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Betting: projecting player performance in the NFL playoffs

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San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith
Photo: L.G. Patterson/AP
Jeff Haney

It’s debatable whether they’re reasonable men, but it’s undeniable that the avid football bettors I know frequently disagree with one another on nearly all things handicapping. Take NFL individual player propositions, particularly popular in sports books during the playoffs.

The optimal way to approach individual player props seems to be up for argument. In deciding whether Joe Flacco, for example, will pass for over or under 235 yards, is his season-long average a good starting point in setting a line, or is it completely useless? How much weight do you place on his past five games? How about his performance against defenses similar to the one he’ll be facing? What can you read into the coach’s game plan? Player props leave ample room for the art of handicapping as opposed to the hard science of it.

To some degree, though, bettors are highly likely to consider how a player measured up to the expectations of oddsmakers and the betting marketplace in his most recent outing.

Following are three key players who enter Sunday’s NFL playoff action on a high note, having overachieved vis-à-vis the betting world’s projections (the trick is to discern which direction they’re heading from here).

Alex Smith, 49ers After passing for an average of 196.5 yards during the regular season, Smith had an over/under of 222.5 yards attached to him for this past Saturday’s game against the Saints. He blew away that total, finishing with 299 passing yards. I’d expect some reversion to the mean Sunday against the Giants, especially considering 85 of those yards came in a brilliant—but difficult to duplicate—game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.

Vernon Davis, 49ers Davis was sensational Saturday, making seven receptions for 180 yards to smash the total of 52.5 receiving yards on the betting board. New York’s Antrel Rolle and Michael Boley could give him fits in the secondary Sunday, however, leading to a significant drop in production.

Tom Brady, Patriots The over/under on Brady’s passing yardage for this past Saturday’s game against Denver was set at 325.5, quite close to his regular-season average of 327.2 yards. Brady handily exceeded that total, finishing with 363 yards. Brady also threw for six touchdowns, easily surpassing his over/under of 2.5. Expect more fireworks Sunday against the Ravens. New England is favored by 7.5 points with an over/under of 50.5 points, indicating strong expectations for a wide-open game with lots of offense.

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