betting just confirmed what I'd long suspected: Anything can happen on any given Sunday... or Thursday, or Monday... or Tuesday and that's why I love this game so much -- and also why I should probably stick to betting with pride, not real money, on the line,” Emily said. “My biggest takeaway was the same thought I had coming into this fun season: Bet with your fandom front-and-centre. It's not just about betting (or not betting) on your favourite team -- I mostly resisted betting on my beloved Browns, because things are already complicated enough in Cleveland, am I right? – but rather it’s more about betting on what you genuinely want to see.

“Do I want a shootout between the Chiefs and Chargers? Always. Do I crave a good old cold-weather defensive battle between Pittsburgh and Baltimore? Every single Sunday, yes. Football is fun, and placing a few well-intending bets should be, too.”

The panel members had to lock in their picks by mid-week, so all the COVID protocol chaos had an impact on results throughout the season.

“If we learned anything this year it’s this: when teams are hammered with COVID-19 health and safety protocols, hammer the under,” said Donnovan, who finished 38-34 in third place. “Having players in and out of the lineup hurts the timing and chemistry of offences more than defences. That and the fact there are only so many elite QBs walking the face of the earth. The Ian Book and Nick Mullens experience taught us scoring goes way down when backups go in.”

Donnovan took his own advice to heart because he went 13-5 betting unders and his 11-7 record on locks was the best of among the group.

A poor Week 18 showing saw Mike finish 35-37-0 and fall back below .500.

“This season was all about cognitive dissonance for me and my Week 2 lock set the tone for my season,” Mike said. “I sniffed out what I correctly believed was a rat line based on results from the previous week yet I went against my gut and instead bet with the public and lost like a chump – and then I proceeded to do that consistently throughout the remainder of season. I am The Colts Whisperer, though, going 9-1 ATS when betting Indy and I won’t let the world forget it.”

Matt finished the season in the best draft position at 29-41-0, however he had the best reads on underdogs all season.

“To say the 2021 season was a weird one would be a great understatement,” Matt said. “Historical trends seem to have been thrown out the window and the biggest takeaway for me this season was the lack of success from home favourites ATS. They went 72-85-3, but maybe I shouldn’t be all that surprised as I somehow managed to go 11-7 when betting on underdogs.”

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