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Riding a Surprise NFL Team Can Be Profitable

By Mike Hayes of Doc's Sports Journal

History tells us that by the end of the NFL season, about a third of the league's 32 teams will show a profit against the point spread with one emerging with a success rate of 70 percent or better.

Figuring out which team that will be before the season starts - five months before they toss the coin for Super Bowl XLI - is an obvious key to a profitable season.

If this were easy, we'd all be wealthy and the books would be out of business. The fact remains, however, that a team or teams will emerge with an against the spread success rate far and above the league average. so it is worth trying to figure just which teams are likely to outperform expectations against the point spread.

A look at the past nine seasons doesn't offer much in the way of patterns. Every team in the NFL has posted at least one winning record ATS over the last five years. Logic would dictate that a team coming off of a losing season would be a prime candidate to exceed expectations and emerge with a successful record ATS. However, that is not always the case. Last season 13 teams posted winning records ATS, but just six of those were coming off of losing season.

The Broncos were a league best 12-5 ATS, a winning percentage of 67 percent, followed by the Super Bowl Champion Steelers at 13-7 ATS, good for 65 percent. Denver, 14-4 last season including the playoffs, was coming off of a 10-6 campaign in 2004 while the Steelers, who posted a 15-5 mark, were fresh off a 15-1 campaign.

The vast majority of the teams that do post winning records ATS also finish the season above .500, so that is a good place to start. Most of these teams will be favored in a good number of their games, so an ability to score points and cover the point spread is the key to ATS success.

In posting their league-best ATS record last season, the Broncos average margin of victory was better than a touchdown, which is enough to cover most games as a favorite. In fact, the only team that posted a league-best record ATS over the past nine seasons that didn't have an average margin of victory of at least six points was the 2002 Cleveland Browns. Cleveland led the NFL that season at 70.6 percent ATS, but had a margin of victory of a mere 1.2 points.

The reason? The 2002 Browns were one of those teams that exceeded the expectations of bookmakers in posting a 9-8 record on the season. Their 12-5 record ATS shows that they managed to cover a number of games as a dog without actually winning.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule and, in this case, it's the Indianapolis Colts, who last season posted a league-best margin of victory of 11.1 points-per win. In cruising to a 14-3 regular season record, the Colts managed only a 9-7 mark ATS. The Colts high-powered offense coupled with the public's willingness to back the team resulted in some pretty large point spreads in games they ended up winning by a margin less than the spread.

Indy is the only team in the NFL to post a winning record ATS in each of the last three seasons, and a fourth consecutive profitable season seems highly possible after showing their vulnerability last year. If point spreads come down a bit and the public backs off in the early going, the Colts just might find themselves back on the winning end of a large number of blowouts and improve on last season's 9-7 ATS.

Another winning team worth of a look might be the Bears. Chicago was one of those teams that exceeded expectations early on last season, which in part explains their 65 percent clip ATS. The Bears did manage a 7.1 margin of victory thanks entirely to a tenacious defense. The Chicago offense was awful last season and likely improvement should keep the margin of victory at a rate at or better than that of last season, even though they are no longer a surprise to bookmakers or the public.

The Chargers, 9-6-1 ATS while posting a 9-7 record last season, could be profitable as well. Books have posted the San Diego win total at nine, a figure which would likely be higher if not for the departure of Drew Brees and the emergence of Philip Rivers as the starting QB. If Rivers proves a capable field general for the Chargers, a slight 2.5-point favorite over what appears to be a lousy Oakland team in week one action, the team might exceed expectations.

The Falcons, 8-8 last season were also 8-8 ATS, but are poised to improve on that mark if Michael Vick can stay healthy and get Atlanta back to the playoffs.

" A simple strategy might be to bet against teams with a significant public following. The Cowboys, for example, have posted just on winning season ATS since 1997. The Packers and Redskins each have just two.

" The best ATS record dating back to 1997 is the Chargers 13-2-2 in 2004, a success rate of 76.5 percent.

" The Eagles, Ravens and Broncos have posted the most winning seasons ATS over this time with six apiece.

" Over that time two teams have posted the best ATS mark more than once, the Broncos in 1997 and again last season and the Patriots in 2001 and 2003.

" The last team to post a winning record ATS is the 49ers, who last accomplished the feat in 2001.

" Just one time since 1997 have the teams that finished one and two ATS met in the Super Bowl. This occurred in 1999 when The Rams led the league with a 73.7 percent mark ATS and the Titans were second at 65 percent.

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