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NFL Betting: Using Strength of Schedule to Handicap the 2021 Wild Card Round


The theory is actually quite simple; since 2002, Wild Card teams with a higher Strength of Schedule (using Sagarin’s Ratings) went a remarkable 47-25 straight up and 48-22-2 against the spread (68.5% winners) regardless of point spread and location. Even more amazing is that teams with a SOS advantage of 10 or better went 29-7 SU, 28-6-2 ATS (82% winners). Taking it step further, underdogs with a better SOS went 19-17 SU, 26-10 ATS (72% winners).

Last season, the model (better SOS vs. weaker SOS) went 3-1 SU and ATS.

In 2002, the NFL expanded to its current format of 32 teams; eight divisions with four teams each. There wasn’t much upheaval as the league added the Houston Texans to the AFC and Seattle switched to the NFC. Two new divisions were created as the league kept the integrity of the established divisional rivalries pretty much intact. The playoff format was modified so that four division winners and two wild cards from each conference would advance to the playoffs.

Two regular season scheduling changes were implemented based on the expansion and the four-team divisional format. Only two games each season would now be based on the previous year’s record (down from four) and the league assigned a divisional rotation schedule. This insured that all teams within one division would be assigned to play all of the teams from another division in each conference. This was done on a rotation basis that way all teams would play each other at least twice every eight years, and would play in every other team’s stadium at least once during this same time frame.

The result was that there seemed to be a greater disparity based on happenstance rather than intent as teams faced eight teams from two divisions. This resulted in a very similar schedule to the other three teams in its division rather than a schedule more in common with the other poor teams across the league. No longer did a team that finished last get the benefit of avoiding top finishers and facing a quarter of its schedule against other last place teams the following season.

Note that this season, the NFL’s playoff structure expanded. The new format added one team to the field in both conferences. Now, with 14 teams, seeds 2-7 play in the Wild Card Round (6 games) while the top AFC and NFC teams receive a first round bye.

Below are this season’s Strength of Schedule numbers for this weekend’s Wild Card games. If you subscribe to this theory, plays should be made on Buffalo, LA Rams, Tampa Bay. Baltimore, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh.

Wild Card Matchups (SOS)
Indianapolis (32) at Buffalo (13) -6.5
LA Rams (10) +4.5 at Seattle (23)
Tampa Bay (9) -8.5 at Washington (26)
Baltimore (28) -3.5 at Tennessee (29)
Chicago (22) at New Orleans (14) -9.5
Cleveland (31) at Pittsburgh (27) -4