In the 2011 NFL season, the San Francisco 49ers, in their first year under head coach Jim Harbaugh, were brilliant before Thanksgiving. They were 9-1 and had won eight football games in a row. The rest of the NFC West was beyond terrible. Seattle was next best at just 4-6, and Arizona and St. Louis were worse. While the Niners hadn’t technically clinched their division and the playoff spot that comes with it before sitting down for turkey dinner, they practically had, and the media and public were obviously extremely confident that they would – and sooner rather than later.
When a division is as unbalanced as the NFC West was in that case a football team can clinch their playoff spot with more than a month left in the season. While clinching a playoff spot is obviously not a bad thing in any circumstance it’s not always great for a team to wrap up a spot with so much football left to play. When this does happen bettors ready to make some solid NFL football picks have to determine whether the team will continue to play in the way that got them where they are, or if they will let their foot off the gas and will be harder to trust as a result.
Here are seven factors to consider in your NFL handicapping when trying to determine the impact of wrapping up a playoff spot very early and how that should impact where you decide to gamble your money on football:
Is there still something to play for? – A lot of NFL teams would just be happy clinching a playoff spot, but for teams good enough to clinch early there is probably more that they dream of. Can they still clinch home field throughout the playoffs? How about a first round bye? Those factors could be just as much of a motivating factor as the clinching, or even more if the divisional race was a non-contest right from the start.
How strong is the grip of the coach? – A situation like this is a huge test for the coach and the control he has of his football team. If the coach is fully in control and his players are fully bought in then the team will play with full intensity regardless of what they do or don’t have left to play for. The weaker the control of the coach, though, the more likely that focus and intensity will suffer. It’s hard to have a truly accurate sense of what kind of control the coach has unless you are in the locker room, but you can get good clues. Is the football team generally disciplined on the field, or do they take bad penalties too often? Do they play as well late in games as they do early on? When players talk to the media do they stay tightly on message, or are there issues of players speaking out or making mistakes? Does the team stay out of trouble off the field.
What is their style of play? – Some styles of play are easier to maintain effectively while taking a step back in intensity than others. It’s easier to pass at a high level without full effort, for example, than it is to consistently open up running lanes for a team that operates on the ground. Similarly, football teams that wins by dramatically outscoring their opponents could have an easier time of maintaining their play than one that wins by playing relentless, shutdown defense because of the intensity and relentless accuracy required for outstanding defensive play.
Who do they play? – The NFL schedule is obviously important, but not always in the same way for all teams. Some teams will find it easier to play against a weaker schedule in this case because the wins are easier. Other teams will find it harder to get focused and excited when playing a weaker opponent. Some teams will always get fired up for big rivalry games, while others will let the game pass them by if it doesn’t have bigger meaning. As best you can to be a winning sports bettor you have to get a sense of the psychological make-up of a team and the coach.
How consistent have they been during the season? – Has the football team been consistently dominant, focused, and generally excellent? Or have they been very strong in some cases, and then weak and comparatively unimpressive in others? The more consistently strong a team is, the easier it is going to be for them to maintain their focus after they clinch. The main reason for this is simple – if the team is consistent then the coaches are able to get them prepared and focused regardless of who or where they are playing.
Are they healthy? – This one is obvious, but needs to be considered – the healthier a team is, the more likely they will continue to play well. If the starters are banged up and hurting then the team is far more likely to rest and value being ready for the playoffs. That can be big when it comes to analyzing the point spread.
Does the coach rest players? – Some NFL coaches are notorious for resting their players late in the season once they have clinched a playoff spot. Tony Dungy was among the very worst for this when he was with the Colts. Other guys don’t believe that you can afford to let your foot off the gas because of the risk that the players won’t be ready to elevate their game again when they need to do so. Neither approach is necessarily right, but football coaches tend to be consistent in their approach regardless of what system they favor – or what system the coaches they learned from favor.