The final month of the NFL season is upon us and while others overreact to what they’ve most recently seen, or hold strong to out-of-date opinions they had at the start of the year, it is time to use some recent historical analysis and keen observation skills to pocket cash down the stretch.
Picking winners against the spread at this point in the year is not as easy as asking who has something to play for but, rather, who is playing well over long periods of time.
Three of four teams that earned the last playoff spot in their conference during the last two seasons were playing well down the stretch. In 2012, the Bengals won three straight and seven out of eight to grab the final AFC postseason spot. In the same year, Minnesota won four straight to get to 10-6 and qualify for the NFC playoffs. Last season, the Chargers won four in a row to end the regular season and qualified for the second season while New Orleans limped into the bracket.
While there will be a lot of focus on the playoff race, finding hot teams to make money on doesn’t require that they are in contention for anything meaningful. Last year, the Titans were a cash cow down the stretch. Sure, Tennessee lost four of their last seven games, but they did so by playing well and covering. We probably should have seen it coming. After a bye, Tennessee went to St. Louis and won in week 9. Following a bad loss against Jacksonville in week 10, the Titans lost a tight game with Indianapolis. From that point on, it was obvious Tennessee was a team to be on. They beat the Raiders on the road, lost a one score game at Indy, and after getting blown out in Denver, lost in overtime against streaking Arizona, and beat Jacksonville and Houston to end the year.
Like Tennessee, the Vikings were a good team to ride late last season. After starting 1-7, Minnesota ended the year 4-3-1. After a tie in Green Bay during week 12, and an overtime win over Chicago in week 13, clearly signs were pointing up. Down the stretch, the Vikings covered at Baltimore, beat Philadelphia and Detroit, and got clobbered in Cincinnati.
So who should we keep our eyes on now? It appears to me that there are two teams playing pretty solid below-the-radar football.
We know that the NFC South stinks. However, somebody still needs to win the division. New Orleans is the sexy team, but a closer look at Atlanta reveals a team going in the right direction. The Falcons offensive line was decimated by injuries early in the year. After a 2-1 start, they lost five, straight failing to cover in four. However, they have gained some confidence up front and played competitively recently. After blowing a 21-0 lead (but still covering) against Detroit in London in week 8, the Falcons had a bye. They returned from their week off with road wins at Tampa Bay and Carolina. Depending upon when you made the bet, they either covered in a last second loss to Cleveland in week 12 or lost by half a point; then they beat Arizona convincingly in week 13. A 2-2 mark down the stretch could earn them a playoff birth, and it seems likely they’ll be competitive the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, nobody is talking about the red-hot Rams. Jeff Fisher’s team has covered three straight games and four out of five, and they are playing good football. St. Louis has won three straight at home, beating Seattle (28-26), Denver (22-7), and Oakland (52-0). While they lost 31-14 at Arizona in week 10, that was a three point game with six minutes left and the Cardinals scored two defensive touchdowns to make it look lopsided. St. Louis lost at San Diego 27-24 in week 12. The Rams are out of the playoff race, but they have gotten healthy in the trenches and at, 5-7, could easily finish .500, assuring Fisher of job security, and winning bettors money in the process.
Is it a guarantee that these teams will stay hot down the stretch? Of course not. Are there reasons, both intrinsic to the teams and looking at broader NFL trends, to think that they will? You betcha.