Generally, articles will be for subscribers only. However, we wanted to show bettors a preview of the of the type of analysis we will provide to give them an edge.
Nothing gets you in more trouble in sports gambling than assuming conventional wisdom is actually wise.
As a stand-alone NFL game, Thursday Night Football (“TNF”) is highly bet on and comes with its own “common knowledge.”
“When in doubt on Thursday night, go with the home favorite.” “Having limited time to prepare favors the defense, so go with the under.” Is this conventional wisdom true, or might bettors find better value by going against the grain?
This common TNF betting knowledge rests on some basic presumptions. The first adage assumes that the heavily abbreviated week is easier on home teams who do not need to use any of their precious time traveling. The theory about the defense’s advantage rests on the assumption that limited prep time harms the defense less than the offense.
Do home favorites have a huge advantage on Thursday Night Football?
Looking at the last five seasons (2017-2021), home teams on TNF went under .500 against the spread, winning only 47% of the time. More acutely, home favorites also had a losing record against the spread.
However, home teams favored by at least a touchdown fared much better, going 10–4 versus the spread. Conversely, all home teams that were favored by less than a touchdown covered the spread at an abysmal rate of 36%.
This implies that when heavy favorites are home on a short week they will generally be able to take advantage. On the other hand, the idea that a short week provides a “super home field advantage” likely artificially boosts other “pick em” or slight favorites in most bettors’ minds.
Point totals and TNF
The conventional wisdom surrounding point totals also appears to be exaggerated. The Over-Under lines for TNF games are nearly identical to all other games at an average of 46.1 to 45.9. Additionally, TNF games are just 2% higher scoring than the average NFL game - a non-significant difference.
However, diving further into the details reveals an interesting trend. The first half of TNF games have on average nearly 6% higher scores than the other NFL games. This difference is not enough to bet the house on each first half Over line, but it is a good piece of data to keep in mind if one likes the first half over-under line for a TNF game.
Where’s the real value?
So far we have debunked some conventional wisdom, but have not found tremendous value. Yet, a deeper dive reveals a very logical, under the radar trend that could unearth significant value.
We used statistical analysis (a linear regression model) to identify which types of teams were more likely to under and over perform on TNF. We found one stat in particular to be extremely illuminating. In comparison to all other games, first downs given up by a defense had nearly double the impact on the final score differential on Thursday Night. Logically, this is likely due to fatigue. With only three days of rest, a defense that is unable to get off the field will get tired quickly, leading the offense to be able to continuously pick up first downs, snowballing into a cycle of a tired defense getting beat up by the offense. Does this focus on fatigue have a connection to the prominence of the heavy favorites in TNF games?
One may hypothesize that good teams will be able to stay on the field by converting third downs, allowing them on TNF to quickly tire the defense and make the entire game easier for themselves. 70% of the heavy favorites who covered the spread were in the top 40% in third down conversion rate. Similarly on the defensive end, half of these teams were among the top ten in preventing first downs.
When analyzing TNF games, do not settle for the conventional wisdom and assume that the home favorite is the way to go. Dive into the number of first downs and plays given up by each defense both in general and specifically the week before. Focusing on first down statistics will allow a much crisper gauge of how teams will be impacted by the shorter week and enable smarter betting.
*This excludes all season openers as they do not have a shortened week of practice in this scenario.