Predict NFL Games
Whether you’re a professional handicapper, or simply an armchair quarterback trying to win some pizza money in your office confidence pool there are ways to accurately predict NFL games to improve your odds of coming out ahead. I have been doing so as an amateur, semi-professional and professional since I was in high school, and have come up with a system that has led to CONSISTENT success. It’s not an algorithm, there is as much art as there is science to it, yet implementing these tactics has proven to be successful in predicting NFL games. As you can see below, using this system I have a 70% success rate on the year, am leading my pool in every possible metric (by ALOT) and have used it to pick winners on certain sportsbooks as well:
In this article, I will outline the variables I have used to have consistent success in predicting NFL games. No ONE of them individually helps you predict NFL games, but using them collectively, and comparably between two teams will give you the best chance to accurately forecast professional football. When I am selecting games, I look at each variable and then compare. You can see an example worksheet below:
I have separated the variables into 3 categories based on the significance they have in influencing the outcome of a game. Level I is the most significant.
Overall Team Talent
Team talent is the most important factor in one team winning a football game, yet the most difficult to quantify. When you hear “the better team on paper” this is what they are referring to. The way I look at it is if each team were 100% healthy, played at a neutral field, in a best of 7 series, the more talented team would win. There are certain websites (I recommend NorthCoastSports Power Sweep publication) that offer team talent rankings, but in our context, the important part is finding a ranking that is purely talent-based (i.e. just because the Steelers are 3-8, and the Cardinals are 6-5, if the Steelers are far more talented, they would be ranked higher/better than the Cardinals).
Its very easy to get caught in the “stat trap”, that is, trying to predict NFL games based on who has the better team defense vs. team offense and so on. However, there are a couple select numbers I truly take a look at/look at differently to help understand who has a legitimate edge.
-Sack % Differential
First of all, let me define this: Your Offensive Sack %, is sacks/dropbacks (attempts), and Defensive Sack % is the opposite.(using percentage obviously teases out volume skewers). Usually, in a given week, you can find a handful of clear advantages in the form of “cross-sectional sack % points”. For example, you can find that team A’s OFF Sack percentage is ranked 30th in the league, and the opponent’s DEF Sack percentage is 4th (not to mention having an advantage when you flip the sides). In the example below you can see a somewhat even matchup starts to lean in one team’s direction when looking at “cross-sectional sack %: rankings:
–True Fumble (Luck)
This is a big one. Turnovers are (by far) the most important statistic in football outside of the final score…this isn’t debatable. However, taking a deeper look at that stat can tell a different story. If you remember from 2017 NFL Season Predictions and other predictive metrics of mine, I believe not all turnovers are created equal. All have a certain luck factor no doubt, but the one that results (most of the time) from a bounce of an oblong ball on the ground likely has more “luck factor” and therefore “undoing/tendency towards the mean” factor. In other words, when looking at one team’s NET fumble recovery, vs. their opponent, you can draw a pretty vivid picture of which team has gotten lucky/unlucky. Hence, when finding a team that has a net +5 Fumble TO Ratio (gained), and another that has a -7 Fumble TO Ratio (lost), there is a clear luck inequality here and favors the “unlucky team” being “luckier” in their contest against each other. Quick Note, I have hit on 6 upsets this year alone using this mindset. Its one of my most highly recommended ways to find value others don’t see to predict NFL games.
-True Turnover (Interception/Skill)
On the flip-side, interceptions take a lot more skill THAN recovering a fumble, hence I use the same exercise here (Team A Int Ratio vs. Team B Int Ratio) but give net positive a premium. A team that has a + 8 Interception Ratio playing a team that has a -7 Interception Ratio is likely to win the turnover (true) battle, and hence the ballgame. You can see in the picture below how this approach leads to a different ranking than the conventional one when we tease out luck.
*The takeaway here, when looking at turnovers, is to split them up, giving value to the team that has lost fumbles and gained interceptions. Think of it like this: If a good skill/bad luck team is playing a bad skill/good luck team, our best friend, the tendency towards the mean is likely to even things out.
There are a set of circumstances, I like to call “equalizers” that that tighten the win expectancy gap between two teams with differing levels of talent. These are variables that typically make a game closer/help an underdog win outright. You can find them below:
-OC/DC facing old team
This doesn’t happen that frequently, but when it does, it’s powerful. Beyond the obvious of knowing the previous team’s “x”s and “o”s intimately, the modern NFL game is all about matchups and having a keen knowledge of the opposing team’s roster can majorly play to the advantage of a former coach.
-10 AM Kickoff for West Coast Teams
This is a tried and true tactic for most handicappers. It typically happens once every week or two: when a PST team has a 1 PM EST kickoff. It may not seem that significant, but we look at everything on the margin, and when you have to wake-up, warm-up and play 2-3 hours before you normally do, it’s likely that you’re not collectively playing at 100%. There has been much (conflicting) research on this variable, and shouldn’t be looked at as a guarantee, but (like all items on here) taken with other variables collectively, they help you paint a full picture of what a game outcome will look like.
Typically, when you’re selecting winners you’re 4-5 days away from Sunday/not have a reliable forecast in front of you. However, in the rare cases, you are picking 1-2 days before the game and you find the NFL Weather Report is calling for rain, snow or cold this is information you can classify under “evenening the playing field”. This is particularly true if the underdog is a running team (bad weather, all other things equal, usually favors the better running team).
Additionally, you should consider what I like to call the “1990s Bucs Rule”…there was a period of time back in the 90s where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had not won a game in below 33 (or so) degree weather…being a warm weather team themselves. Thus, later in the season be wary of teams from a warm climate/dome home field playing in very cold weather.
This is another item that typically is more significant in the college game, but nonetheless, rears its head in SPECIFIC pro games as well. Growing up as a Bears fan in the Farve/Rodgers era I have come to learn this idea well: The old adage to “throw the records book out” may go too far, but rivalries have a special impact on both teams, and can add some extra “mojo” to underdog teams that simply hate their rival. Rivalries that take into account/have merit (in their “equalizing effect”): Bears/Packers, Giants/Eagles, Broncos/Chiefs, Browns/Bengals.
Contrary to intuitive thinking, it’s very tough to beat a team twice (or even thrice) in one season. The thinking works this way: Beyond the astounding amount a parity/tendency towards the mean in the NFL already, winning a game is very difficult…winning twice, versus the same team, is even tougher. Unless the first game was a blow-out between the two teams, the NFL’s parity and tendency towards the mean typically leads to teams to splitting games (more times than not). This is especially true if a home team this week lost the previous close game to a team when they were the away team.
Football is the ultimate team game. A play will not be successful unless (at minimum) 8 to all 11 players are successful at their individual responsibility. However, the QB, who touches the football each and every play is by far the most impactful position within a team. Hence, having an advantage at this position, whether it be talent or experience determines a lot of ball games. Here are the specific considerations I look into:
-Substantial Talent Difference
This item is pretty straightforward. Based on how significant the position is to the game, all-other-things equal, the team with a better QB is more likely to win the game.
-Substantial Experience Difference
So many NFL games come down to 1-3 plays, or even more yet, the final 1-3 minutes. Having a substantial experience difference at the position provides a significant advantage. The team with a QB, that has years under his belt managing the clock, coming from behind, etc is a very important factor in winning NFL games.
Although in the more “empirical” realm of forecasting, this is actually a well-known fallacy, in my experience, QB momentum is a real thing. And adding that it is such a crucial position on the field, this is a clear variable I apply to my NFL predictions.
-Rookie QB playing away
This goes hand-in-hand with the “ExperienceDifference”, but with a tad more impact. The aspect is especially important in the first 1-3 games a rookie quarterback plays an away game. Among the 100 other challenges, a young QB will face, trying to win an NFL game while being out of his comfort zone/having to deal with noise and an unruly crowd greatly impacts his play.
Key Injuries (Especially to QB, OL and pass rusher)
Injuries clearly impact the outcome of NFL games. The key is to look/base your assessment, not only on team depth but by looking at the specific position. Not all injuries are created equal, certain positions carry more weight. Here’s how I rank HOW significant you should look at the injury based on position:
- QB (see Talent/Experience indicator above)
- OL (especially LT)
- Pass game disrupting rusher
- Lock-down CB
- Any other true game changer (The elite top 10-25 players in the league)
Short Rest/Long Rest, Off Bye
Having an extra day, or more, of rest relative to your opponent, is significant in the NFL. When you bring up the topic of extra rest, most people simply think about teams coming off a bye, but this counts for “last week Thursday night teams” (long rest) AND “last week Monday night teams” (short rest). Look for value in teams coming off short/long rest and especially, when a “short rest team” is playing a “long rest team” (major advantage to the “long rest team”).
Significant Home Field Advantage
Home field advantage is another aspect likely more important in the college game. Either way, there are certain teams that have a legitimate HFA. Conventional wisdom, in the form of typical handicapping, spots the home team 3 points. I have found that its true for some teams/some teams not/some teams even more…
- Denver (both from the crowd, but more importantly the altitude/lack of oxygen intake for the away team)
- Seatle (12th man is no joke)
- Kansas City (ask any former NFL player and they tell you KC is the only stop that can compete with college stadiums)
- New Orleans (Passionate indoor crowd when they’re having a solid year)
- Green Bay (when your team is owned by its fans, you can expect an added decibel or two to the crowd noise)
- Philadelphia (just a**holes)
One additional lesson I have learned over the years, much more in London than in Mexico, is that because of the oddities that come with playing a game 6-8 time zones away in a foreign country, frankly said, weird things tend to happen. I look for upset potential much more closely in these games, and you too should act accordingly.
In every sport, luck plays a big factor. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to apply a hard number to such an intangible variable. However, when looking at a team as a whole, and seeing “who’s been lucky” and “who hasn’t” the Pythagorean Expected Win Ratio helps look at it in a practical way. You can learn more about it in my 2017 NFL Season Predictions article, but not to bore you, its a statistic that tells you how many wins a team should have, based on how close their games have been, and then compares that to their true record. Typically, the stat is used between seasons, but there is some value for us on a weekly basis (especially the later in the season you are). You can usually find this information on the web, but if not, it’s a simple formula: Take a team’s “ownership” of points scored in games they have played, i.e. Points Scored/(Points Scored + Points Allowed), and multiply that ratio by the total games they have played. You can view a sample breakdown here. If the number is higher than actual wins, that team has been “unlucky” and vice-versa. Once you have this information find the top 3-8 “Unluckiest Teams” and if they are playing one of the 3-8 “Luckiest Teams” there may be some opportunity for an upset here/surefire favorite winning..
A “trap game” occurs when a quality team has a relatively easy matchup this week, with a far tougher/usually marque game the following week. For those that have never played the game, it’s not that hard to imagine preparing below 100% effort and “worrying” slightly less about the weak opponent in front of you while in the back of your mind you know you have a far tougher challenge on deck. There is an opportunity here…particularly for an upset (and especially for a cover if that’s the route you’re going), and at least a spot to be more cautious when aligning yourself with a favorite. Although this is MUCH more frequent in college games (where the talent gap from the best to the worst team is much greater than the NFL), it happens in the NFL at times as well.
Kicker Game Winning %
I will admit, this is one that I have no statistical backing for, and am planning to run a regression against at the end of the year (stay tuned). Nonetheless, given how many NFL games are decided by 5 points or less, or better yet, are won or lost on the foot of a kicker, it’s only logical to look at the team with a clutch/high percentage kicker as having a legitimate advantage.
Angles is an element handicappers love to look into. You can find them in any handicapper publication, I again recommend NorthCoastSports. If you are not familiar with what an angle is, its a very specific team trend using traditional betting data to help better predict success. For example, this week we may find out that Chicago is on an 11-3 run as a Home Underdog vs. AFC foes. I am not the biggest fan of these items (especially used alone) given these are the types of elements that “the team doesn’t know about going into the game”, and thus not really a big factor. Either way, it’s an aspect that can help you predict a “coin flip game”.
Being a “Hot Team” is not as significant an indicator as you think, mainly because of the natural parity of the league, but it still matters. All other things equal, a team that has won 3 or more games in a row has momentum at its back.
And there you have it, you now have the tools you need to successfully predict NFL games. I really wanted to give you the most comprehensive approach to predicting NFL games by providing you every variable that determines game outcomes. I hope you enjoyed it, use it in good health and please feel free to post any questions/brag about the office pools you have started to win.