Against the Spread

One of the more common terms used by NFL bettors, ATS, or against the spread, refers to a team’s record measured against the point spread, irrespective of final outcome.

ATS is a useful statistic to track when betting the point spread on NFL football, but it has little bearing on a team’s overall strength and is no help when betting the moneyline.

STRAIGHT UP VS. ATS RECORDS

Instead of tracking wins and losses, ATS looks at a team’s propensity for covering the spread. For example, last season the Cleveland Browns failed to win a game at 0-16, but finished 4-12 Against the Spread. This means that there were 4 games in which they lost by less than the point spread, and actually paid out for their backers that week.

The opposite can also be true.

The 2007 New England Patriots went undefeated in the regular season, but only finished 10-6 ATS. The reason? They were giving up a lot of points.

Although one of their ATS “losses” can be chalked up to a tough opponent (they beat the Colts by 4, failing to cover the 4.5 spread), the others were the result of being heavily favored. Tom Brady and company gave up double digit points in 11 of their 16 games, and were actually favored by 20+ points on three separate occasions.

The Patriots failed to cover the spread throughout the playoffs, before ultimately losing to the underdog New York Giants in one of the biggest Superbowl upsets in history.

Counting the post season, New England finished the year 18-1 straight up and 10-9 against the spread.

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WHY TRACK AGAINST THE SPREAD RECORDS?

ATS helps bettors analyze a team’s tendency to cover the point spread, and evaluate a team’s profitability. Generally, teams will have strong ATS records also do well straight up, and vice versa, but this is simply the result of winning teams being more likely to cover. Theoretically, it is possible that a team finishes with a poor record straight up and a great record ATS – all they have to do is lose a bunch of nail biters.

ANALYZING ATS

A teams ATS record doesn’t tell the whole story.

Let’s look at the above example of the 2007 Patriots. During the regular season, the team finished 10-6 ATS. Even though they performed worse ATS than straight up, they were still a profitable team overall – a team finishing 16-0 ATS is unheard of, and would likely result in some bodies being buried in the Nevada desert.

The 10-6 record is good, but not spectacular.

However, when digging deeper into the 2007 ATS results, it becomes evident that the Patriots performed much better for bettors than their record suggests.

With the exception of a slim week 9 victory over the Indianapolis Colts and a slimmer week 17 victory over the Giants, all of their ATS losses came with sizable point spreads.

They failed to cover against the Eagles, Ravens, Jets and Dolphins, but gave 24, 19.5, 20.5 and 22.5 points in those games. In games when they were favored by under 19.5 points, they finished 10-2.

OUTLIERS & PUBLIC MONEY

Oddsmakers typically don’t care who wins the game, as long as roughly equal money comes in on both sides. When setting lines for NFL football, they need to predict how high-volume professional gamblers will bet, as well as how the general public will bet.

When dealing with a team like the 2007 Patriots, a significant percentage of casual bettors will gladly take them as 20-point favorites against weak opponents, particularly considering that they beat better teams by 20+ points earlier that year.

The Patriots were dominate, but they weren’t that dominant – taking any team at 20+ is not going to pay off in the long run. Sharp bettors capitalize on this type of information and use it to their advantage.

PUSH BETS AND HALF POINTS

You may notice ATS records typically have more “ties” than straight up win-loss records. This is because of games where the margin of victory is the same as the spread.

For example, in the 2018 week 1 matchup between the Broncos and Seahawks, Denver was favored by 3 and won 27-24. Both teams fell to 0-0-1 ATS.

Often, oddsmakers make the point spread include half a point to avoid this, making it impossible for the spread and margin of victory to be the same.

For example, let’s say the spread was 3.5 instead of 3. Seattle now becomes 1-0 ATS, even though they lost the game by a field goal.

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