It is conventional wisdom in many circles that betting on preseason NFL games is foolish. “It’s too unpredictable.” “It’s only backup players.” “The oddsmakers set the over/under numbers too low.” “Things get too wild in the fourth quarter.”
Those are all valid observations. Yet the notion that games played in the regular season suddenly eliminate those questions is naive. Take Thursday night’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Tennessee Titans. Even in the first game in the second to last game of the season, the stakes involved in the game were nothing.
Tennessee would win the AFC South with a victory the following week against Jacksonville since they would hold the tiebreaker if both teams ended the season with 8-9 records (they are both tied for first place in the AFC South with a 7-8 record at the beginning of week 17). Dallas’ chances of winning the NFC East over Philadelphia were very slim since all the Eagles need is a victory against New Orleans or the New York Giants in the next two weeks. The Cowboys had clinched the first wildcard spot in the NFC.
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel flagged that he was not going to play his key starters, including running back Derrick Henry who was nursing a hip injury. Vrabel took things a step further on game day morning by announcing that his starting quarterback tonight would be Joshua Dobbs, who the team just signed off the Detroit practice squad on December 21st. If you bet on preseason games, then you were probably already familiar with Dobbs’ intriguing work with the Pittsburgh Steelers in previous exhibition seasons before moving on to a handful of other teams.
The former Tennessee Volunteers quarterback completed 20 of 39 passes for 232 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He ran for another 12 yards on the ground. Even without being familiar with the Titans' offense, he seemed more equipped to make plays under center than Willis who came into the league a raw prospect after starting for a few seasons at Liberty.
Yet even with the quarterback issues, the more pressing concern in the short run for the Titans was the state of the Titans' offensive line after center Ben Jones, right tackle Dillon Radunz, and right guard Nate Davis were all placed on the injured list. This unit was already been without starting left tackle Taylor Lewan for most of the season with a knee injury.
With the oddsmakers installing Dallas as a nearly two-touchdown favorite on the road in that game, it was not a leap in logic to expect them to take an early lead. Yet that may have been exactly what the Cowboys starters were assuming which contributed to their lackadaisical start in that game. Dallas only scored 10 points in the first 29 minutes of that game, and they looked on track to possibly add to that lead with a final-minute score to take a 13-3 or even 17-3 lead. But an interception from Dan Prescott gave the ball back to Dobbs who got Tennessee into field goal position take go into halftime trailing by just four points, 10-6.
The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter with Dallas going into the fourth quarter with a 17-13 lead. The Cowboys pulled away with ten unanswered points in the fourth quarter to win the game, 27-13. The oddsmakers closed the game with Dallas laying 14 to 14.5 points with the final over/under number at 40 to 40.5. The final result was razor-thin for everyone.
Yet that often is the experience for those us bettors "brave enough" to venture into preseason NFL wagering. Perhaps the lesson should be this: regular season or not, we are only betting against numbers given particular circumstances. Regular or preseason, we are betting against numbers. If we have found an edge versus the number the oddsmakers have installed, then taking advantage of that should be profitable.
Good luck -- TDG