You’re very welcome back to a special preseason edition of ‘Inside Slant’, a column normally reserved for the bumpy ride of the regular season dipping its foot into the comparatively calm waters of the offseason. As our football hibernation comes to a shuddering halt, it is about time to dust off our punters’ caps and turn our attention to the season ahead – and specifically, how we can get ahead of the pack with our wagers and mine some real value.
By the time training camp rolls around after a barren spell without football, it is easy – perhaps even understandable – to get caught up in the chatter.
‘This team will be better this year’, they prognosticate from their plush sets on television, adjusting their ties and shirt sleeves with self-assured sniffs.
‘With Player X back, expect this team to put together a deep playoff run.’ While one player can certainly make a difference, football is never that simple and often the more nuanced analysis is eschewed in this quick-fix world for a bite-size chunk of predictability.
Expectations and attempting to predict what will happen based on last year is, quite simply, folly. Of course, we are under no illusions that everything we predict has its share of risk, but that is part of the fun. I always find that analysing win totals for the season is an excellent place to start to get the lay of the land. The totals are released by Vegas at an early stage; many are subsequently betted on heavily, while others are just right and avoid any major action.
Finding the soft underbelly of the totals is the entertaining part, and it is exactly what I will endeavour to do with this column.
Where is the value in the 2016 NFL win totals, and should we pounce now while the meat is fresh or let it simmer a bit before making our move?
Note: My source for these win totals was www.footballlocks.com
The Value Plays
Chicago Bears OVER 6.5
John Fox’s team were not always pretty last season, but their guts and a solid coaching job got them into a groove down the stretch, culminating in a 6-10 finish. Unbelievably, the Bears went 1-7 at Soldier Field in 2015, a mark that surely will not be repeated this season. The schedule is kind, featuring a full slate of games against the AFC South, a last-placed versus last-placed game against San Francisco at home and a few pops at the ever-unpredictable NFC East. With the additions the Bears have made defensively – Leonard Floyd, Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan, Akiem Hicks – and a passable offensive effort, this team can easily get to seven wins.
Cleveland Browns UNDER 4.5
I think if you offered this franchise five wins right now, they would probably take it. Hue Jackson’s reinvigoration of the Browns begins in earnest with a tricky opening game at the intimidating confines of Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Facing the AFC East within the conference throws up some more obstacles, while the AFC North continues to be a murderer’s row of better quality teams than Cleveland. My feeling here is that 4.5 is a generous mark for a team who may struggle to reach three wins. I’m sorry Browns fans, but the under is the smart wager here.
San Diego Chargers OVER 7
Here’s a sneaky team who could create some intrigue in 2016. The Chargers finished 4-12 last season but had a couple of really close calls along the way. I like to refer to these as either/or games. Take the Week 2 loss at Cincinnati, for example (19-24), the last-second Le’Veon Bell touchdown to drop the Steelers game or the crazy 26-29 loss to the Ravens. San Diego was very unlucky not to squeeze out a couple more wins in 2015. The good news is the schedule gets a lot easier in 2016, with the AFC South on the menu. The Chargers normally play their division rivals tough, and Philip Rivers is capable of hanging with the best when given the opportunity. Seven wins is achievable for the Chargers; they could even win this division.
Buffalo Bills (8 wins)
The Bills are a team that never quite get over the hump. A darling of many last year in the preseason after the hiring of loud-mouthed coach Rex Ryan, the expectation was that Buffalo would shake up the AFC East. And at times they did, albeit not the earth-shuddering magnitude needed to unseat the Patriots. In the end .500 football was what they got, as Ryan’s plan failed to coalesce in season one. The Bills certainly have the talent to challenge this eight-win total, but they have managed to exceed eight wins only twice in 12 seasons. If anything, the under bet might be wise.
Carolina Panthers (10.5 wins)
The Panthers are one of only four teams in the league slapped with the 10.5 wins over/under total entering the season, and Vegas can’t be blamed for giving credit where it’s due. Before I saw the list, I thought Carolina would be given an extra half win to bump them to 11, but this seems about right upon further inspection. A first-placed schedule features games against Minnesota and Washington, while the spectre of West Coast road trips will not please home bird coach Ron Rivera. The talent on this roster is undeniable, but I am not comfortable enough to wager on whether they’ll top 10 wins.
Minnesota Vikings (9 wins)
Since Mike Zimmer took the helm in Minnesota, this has been a team characterized by its ability to get results in a no-nonsense, efficient way. This roster has some really impressive pieces on both sides of the ball, but a first-placed schedule may hinder the Vikings’ chances in 2016. Minnesota will battle against the NFC’s two top seeds from last, Arizona and Carolina, as well as having to deal with their own plucky division. The AFC South games will offer a nice change of pace, but that division looks stronger than before and may not be the cake walk it used to be. It is hard to bet against a team that has been on the upswing, but nine wins sounds about right. I would avoid this total if possible.
Atlanta Falcons 7 wins – see if it drops to 6.5
The Falcons have made some shrewd acquisitions this offseason. They have also made some questionable ones. The NFL Draft is an inexact science at the best of times, but selecting Keanu Neal and Deion Jones drew some criticism from the draftnik community. Dan Quinn will be eager to see an improvement on defense as he tries to become the first former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator to put together a defense even resembling the quality of the unit in the Pacific North-West. Atlanta has a tricky enough schedule and will have to face Green Bay and Philadelphia despite finishing second last season. This is my first example of a wait and see bet; if the total adjusts to either 7.5 or 6.5 I would consider pulling the trigger. As it is, seven wins is about what I expect to see from this team in 2016.
Dallas Cowboys 9 wins – see if it drops to 8.5 or goes up to 9.5
Love them or hate them, the Cowboys are a team everyone wants a piece of. Like the Packers, they are one of the most popular teams to bet on and as a result we see plenty of fluctuations in their betting lines in-season. With the win total, a similar thing happens: some would argue that Dallas has no right to be starting off at nine wins. Then again, how far would this team have gone last year with a healthy Tony Romo? The AFC North and NFC North make their schedule a tricky one, so if anything I would be tempted to go under on this total. After all, they will be missing their starting defensive ends Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence, and Rolando McClain is suspended for 10 games. A brittle Romo may not be enough to keep them in games when their defense is shipping points. Even still, I would wait and see on this total and pounce if you have a strong feeling one way or the other.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck with your preseason bets. Be sure to look out for the next edition of Inside Slant when I will be going through some player props and other off-the-wall bets for the 2016 season. You can follow me on Twitter @davlar87