Math It Up
Looking over the NFC, it can seem like it’s a slam dunk to just take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win their division — did you see how good they looked against the Pack last Sunday? — but hold on a minute. Who’s left on their schedule? And what about that loss they have to the division-rival Saints?
To answer these kinds of questions for all the teams, we’ll borrow the DVOA metric from Football Outsiders. If you’re unfamiliar, DVOA is a fairly sophisticated team rating based on a percentage, positive for good teams, and negative for bad ones. It’s not perfect, of course, no evaluation system is, but it’s one of the better publicly available rating systems.
It also works well to do a quick assessment of a team’s remaining strength of schedule (SOS). The common way to calculate SOS is to add up all the wins and losses of the team’s upcoming opponents, but this method does a miserable job of accounting for early lopsided schedules. Instead, we took the average DVOA rating of each team’s remaining opponents and averaged them out.
To compare teams within each division, here are some tables crammed with info for each division. It shows the team, their current NFL odds to win the division, their DVOA rating, their current overall record, their current division record and, finally, their SOS DVOA average.
Despite being a half-game behind Chicago, Green Bay is a strong favorite to win the NFC North. Looking for value among the contenders is challenging. For starters, the Packers already have a win against the Lions, which makes it difficult to take a shot even at 20-1 with Detroit. The Lions would have to beat Green Bay in their rematch and catch up two more games over the rest of the season. But based on the DVOA strength of schedule, it’s clear Green Bay has the easiest path for the remainder of the year by a bit of a longshot. (Remember, a negative SOS means the opponents are below average — the lower the number, the worse the group of teams.)
The Bears’ schedule is worse, and though they have that half-game lead on the Packers, they’ll likely have a harder go of it the rest of the season. In this case, the longshots don’t seem to offer much value. The Lions aren’t a great team facing a rough second half of the season, and the Vikings are a mediocre team already in a deep hole. The Bears-Packers showdown won’t occur until Week 12, and a bet on who wins this division comes down to who you think wins that game.
The Buccaneers are the obvious leaders in the clubhouse to take the South, but two challengers are intriguing. (The Falcons, sadly, aren’t even appealing at 60-1 as a subpar team already deep in the hole and a crunchy upcoming set of opponents.)
The Saints already have a win in their pocket over the Bucs, currently rank nearly as strong, and have a substantially easier schedule. If New Orleans emerges from its bye week, strings together two wins and goes into Tampa Bay for the Week 9 rematch with a 5-2 record, you can expect their odds might be better than even money by then.
At 12-1 how can you not consider the Panthers? While those are good odds, the Panthers’ ranking is average (which is 0.0% in DVOA) and their schedule is considerably more difficult than the Saints’. They also have a loss against the Bucs already, though if you think the Panthers could pull off a home-dog upset of the Saints when they visit in Week 10, +1200 might be a good price.
If you’re in it, you can win it — it’s the NFC East! A division where someone could play host to a playoff game having won as few as six (6!) games. What a game that’s gonna be.
Anyway, the Cowboys lead the odds and based on their DVOA strength of schedule creampuff number, you’d think they’ve scheduled the Texas high-school champs for sometime in November. Plus, they suck less than the other teams in the division.
That said, everyone else offers some intriguing value, especially since everybody witnessed the new-look Cowboys under their new quarterback. The Eagles have a soft schedule and that tie they settled for with the Bengals back in Week 3 could come to loom large. Their upcoming game against Dallas in Week 8 should decide who heads these odds then.
The Giants are worthy of a look at +750, but with a mediocre schedule ahead and a below-average rating, they’re up against it has already lost to the Cowboys. But, if you think they’ll upset the Eagles at home next Sunday, they won’t be +750 after that.
Here’s a wager: Make a small bet on Washington Football Team to win the NFC East, no more than what you’d make in the hopes they would pull off an upset as a home dog against Dallas — because that’s the situation this Sunday. If Washington does manage to upset the Cowboys as short dogs, we’ll hear all about how they suddenly have a chance in the NFC East.
Like in the East, any team in the NFC West division also has a fighting chance to win, but in this case, because they’re all pretty good teams instead of terrible. Headlining the list is Seattle, whose upcoming schedule is noticeably easier than their divisional rivals.
With a 1½-game deficit to the Seahawks, the Rams seem like not enough value at +375, but would be much lower were they to beat Seattle when they play in Week 10.
The Cardinals coming off a Monday-night spanking of the Cowboys should certainly raise their stock. Now with the same record as the Rams, they already have a win over the Niners, and it’s likely that +600 will come down. They face Seattle this Sunday in a huge division tilt that should alter these sports betting odds significantly.
The 49ers seem a little overvalued as the division basement dweller. Though they have a win against the Rams, they’ve also already lost to Arizona, are an extra game behind in the standings, and have the worst upcoming schedule.