Handicapping the NFL Preseason

NFL Aug 13, 2021

The 2021 NFL preseason is underway.  This coming weekend will include the first full slate of exhibition games in nearly two years.  Last year, all preseason games were cancelled due to COVID.

Many football bettors skip preseason games.  There's a popular myth that since these early games don't count in the standings, combined with so many unknown players getting extra time on the field, the outcomes are unpredictable.

Yeah, like regular season games are predictable.  What illogical nonsense.

Fact is, regular season games are just as unpredictable as the preseason.  When it comes to wagering, there's almost no difference.  Information and trends are the key.  Hard work and research usually pays off.  That's true in August.  And that's true in December.

Admittedly – preseason games can (and do) produce outcomes that normally would never happen in the regular season.  Nonetheless, these games provide an outstanding opportunity to make money.  In short, anyone who insists preseason games are for degenerate gamblers only, or aren't beatable, simply doesn't know what they're talking about.

As proof, note that all Las Vegas sportsbooks and online books place strict betting limits on preseason games.  That should tell you everything about what the experts think of these games.  They know they're vulnerable.  If a game can be beaten by a smart bettor with solid information, that's when strict limits are imposed.

"More informed or sharper bettors bet the exhibition," said longtime sportsbook operator Nick Bogdanovich in a recent interview with the Las Vegas review-Journal.  "The sharps definitely control the market.  They determine the price on every game."

This year, most NFL teams will play three preseason games.  Then, the regular season begins Sept. 9th.

The key to beating these early games can be grouped into four factors:

Head Coaches – Some head coaches play to win at all times, including the preseason.  They believe establishing a winning attitude starts with the very first game, regardless of if it counts, or not.  Other head coaches couldn't care less about preseason games.  They view the exhibition are nothing more than a higher-profile scrimmage which is an extension of training camp.  Preseason games are merely opportunities to look at young, untested talent.  The outcomes don't matter.  Obviously, given the vast disparity of attitudes and the way they approach these games, we want to bet on the teams with coaches who historically have winning records in the preseason, and fade coaches who historically have losing records in the preseason.

The Seahawks' Pete Carroll cares about winning in the preseason.

New Head Coaches and Offensive Coordinators – New head coaches (that is coaches who were hired in the previous offseason) are usually good bets in preseason games.  This is because they want players to gain confidence in their leadership and system.  The way to inspire confidence is to win.  The same is true for new offensive coordinators.  They're eager to prove themselves with their players.  However, note that coaches who are promoted from the same team (for instance, a defensive coordinator becomes the new head coach), this doesn't apply nearly as strongly.  Since the players already know the coach and have adopted their system, there's much less to prove early in the preseason.  So, look for brand new head coaches and bet on those teams.

The Patriots' Bill Belichick doesn't care as much about winning preseason games.

Quarterback Rotations – Teams with veteran backups tend to be good bets in the preseason.  This is especially true for offenses where there's a battle in training camp for the starting job and/or backup spots.  What often happens is, since coaches want to see how competing quarterbacks perform in game conditions, they open up the playbook more and create more incentives to do well.  By contrast, teams with the 1-2 spots locked up in the rotation often play third stringers and low draft picks longer since they want to give them some game experience.  One thing to remember – pay no attention to the #1 quarterback in the rotation in most preseason games since they will usually see little or no playing time.  No head coach wants to risk and injury to Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, or Tom Brady in a meaningless game.  So, the backups get most of the time on the field.

Don't look for Aaron Rodgers to play much in the preseason.

Key Numbers – Key numbers in NFL betting include 3, 4, 6, and 7.  While these numbers aren't quite as significant now as in the past due to 2-point conversions and other factors, they still deserve our attention – especially in regular season games.  However, in the preseason, they aren't as important in handicapping.  This is because some coaches will not play for a tie (note the rule change – no overtime games in preseason).  Hence, you may see more coaches going for the win late in games.  This means that numbers – including 1, and 2 – can be significant.  It's also wise to look at betting underdogs on the moneyline.  If a dog covers, they will often win the game outright.  So, try to make more moneyline bets, especially on underdogs.

Note:  In the next report, we'll identify the best and worst NFL head coaches in the preseason.  Look for that report on Saturday.