Conference Championship Vegas Outliers: In Defense of the Pats D
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Stephon Gilmore
Vegas Outliers provides a quick snapshot of year-to-date Vegas trends and their daily fantasy implications for the week’s slate of NFL games. For more of our weekly fantasy football content, visit the FantasyLabs NFL homepage.
The playoffs so far have not disappointed. Underdogs are 7-1 against the spread, and the Conference Championships now present us with an epic quarterbacking quartet of Tom Brady and three other guys. To understand how the remaining postseason teams have performed vis-à-vis Vegas, I’ve collected the point spreads and game totals for Weeks 1-19 and put them next to the year-to-date production data.
I’ve created a Vegas Plus/Minus metric (similar to our proprietary daily fantasy Plus/Minus metric) that compares actual production in points per game (PPG) with the totals implied by the Vegas data. A positive number means that a team scores more points than its implied total; a negative number, fewer points. If a team hits its Vegas-implied expectations in a game, that counts as a win; if a team fails to hit expectations, that’s a loss.
The Patriots lead the cohort with 29.0 PPG, but they are last with a -0.18 Plus/Minus and have hit their Vegas expectations in just eight of 17 games. The market has been highly efficient at accounting for New England’s offense, which makes sense: Brady has started 286 games for the Pats (including playoffs) since 2001. That’s quite the data set. In any given game the Pats can over- or underperform their offensive expectations, but in the aggregate they tend to offer implied totals that are accurate. This week they dominate the slate with a total of 28.0 points even though they’re facing the Jaguars. Despite his tough matchup and high salaries ($7,700 DraftKings, $9,000 FanDuel), Brady will likely have high ownership.
No Carson Wentz, no problem: Despite entering the Divisional Round as +2.5 home underdogs, the Eagles defeated the Falcons thanks to a non-horrible performance by backup Nick Foles, who completed 23 of his 30 pass attempts without a turnover. The Eagles will likely need him to be that good again (and maybe better) this week against the Vikings. In Foles’ four starts, the Eagles have a horrid -5.31 Vegas Plus/Minus. One of those games was in Week 17, so that number might be artificially low, but they’ve managed only 17.0 PPG with Foles and have hit offensive expectations in just one of his starts.
Vegas Opponent Plus/Minus
When thinking about game script, spreads, and over/unders, we should take defensive performance into account, so I’ve created a Vegas Opponent Plus/Minus. A positive number means that a team allows fewer points than its opponent’s implied total; a negative number, more points. If a team holds an opponent below its implied total, that’s a win; if a team allows an opponent to hit expectations, that’s a loss.
The Jaguars defense is good — it entered the playoffs first in Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average — but in their six losses this year the Jags allowed teams quarterbacked by Marcus Mariota, Josh McCown, Jared Goff, Blaine Gabbert, and Jimmy Garoppolo to average 28.8 PPG. Some of those passers are good, but Brady is better than all of them, and the market was quick to adjust to Jacksonville’s defense this year. The Jags unit is stout, but in a playoff environment it might not be appreciably better than the remaining defenses.
The Patriots in particular have an intriguing unit. The Pats have held opponents below their implied Vegas totals in a league-high 12 games, and they’ve been especially strong since Week 7. In the first six weeks of the season, they allowed every quarterback they faced to pass for a minimum of 300 yards, and half of their opponents hit their Vegas expectations. Since then, however, not one quarterback has passed for 300 yards, and they’ve held opponents below their implied totals in nine of 11 games. The Jags scored 42 points on the road in the Divisional Round, but this week they’re facing a rather Blake Bortles-unfriendly defense that has been more than competent for the past three months. The Pats don’t have the best pass rush, but their four starting defensive backs all have Pro Football Focus grades above 80.0.
Offensive production within an NFL contest is often correlated across teams. As a result, many sharp DFS players stack games (instead of just teams) in guaranteed prize pools. To highlight teams that tend to play in games that fall short of or surpass the Vegas total, I’ve created an Over/Under Differential metric. A positive number means that a team on average participates in games that hit the over; a negative number, the under.
In the Divisional Round, the sharps pounded the under on the Falcons-Eagles game. It opened at 43.5 points and closed at 40.0 even though 61 percent of the bets were on the over. Betting the under made sense: The Falcons had a league-low -6.91 Over/Under Differential (thanks to their underperforming offense and overperforming defense). While some sharp money already seems to be on the Jags-Pats under (it has dropped from 47.0 to 46.5 even with 61 percent of the bets on the over), the Vikings-Eagles game is also intriguing. The Vikings have the lowest Over/Under Differential of the group, and the Eagles with Foles have an abominable -11.13. Three of Foles’ four starts have hit the under.
The point spread is the go-to number for Vegas and DFS, as it is predictive of game script and outcome. I’ve created a Spread Differential metric so we can see how teams have done on a PPG basis relative to the spread. A positive number means that a team on average overperforms the spread; a negative number, underperforms.
The Jags-Pats game is a gift from the football gawds. The Jags lead the cohort with a +6.47 Spread Differential, and the Pats are last with a +1.91, but for the season the Pats have outperformed their opponents by an average of 10.76 PPG. The Pats have the year’s best ATS record at 12-5, and they are amazingly 10-1 ATS with a high +6.18 Spread Differential (and an average spread of -9.27) since Week 7, when they evidently learned how to play defense: Opponents have scored only 13.73 PPG since then. Brady has to face a strong secondary led by cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, but they just allowed Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to go off for the most prolific playoff passing performance of at least this century with 469 yards and five touchdowns. Coming off a masterful 337-yard, three-touchdown outing, Brady should be up to the task of telling the Jags that they can stuff their sorries in a #Sacksonville.
Photo Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports