Handicapping the 2021 NFLx Preseason: Autopsy Report

by Hollywood Sports

We concluded a 7-4 mark in the NFLx preseason by winning out 25* NFLx Preseason Game of the Year on Sunday with the Cleveland Browns minus the points against Atlanta. NFL preseason football is beatable — but it requires using a different set of methods than handicapping the NFL in the regular season. We will begin the 2022 NFLx preseason on a 16 of 22 (73%) NFLx run and a longer-running 46 of 74 (62%) NFLx preseason mark. We won six of our seven highest-rated 25* NFLx preseason plays this year, furthering a 13 of 14 (93%) NFLx 25* preseason run going back to 2019 and a longer running 26 of 34 (76%) preseason mark with 25* plays. 

Being a little choosier while being patient has helped to make decisions as to when to invest in a preseason situation. Handicapping the preseason in the NFL (successfully) is not the same as it was five years ago. Back then, deciphering edges against the point spread mostly involved the qualitative assessment and comparison of both team’s rosters — especially at quarterback. Getting a book on the philosophy each head coach had regarding how they used preseason games has always been important as well — but Sean McVay’s commitment to not play any starters in the preseason established a school of thought that many of his peers have adopted. After no preseason last year because of the pandemic and the league’s shift to just three preseason games, a new dynamic has taken hold this year. It had been conventional wisdom for most head coaches to use the third preseason game as the dress rehearsal game where he has his starters get in their most minutes — and then the last preseason game is used exclusively to make the final roster decisions. Not playing starters in the final preseason game also gave them a week of rest before the regular season while protecting them from short-term injuries that could threaten their status for the start of the season. But with the NFL having next week off before the start of the regular season, head coaches face a dilemma: not playing their starters in this third preseason game could risk them being rusty. 

First and foremost, handicapping the preseason requires understanding what philosophical approach the respective head coaches are using for the preseason game. Head coaching team trends that are specific to the preseason can help, but the loss of the fourth preseason game makes the sample size thinner even for veteran NFL head coaches. Following beat reporters who can provide insight regarding how the head coach plans to use the game is helpful. Often this news does not break until the day of the game. 

Favorites were 23-22-2 ATS this preseason. Going back to include the preseason data from 2019, underdogs hold a narrow 54-47-5 ATS mark. The Under was 28-20 this preseason. After the Under was 35-27-1 in the 2019 preseason, the Under is now 63-47-1 in the last two preseasons. 

I started tracking ATS numbers for games that conclude a three-day joint practice session. Oftentimes, head coaches use the controlled scrimmage environment (where quarterbacks wear the red jersey that prohibits getting hit) to work on their more sophisticated plays and packages. Did that affect the results of the exhibition game? In 2019, dogs were 6-5 ATS in preseason games that concludes joint practices. The Under was 8-3 in those games. In 2021, dogs were 7-5 ATS, but the Over was 8-4. Overall, underdogs are 13-10 ATS in preseason games that conclude joint practices the last two seasons. The Under is 12-11 in those situations the last two seasons. While the sample size remains small, it appears there is no angle to be gleaned from those joint practice situations. Duly noted for 2022! 

Best of luck — Frank.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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