One of the many challenges of handicapping the NFL is trying to figure out how to handicap football teams that have no playoff future left to play for. Once teams have been eliminated from postseason consideration it can be hard to assess what their effort level is going to be in their remaining football games. With each passing week in the season there are more teams that know they aren’t going anywhere other than golfing once the regular season ends, so the ability to assess how those teams might perform becomes more and more important. There are five simple questions NFL bettors can ask to determine what a team will be able to offer in these games and if you can trust them to be part of your winning football picks:
What were the expectations coming into the season? – Not all five win teams are going to be in the same place mentally. A pro football team that was only expected to win one or two games will be flying high when they win five, while a team that was expected to be a Super Bowl team will be thoroughly frustrated. In some part of their brain every player on every team has some belief that they are going to win the Super Bowl when the season starts, but that is outweighed on most teams by the reality – that they just don’t have the talent to do so. The higher the realistic expectations were coming into the season, the more disheartening poor performance will be, and the more likely that a team will put forth weak effort once they have been eliminated from contention.
What trajectory is the team on? – As a football handicapper, you have to realize that this is a more subjective question than an objective one, but you can get a good sense of the right answer if you follow football reasonably closely. NFL teams won’t be particularly affected by being eliminated from the playoffs early on if they are a team that has been struggling badly but which is now showing real improvement. If a team had won two games for three straight seasons and was horrible on both sides of the ball then a six win season would be a major victory – even if it didn’t get them anywhere near the playoffs. Those football teams are likely young and building towards a future together, so they are likely to play tough right down to the end of the season. If the teams is on the decline, though, then the story will be different. A team that has been in the playoffs for a few years, but which has been hit hard by age, free agency defections, and injuries could easily slip into a few dark years in which they struggle badly. A team that is heading into such a dark period probably knows it, and they aren’t going to be very excited about it. There isn’t much hope, and certainly not much to play for, and the players are going to know it. That isn’t likely to lead to a high effort performance.
What’s the status of the coach? – A bad football season will often have a negative effect on the job security of a coach, but it certainly doesn’t always. In order to get a sense of the effort a team will put forth you need to get an idea of how hot a coach’s seat is heading down the stretch. If a NFL coach is all but certain to be fired after the season then the closer players get to the end of the season the less likely they are to care about what he says or wants – unless the coach is very popular despite the inevitable firing. If a coach is certain or even just likely to return next season then players will be motivated to play right to the end because they know they are playing for a role on the team next year and not just the rest of this season.
What’s the status of key players? – If a football team has a young core of players that are likely to stay together for a while – with a chance to build something impressive – then they are probably going to put good effort forward down the stretch. Teams like that look at games played now as preparation for the future. If the team is likely to be making a whole lot of changes, though, then they aren’t likely to be nearly as motivated – Brett Favre stood no chance of motivating the Vikings once Minnesota was out of contention.
What’s the schedule? – Even if the team doesn’t have the playoffs to look forward to, the schedule could give them a lot of reasons to play hard. Do they have a chance to beat a big rival? Can they play spoiler for another NFL team trying to make the playoffs? Do they have a chance to affect their draft position, or move up in the standings in the division? Expert sports bettors know that the NFL playoffs are the biggest motivator, but far from the only motivator.