Few things make me happier than when an actual upcoming National Football League game presents a perfect example with which to illustrate some important sports betting concepts. This Sunday game between the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins offers a confluence of ‘teachable moments’ for sports bettors in general and NFL enthusiasts in particular.
In one corner, we have the undefeated San Francisco 49ers. There are two remaining undefeated teams in the National Football League. The New England Patriots are one and the Niners are the other. In the other corner, we have the Washington Redskins who until this past weekend were one of four remaining winless teams in the NFL. One was the New York Jets, who got quarterback Sam Darnold back and broke their maiden with a win over the slumping Dallas Cowboys. The Redskins got into the win column with a narrow victory over the perpetually slumped Miami Dolphins leaving them and the Cincinnati Bengals as the only remaining teams to not have won a game this season.
These teams represent the extremes of the league–one with legit Super Bowl aspirations, the other hoping to salvage some dignity under an interim head coach. That’s why the line on the game has the Niners installed as a -10 point road favorite. That’s a big price to lay on the road in any circumstance and particularly this one:
Scheduling is a very important component of sports handicapping and the NFL is no exception. The simple reality is that teams in any sport are not at their best in every game they play. Some of this is the ebb and flow of in-game performance. Another element involves scheduling. Even though athletes love cliches like ‘we play one game at a time’ it’s no secret that certain games are more important than others. That also means that certain games are *less* important than others and that’s where we’ll pick up the handicap of this matchup. The San Francisco 49ers are deservedly feeling good about themselves being undefeated at this point in the season. They’ve just won a pair of high profile games at home over Cleveland and on the road over the LA Rams. On deck, they’ve got a home game against a surging Carolina team that has won four straight under backup quarterback Kyle Allen. Four days later they begin a run of three straight divisional games followed by a Thanksgiving Week game against the Green Bay Packers.
So which game is the least significant of the bunch? If you answered ‘the game against the Redskins’ go to the head of the class. Handicappers often talk about ‘lookahead situations’ where teams are more focused on a future game than they are a current game. There’s also ‘letdown situations’ where teams ‘let up’ mentally, physically and emotionally after a tough game or series of games. When you get both at the same time it’s called a ‘sandwich situation’. The tough scheduling situation is heightened for San Francisco who have to travel West to East and face an early start time.
The 49ers are suffering from a group of injuries that might not be on the radar of the casual fan or recreational bettor but are extremely significant. They’ll play this game without three time Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszcyk along with starting tackles in Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey. The Juszcyk injury is huge–don’t believe me you can ask San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan who said that without ‘Juice’ the Niners’ offense will “be able to do everything” because “you really can’t replace him”. One reason the aforementioned trio are vital is because they help facilitate the San Francisco rushing attack. A viable rushing attack opens play action passing opportunities for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. He’s still a good quarterback, but his job is that much more difficult if his team can’t run the ball.
There’s a well known concept that sports teams typically show up and ‘play hard’ for a new head coach. Maybe that will happen for Redskins’ interim coach Bill Callahan but the move to him from Jay Gruden makes a Washington cover more likely here for other reasons. Callahan has been around long enough to know that the first course of action is to ‘stop the bleeding’ and make some personnel and tactical moves to make the team more competitive. That’s why veteran Case Keenum is now the starting quarterback and why he’s trying to get the offense to focus on the run with running back Adrian Peterson. He’s using the tools he has to make the team better or in lieu of that make them ‘less bad’. Every football fan knows that a rushing oriented attack is able to ‘run the clock’ and ‘shorten the game’ or ‘take the air out of the ball’ or whatever other cliche you want to use.
The 10 points that Washington is getting is a huge number given their new tactics combined with a more experienced quarterback. Throw in the San Francisco injury and scheduling situation and you’ve got a pretty solid play on the home team.