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NFL Parity and 20-point Blowouts
by Jim Feist - 11/17/2009
For years, pro football has been the sports leader when it comes to parity. Pete Rozelle was credited with, "On any given Sunday any team can beat another." You say, "Wait a minute -- the Saints and Colts started 16-0 SU/11-5 ATS. Where's the parity?" How about four wins by the Colts of 4 points or less? They didn't lose a game in the first half of the season, but were far from dominant.
What about the Patriots going 16-0 in 2007? What New England did was unique, but let's not forget that they were fortunate to run the regular season table. They had wins over the Colts, Eagles, Ravens and Giants by 4, 3, 3 and 3 points. Counting the playoffs, the Patriots went 2-9 against the spread their final 11 games. They were double digit favorites for those making pro football picks in their final ten, but went 2-8 ATS.
It's far more common to see smaller differences between the good teams, the average ones and the bad. For instance, before the season started the top teams in consideration to make the Super Bowl were the Patriots, Steelers, Colts, Chargers, Giants, Vikings and Eagles. Several have stumbled in the first half, while the sizzling Saints were not on that list, sitting at 20-to-1 in August.
A year ago, four of the top AFC teams expected to make the Super Bowl were the Pats, Colts, Jaguars and Chargers. Halfway through, all four had serious weaknesses. The Patriots lost their only irreplaceable player (Tom Brady), the Colts battled injuries, while the Jags and Chargers can't stop anybody. In the NFC, the 2008 Cowboys were the favorite, but stumbled through a terrible stretch going 2-4 SU, 1-5 ATS and failed to make the playoffs.
Injuries are the most obvious factor in leveling the playing field, turning powerhouse teams on paper into paper tigers. There are other reasons, too. This season, defending AFC East champion Miami lost starting QB Chad Pennington for the year last month. A year ago the Jaguars lost DT Marcus Stroud in the offseason to free agency and fell to the middle of the pack defensively. The Chargers have struggled for the second straight year defensively with injuries.
There's an old pro football picks wagering adage about going against teams who roll by 20 points in back-to-back games. That's not easy to do. If a pro team beats another by 20-plus points in consecutive weeks, it can be a good time to look at the other side, as the club off two blowout wins can be overvalued. In order to win by that kind of margin in consecutive games, a team has to play close to two perfect games back-to-back. In this day of parity, that takes a rare combination of talent, execution, health and luck.
After losing road games by 23 and 37 points, the Raiders stumbled home and not only covered, but beat the Eagles as 14-point dogs, 13-9. Even the bumbling Browns lost back-to-back games by 20+ in Weeks 2 and 3, then got the cover against the Bengals as a +6 home dog. After losing by 35 and 28, the Rams got the cover in a 23-20 loss at Jacksonville as a +9 dog. As miserable as those teams have been, it is still hard to wipe out a pro team by 3 TDs three games in a row.
We saw this trend often in 2007, too. The Cowboys destroyed the Bears (34-10) and Rams (35-7), then Dallas was a 10-point road favorite the next week at Buffalo. They not only failed to cover, they barely won the game, 25-24, needing a miraculous comeback in the final 30 seconds.
Revenue sharing, the draft and the salary cap have all helped to level the playing field more or less and keep competitive balance. Even the worst NFL team would trounce the best college football team if the two were able to face off at the end of each season. This happened in the 1920s when Knute Rockne's great Notre Dame teams played some charity games with the NFL (the pro teams won handily). This is because every pro roster is stocked with talented college players, while roughly two or three athletes from a college team are good enough to ever play in the pros.
The draft is a major contributor to parity, with the worst teams having the first shot at the best players. Another example in 2007 was the Giants. NY blew out the Falcons (31-10) and 49ers (33-15) in consecutive weeks, then the next week they were a 10-point favorite against Miami overseas. In a sloppy game, the Giants squeezed out a 13-10 win. In addition, with a relatively small talent gap in pro football, teams can often bounce back from one or two terrible performances with a surprisingly strong game. After a 38-14 loss at Atlanta in Week 3, the 2007 Chiefs were a home dog to Denver, but won their first game, 33-19.
It might not seem like it with so many bad offensive teams the last two years, but this is parity at work, with salary caps and free agency making it difficult for teams to simply buy players to shore up weak areas, as is the case in baseball. In football, if you pay a lot to get or retain a key player, you may lose a star in another area. Overall, you rarely see pro teams keep up 20-point or more dominance for more than two games, something to keep in mind when analyzing weekly pro football picks