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Sports Handicapping: Perception vs Reality
by Scott Spreitzer - 10/08/2010
Contrary to what many may say, it is possible to regularly turn a profit wagering on sports. Also contrary to what many may say, it takes a lot of work. This is the busiest time of the sports calendar, spending hours of time researching, examining upcoming contests and digging for minute details that give a handicapper unique insight into teams, players and betting lines.
One area that emerges often is when appearances are not supported by data. An example of this would be the Kansas City Chiefs - yes those UNDEFEATED CHIEFS! It's always a great story when young teams that have been rebuilding or struggling for years turn a corner and have a great start to the season, firing up their long suffering fan base.
I like what the Chiefs have done, building through the draft and bringing in experienced and innovative coordinators like Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis. But this team has a lot of weakness and still a long ways to go. I'm still not sold on this offensive line, which was awful the last two years. They have been fortunate to face teams without a pass rush or menacing defense, particularly against the run (Chargers, Browns, 49ers).
The numbers show the Chiefs are 13th in total defense, 17th in the NFL in total offense, first in rushing, 29th in passing. Impressive run numbers, but QB Matt Cassell is average, at best, and doesn't have very good targets to throw to, unless they get rookie Dexter McCluster (4 rushes, 5 catches) more involved.
KC beat a bad Cleveland team, 16-14, and got dominated on the stat sheet by the Chargers in the rain, but pulled the upset. If they were sitting here 1-2, we'd be saying, "Same old Chiefs."
They've been getting it done on the ground and with special teams, but it's a lot easier to attack one-dimensional offenses, which is what KC is right now. Facing the Colts and Texans the next two weeks will tell us a lot more. If you're a Chiefs' fan, their schedule is actually very easy most of the year, so these next two games are the most difficult.
Handicappers analyze perception and reality like this all the time when assessing who might win or cover each weekend. I released a big play on the previously winless Dallas Cowboys last week when they went to Houston. I saw the Cowboys as the best 0-2 NFL team in a decade. The defense hadn't played badly and in their first two games, the main weakness was due to a lack of success inside the opponents' 30-yard line.
But Dallas had their regulars up front on offense for just the second time this season against then 2-0 Houston. I expected better results from the Dallas offense in the red zone as they have so many talented weapons and were facing a terrible Texans' secondary. The Texans allowed a total of 884 yards on 127 plays the first two games, an average of 7 yards per play.
Remember how many people were talking about the Texans as a force in the AFC during that 2-0 start? Well today they are ranked second to last in total defense in the NFL, giving up 423 yards per game, and a whopping 368 yards passing per contest! You tell me how many playoff teams have allowed that many passing yards per game? None. This shouldn't come as a shock, either, as the pass defense was 18th overall a year ago and they are saddled with inexperience in 2010.
I recall Coach Gary Kubiak being asked if he was concerned about the youth in the secondary during preseason and he replied he was confident enough, implying that if there were better guys available he would have brought them in. That was Coach-speak for, "I'm crossing my fingers and hoping the kids develop - and fast."
In my pregame analysis I noted, "They've been torched through the air for an average of 430 yards passing per game on 68 of 95 (72%) passing! Houston is giving up 9.04 yards per pass, allowing four passing TDs and they're yet to pick off a pass. That's 65 pass attempts and zero interceptions. Even though the offense has been clicking on all cylinders, I believe Houston is "ripe for the picking." Dallas has outgained their first two opponents, 790-558, and they have 16 more first downs than they have allowed."
That 2-0 start by Houston was a bit of a mirage when you really got down in the mud and analyzed their numbers. The truth is far more often in the stats than the final scores. Sometimes other factors can fog a box score unexpectedly, such as if weather conditions ground a team that lives by the pass (Texas Tech, SMU, Hawaii, Duke). But, overall, a good handicapper learns how to sift through stats and power rankings to find the real strengths and weaknesses of teams, all of which aids in making projections on final scores and odds for the following week.
A few years ago, I noticed that a horrible North Carolina defense held Georgia Tech to 13 points in a 34-13 upset as a +8 home dog. The final score was a surprise, as the UNC defense had been playing lousy for several years. Were the players finally grasping the new defensive schemes? From the box score I got my answer: No. Georgia Tech had over 409 total yards, including 234 rushing yards, 5.4 yards per carry!
The 13 points they allowed to G-Tech was more of a fluke than a team turning a corner. So make sure you dig deep to find hidden gems and key information that can help unearth winners. There's no magic involved. Being studious will help you become a better handicapping student of the games.