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Finding Value in NFL Playoff Home Underdogs

In the divisional round and the conference championship round of the NFL playoffs we would expect the home team to be favored. They have worked hard to earn the right to host their playoff games, and they are playing in a building that has obviously been good to them. At times, though, we find situations in which the home team is actually an underdog. It could be that they earned their record by playing in a weak division that hasn’t earned them respect from the betting public, that their opponent is a very popular team playing well, or that health or other personnel issues have become a factor for the team. Regardless of the reason, home underdogs of this caliber are something handicappers should be taking a close look at. Here are six factors for football handicappers to consider when you are looking at a home underdog in the NFL playoffs:

How has the favorite done on the road? – If a road team is favored in the playoffs you can be sure that it is at least in part because they have been impressive at times during the year, and that they have a star player that the public loves leading the way. It’s very important for bettors to make sure that the star and the team perform as well on the road as they do at home – or at least close. The 2011 New Orleans Saints are a perfect example here. Drew Brees set the all-time passing record during the regular season, and the incredibly explosive offense was firing on all cylinders. They played in San Francisco in the second round of the playoffs, and were favored – in large part because Alex Smith of the Niners was not perceived nearly as well as Brees. The problem was, though, that the Saints were not nearly the road team that they were at home. They were still good, but while they had been 9-0 at home including a wild card win they were just 5-3 on the road. Brees was not quite as sharp statistically, either, and the team had had focus issues in losing to weaker teams they should have beaten. In the end New Orleans lost a crazy game that was an instant classic, and the sports betting public had a bad day since the Saints had drawn a significant amount of action in the game.

Has the team been a home underdog before? – Just like you want to know how the road team performs on the road you’ll also want to look at the home team. First, have they performed well at home – has it been a big advantage for them? Also, have they been home underdogs before during the season, and how have they performed in that spot? Some NFL teams perform very well when they are perceived to be not getting the respect they think they deserve.

Is it justified? – This is a very subjective question, but still a very valuable one for football bettors to ask. When you look at this playoff game do you believe that the road team should be favored, or do you have reasons to doubt the line? If the line is justified in your mind then your job is simply to handicap the game to see if there is any value. If you don’t think that the road team really should be favored, though, then you need to go further. What are they favored? What factors have contributed to it? Is it public bias or smart money that is pushing the line to where it is? As a football handicapper, are you missing something? If you can become convinced that the line shouldn’t be as it is then you might have a very attractive bet.

Is the road team a public team? – We’ve touched on this before, but it is important enough that we should touch on it again. If the road team is a real public team – either one that the public always loves, or one that has been flashy and heavily hyped during the season and into the playoffs – then there is a very good chance that their line is inflated. This is especially true if the home team isn’t nearly as public. The public influence on a NFL team can be more extreme during the playoffs as well because betting volumes are higher and casual public interest in the league and betting intensifies.

How is the public reacting? – If the line was initially set with the road team favored then it is important to get a sense of how the sports betting public (and the smart money) are reacting. How has the line moved since it opened? Has the betting action been reasonably split between the two teams, or is the public team still drawing the large bulk of the support? Is the smart money heavily moving the line, or has the public taken charge in this case? Because betting action is so heavy during the playoffs it is very important that you are aware of how lines are moving and what impact that can have on the potential betting value.

Is a bye week a factor? – In the divisional round the home team is coming off a bye week while the road team just played a game the week before. The public attaches a lot of significance to a bye, and they usually regard it as a positive thing, so if a NFL team coming off a bye is a home dog then football handicappers need to particularly be aware. What impact does the bye have on the game? Is that impact reflected properly in the line?

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