The Muffed Punt: How to bet the NFL’s trigger-happy referees

OK, NFL. I know it’s been a rough couple years when it comes to teams and talents playing by your rules, but you’ve got a stick up your butt. And no amount of penalties are going to dislodge that sucker. So ease up, because you’re killing football.

Flags are flying like it’s the frickin’ United Nations out there, with 980 total penalties accepted so far – according to NFLPenalties.com – for an average of 15.3 per game. That has the NFL on pace for a record year in terms of rule breakers, and has stocks soaring in the yellow hanky markets (get’em while they’re hot!).

At this time last season, there were just 842 penalties through four weeks of football and the 2014 campaign averaged 13.2 penalties per game – a major jump compared to the previous four seasons in which NFL games averaged 12.2 (2013), 12.4 (2012), 12.6 (2011) and 12.0 (2010).

According to USA Today, this surge in infractions has NFL games running longer than a Lord of the Rings trilogy and makes them just as boring, with an average running time of 3 hours, 8 minutes and 52 seconds – almost four whole minutes longer than last season’s broadcast.

So if the NFL is stealing our lives away minutes at a time, while the zebras drop yellow flags like Donkey Kong tossing out bananas in Mario Kart, we might as well be making money while we’re chained to the TV.

Looking back over the last nine seasons, including this current one, there have been 118 NFL games in which there were 20 or more penalties enforced, including Thursday’s game between the Colts at Texans which had 20 right on the nose (7 Colts, 13 Texans). And in those 118 games, the final score has finished 64-52-2 Over/Under for a 55 percent winning clip for the Over. This isn’t settling Vegas ablaze but it is enough to turn a long-term profit over that span.

The real value comes from the most penalized (hee, hee, hee!) games. In contests (2007-2015) in which there were 25 or more fouls whistled, the Over has gone 9-4 for a 69 percent winning rate for total bettors.

Now, it’s impossible to predict how many penalties will be called in a game, as well as what those calls will be. But we do know which teams are called for the most penalties – Buffalo, Houston, Oakland, Tampa Bay – and which ones draw the most whistles (like Dwyane Wade in the 2006 NBA Finals) – Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Miami, Houston, N.Y. Jets.

Obviously, flags on things like defensive pass interference and illegal contact benefit the offense – and the Over. Penalties like offensive holding and false starts, on the other hand, work in favor of the defense – and the Under. With that said, we’re betting in the age of the “defenseless receiver”, with officials quick to flash the yellow at the slightest bump from a defensive back.

And while those 25-plus penalty games are rare, with only 13 since 2007, you can take some comfort – or outrage depending on where your head’s at – knowing that four of those highly-penalized (Ha! Can’t help myself) contests have occurred this season. In fact, of the 118 NFL games with 20 or more flags flown in the past nine years, 12 have happened in the past 64 games of 2015 NFL action.

So far this season, there have been 12 games with 20 or more penalties written up and after last night’s 27-20 win from the Colts, which played Over the 40.5-point total, those penalty-marred matchups are 7-4-1 Over/Under heading into Sunday’s action.

If NFL referees keep getting this much facetime, EA Sports might have to do Madden 17 motion capture on officials so that we get video game versions of Ed Hochuli’s biceps and a digital Mike Pereira breaking down the calls.

Primetime grind

Last season, sportsbooks got killed when it came to the NFL primetime matchups. With the public loving the Over on the big stage, in standalone games on Thursday, Sunday and Monday night, those showcases finished 34-16 Over/Under on the year – a 68 percent winning clip for the Over.

This year, this trend has subsided and actually provided profits for those willing to go against the primetime grain and take the Under. After Thursday’s game between Indianapolis and Houston, NFL primetime games are 5-9 Over/Under – a 64 percent payment for Under backers.

That trend makes the bookies very happy, almost as happy as the fact that favorites have fallen flat in these big games as well. After the Colts covered as underdogs Thursday, NFL primetime chalk is just 5-8-1 ATS in 2015. That’s a pretty loud bark from the pups (61.5%) considering underdogs are covering just under 53 percent this season.

Pants-pooping Trend of the Week

The New England Patriots are 8.5-point favorites and growing in Week 5, visiting my darling Cowboys in Arlington Sunday afternoon.

The Pats are coming off the bye week, a situation which has been a breakeven prop for football bettors during Bill Belichick’s reign in Foxborough, Mass. New England is 11-4 SU and 7-7-1 ATS off a bye week since “The Hoodie” took over in 2000.

However, the bye hasn’t been good to Pats backers in recent years, with the team going just 1-4-1 ATS (4-2 SU) following the week off since 2007.

Betting off the bye

Wondering how teams have gone against the odds when coming off a bye week? I can read you like a book…

Stats from 2005-2014

Overall: 167-148-8 ATS (53%)
Home: 87-75-5 ATS (54%)
Away: 80-70-3 ATS (53%)
O/U Home: 80-86-1 O/U
O/U Away: 70-81-2 O/U

The other team off a bye in Week 5 is Tennessee (+2.5 vs. Buffalo), which boasts a 5-5 SU and ATS record coming off the bye since 2005.

The Madden Project

We’re simulating NFL games each week on NFL Madden 16 for Xbox One to see if it holds any handicapping value.

Last week, “the machine” went 1-2 ATS (Redskins win, Broncos and Cowboys lose) for its first losing day since the start of the season. That puts faith back in the fact that I’m not easily replaced by some form of robot me – no matter what my wife threatens me with (freight from Japan is how much?!).

Here are the Week 5 sims:

Seattle at Cincinnati: 33-27 OT/39-22/42-17 – Seattle wins 38-22
New Orleans at Philadelphia: 27-33 OT/14-49/16-31 – Philadelphia wins 37.7-19
New England at Dallas: 23-20/38-10/19-14 – New England wins 26.7-14.7

Madden 16 season record: 9-7 ATS

I smell bacon

I took part in another video/podcast with Rob Cressy from BaconSports.com Friday morning. As I’m Canadian, I’m in full Blue Jays gear (you can see my stirrups and spikes), trying to rally our team after a tough Game 1 loss.

Biggest line move

Remember when I said the Patriots were 1-4-1 ATS coming off the bye. Yeah, well, people don’t give a crap. New England opened a touchdown road favorite in Dallas and has since moved as high as -10. Talking with books this week about the line, they said they rarely see movement like this on a NFL game unless there’s breaking injury news to a key player. I don’t know if the Cowboys have any more of those types of players left, anyways.

Books are sweating…

New England. Before Tony Romo and Dez Bryant went down, this was a massive matchup destined to draw vast amounts of betting action. At CG Technology books in Las Vegas, which opened odds on every game Week 1 to Week 16 back in the spring, the original line of this game was a pick’em. Now, as we head toward the weekend, it’s one-sided money on the defending Super Bowl champs and almost every teaser and parlay making it out of the 1 p.m. ET games will be tied to this 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff.

“Everyone is betting New England. It’s by far our biggest exposure,” says Jason Simbal, CG Technology’s vice president of risk management, who says 86 percent of the money is on the Patriots.

Wiseguys love…

Washington and Tennessee. The sharp money loves these two underdogs, moving the Redskins from +9 to +7 visiting the undefeated Falcons and trimming the Titans from 3-point home dogs to +1 hosting the Bills.

Banker Game of the Week

New England at Dallas. This game just won’t go away. With an unsexy slate of games at 1 p.m. ET, save for Seattle at Cincinnati, a lot of people will wait to pull the trigger on this marquee matchup. As mentioned, books have seen as big as a field-goal swing on this line, with the majority of money on New England. Books are expecting some Cowboys money to come from the Big D faithful (not me, I’m not touching this thing) and if it does hit 10.5, expect the wiseguys to buy back on the home side.

Daily Fantasy Player of the Week

After three weeks of pure busts, I’m going to consider last week’s selection of Cole Beasley (9.2 points at $5,200) a win. C’mon guys, let me have this one…

DFS Player of the Week: Lee Smith/Mychal Rivera, TE Oakland Raiders

The Broncos are a chaotic defense, bringing the heat on opposing QBs. With Derek Carr under fire, I expect the tight ends to get more looks than usual as the pocket collapses. Some DFS sites don’t even have Smith available, which could be saying something about this pick. But you can pick up Rivera at the cheap, cheap price of $4,900. That gives you plenty of extra payroll to splurge on kinds of players I should have told you to take.

Injury you should know

Each week I’ll point out an injury that may not register with the oddsmakers, as far as importance to the spread, but could still have a huge impact on how the game trickles out. This week’s injury you should know…

Jordan Reed, TE Washington Redskins

Reed isn’t traveling to Atlanta while he recovers from another concussion (five documented since college). This guy’s quietly become a standout tight end and currently leads the Skins in receiving yards (278) and is tied for receptions (24). He’s not Gronk or Jimmy Graham, but with Washington already down WR DeSean Jackson and facing an aggressive Falcons defense, his steady hands will be missed by Kirk Cousins. Washington is left leaning on TE Derek Carrier, who they acquired from San Francisco this offseason.

We know how to pick’em

When odds hit the board, there weren’t any games in pick’em range. But with wiseguys taking the Titans, that spread has come down from +3 to +1 and may just move to pick if that trend continues. As previous week’s, we leave Sunday’s tightest spread up to which team has the hotter cheerleaders. It’s not an exact science but science never looked his good…

Sunday’s menu

It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada, which means one of the few times during football season that I don’t have to cook. My mother-in-law is making ham and turkey, along with all your favorite Thanksgiving fixings. However, supper will coincide with the Patriots-Cowboys game which means I’ll like be drowning my sorrows in second helpings and gravy. Eat away the pain one Gronkowski touchdown at a time…

Song for Sunday

There are nine home favorites on the board for the remaining Week 5 games (10 if you include Houston Thursday), a role that has provided just 46.51 percent ATS winners so far in 2015. If you’ve been stung betting home faves, this is your jam…

Follow Covers Features Editor Jason Logan on Twitter @CoversJLo. Check out JLo’s Covers archive for his latest features and columns, including his NFL’s biggest betting mismatches Week 5.

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