Futures Friday: Back the Lions Over 6.5 Wins, Fade Chargers to Miss Playoffs
Pictured: Jamaal Williams celebrates with Amon-Ra St. Brown. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
Welcome back to another edition of Futures Friday!
Every Friday, we zoom out from the game-to-game trees and consider the whole NFL forest, taking a look around the league and talking big-picture awards, season leaders, playoff odds and more.
Too many bettors think of futures as dart throws prior to the season before crossing their fingers, waiting six months and hoping for the best. We're playing the market every week, buying low and selling high, building a deep and varied portfolio that should give us big long-term upside.
Today, we've got one playoff bet and one team win total.
Chargers to Miss the Playoffs (+130, Caesars)
Hat tip on this one to longtime Action Network fan Padre Bob (@rubberchicken27), a Chargers fan who brought this to my attention earlier in the week.
The 6-5 Chargers are plus money to miss the playoffs in the loaded AFC? The nobody-healthy, one-score-game, can't-finish-the-job, omg-just-Chargers'd-again Chargers are plus money to miss the playoffs? In this economy?
Honestly, are we sure the Chargers are even any good?
Los Angeles is 6-5, but the Chargers have been outscored by 30 points. That gives them the 12th-best point differential in the AFC and the 22nd-best in the league. Football Outsiders has the Chargers at 4.7 expected wins. Football Reference rates the Chargers 26th in SRS with an expected 4.8-6.2 record.
The Chargers have six wins. Five have come by under a touchdown, margins of five, two, three, three and one. The only comfortable win came against the awful Texans. Los Angeles is 0-4 in games against teams .500 or better.
The Chargers are burying themselves early, a sign of poor coaching. They rank 28th in first down DVOA offensively and are even worse on defense (30th). By EPA, the Chargers are the single worst first down team in the NFL. This team is constantly playing catch-up, leaning on its stars to come through in key spots. That's not a sustainable long-term winning formula.
Los Angeles ranks 24th overall in DVOA. It ranks 23rd on offense and 22nd on defense.
It's not all L.A.'s fault.
This team is forever snakebitten by the injury bug and it's been bad again this year. Big free agent acquisition J.C. Jackson was a swing and a miss. Joey Bosa hasn't played since September and neither has stud left tackle Rashawn Slater. Pro Bowl center Corey Linsley has been in and out of the lineup. Justin Herbert got hurt Week 2 and has never been quite right. Keenan Allen missed most of the season and is finally back, but Mike Williams can't get healthy and is questionable again.
That's basically a who's who of the best Chargers players, and nothing on that list is getting solved. Williams and Linsley are questionable again this week. Slater and Jackson are done for the year. Herbert and Allen are not 100%.
The good news for the Chargers is that they have the second easiest remaining schedule according to Football Outsiders, but that might be fool's gold. L.A. plays in Las Vegas this week and is an underdog against a surging Raiders team that's better than its record. The Chargers also play in Indianapolis in a month, another team far better than its metrics. In between those road trips are difficult home games against the Dolphins and Titans.
Los Angeles is 6-5, but it's tough to imagine them being better than 8-7 after that stretch, and 7-8 or worse is very much in play. The final two games against the Rams and Broncos are pretty winnable, but with a team that always plays with its food, those games are also losable.
There's no way we should be getting plus money on the Chargers missing the playoffs. Los Angeles is -150 to make the postseason, an implied 60%. Football Outsiders has the Chargers at 30.2%, literally half as likely as the odds. We get L.A. at +130 to miss the playoffs, an implied 43.5% versus 69.8% at Football Outsiders, a massive margin in our favor.
The Chiefs and Titans are headed to the playoffs as division winners. The Bills and Dolphins also look extremely likely to dance. Either the Ravens or Bengals will represent the AFC North, maybe both. That leaves either one or two spots for the Chargers against the Jets, Patriots and teams above.
The Chargers could lose any or all of the next four games, and I have them maxing out at nine wins. You can play under 9.5 wins at +100 instead if you prefer, but in the loaded AFC, the Chargers could win 10 games and still miss the playoffs — and we get better odds there anyway.
There will be chances to hedge out later if the Chargers pull everything together. For now, this is a team I'm happy to bet against with so many other strong AFC teams vying for the same playoff berth. Give me Chargers +130 to miss the playoffs.
Lions over 6.5 wins (-135, FanDuel)
The Chargers may not actually be any good. The Lions, on the other hand, might be.
Detroit was everyone's darling sleeper coming into the season, but started 1-6 and fell quickly from grace. In hindsight, maybe that start wasn't so terrible.
The Lions lost to the Eagles by three in the opener. They bounced back with a win over Washington, then lost to Minnesota and Seattle by a touchdown combined. Then it got ugly with big losses to New England and Dallas, but the Lions were missing key offensive players, notably Amon-Ra St. Brown, for both. Then it was another close loss to the Dolphins.
So that's the 1-6 start — seven games against teams currently in the playoff field, four of them by three or four points and two blowout losses without St. Brown or D'Andre Swift. When you think of it that way, that 1-6 start doesn't seem all that bad.
So what's happened since that "awful" start?
The Lions are 3-1 since, a late Buffalo comeback on Thanksgiving away from a four-game winning streak. Detroit has a comfortable win over the Giants, another current playoff team, and dominated a Packers squad everyone expected to be in contention.
The Lions are 4-7, but have 5.8 expected wins per Football Outsiders, and they've done that with the third-hardest schedule in the NFL. Detroit's schedule ranks sixth easiest the rest of the way as things finally turn in their favor. There's only one surefire playoff team left on the schedule, and that's the overrated Vikings. And that game is in Detroit. The Lions play the Jaguars, Vikings, Jets, Panthers, Bears and Packers. Those are all winnable games.
Besides, the Lions are quietly playing pretty good football.
Detroit's defense was awful the first five weeks of the season, last in the NFL. But this young team found some solutions during a Week 6 bye, and the Lions defense ranks 14th in DVOA ever since. They're right around league average against both the run and the pass. Average is a lot better than awful!
The Lions offense is even better than average, now that it's finally healthy again. St. Brown has been particularly important, since he's effectively become this team's Cooper Kupp. Excluding the weeks he missed, the Lions offense ranks sixth in Offensive DVOA and is in the top quarter of the league both rushing and passing. Jared Goff ranks seventh in EPA among quarterbacks over the past five weeks and is especially good on late downs with that St. Brown chemistry.
If you take the No. 6 offense and add the No. 14 defense, that's a pretty good football team! For comparison, the Cincinnati Bengals rank seventh and 12th, and we consider them a potential Super Bowl contender. The Lions have a better Offensive DVOA than every team left on the schedule, and the post-bye defense is better than everyone but the Jets.
But will the Lions tank? In a word: no. Detroit is trying to establish a winning culture, and they're playing good football right now. They're also about to debut first-round rookie receiver Jameson Williams to add even more to the attack. And besides, the Rams are already tanking for Detroit. The Lions own L.A.'s first-round pick, currently the No. 4 pick in the draft. That'll do just fine, thanks.
The Lions are 4-7, so we need a 3-3 finish to hit this over. Why wouldn't Detroit win three more times? Home games against the Jaguars and Panthers are eminently winnable, and there's little reason this team can't win any of its three division games, or beat Mike White and the Jets.
I think this win total line should be 7.5 and I even looked around, hoping for an alternate line and better juice. I won't be surprised if Detroit gets above .500.
At Bet365, we can play the Lions to finish second in the division at +160. The Bears are 3-9 and look likely to finish last with a banged-up quarterback and a bad roster, so that's basically a head-to-head bet against the Packers. Green Bay already has an extra loss at 4-8, plus a likely Christmas loss in Miami. Add in the possibility that Aaron Rodgers misses injury time or gives way to Jordan Love in a lost season, and I like that bet. Even if it's close, the Lions play in Green Bay in the finale so you'll have every opportunity to hedge if needed.
We've had great success on these in-season win totals. Seahawks over 5.5 already cashed, Colts under 8.5 hits unless Indianapolis wins out, and Steelers over 5.5 and Jets over 8.5 are in great shape heading down the stretch. I've got multiple units on each of those, and this is a multi-unit play too.
I'm more than happy to drink the juice. The Lions will win over 6.5 games, and they might do it with a game or two to spare.