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Hype trap bet: How to approach ‘tanking’ NFL teams

Remember this offseason, when that guy who lost in his fantasy football league had to fly across the country and back for two days and went viral on social media?

Yeah, that was me.

This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of me losing in my ninth- vs. 10th-place matchup in my dynasty league with my friends from college and being stuck with one of the worst fantasy punishments ever: 36 hours, seven flights and four time zones, what a way to come to terms with finishing in last place for the first time in over a decade playing fantasy football.

I bring you all this wonderfully joyous memory for a reason, though. I was rebuilding a dynasty team after having won the first season and slowly getting worse; the goal wasn’t to fully tank the season, but to acquire a few extra draft picks, turn over the core of talent and retool the roster into something that could aim for the playoffs next year, while remaining semi competitive.

Instead, it rapidly devolved into an injury-riddled, bust-filled squad that stood no chance of finishing anywhere but last place. Somehow, I ended up relying on Davis Mills, Kadarius Toney and Chase Claypool.

Tanking is more of an art than a science, in both fantasy football and in the NFL, and in both scenarios, it’s very easy to become overconfident in trying to predict the future.

Football is a funny game. Some teams we thought would be terrible at the beginning of the season have lived up to expectations (hello, Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals). Others have surprised and either already hit their win total over (Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts) or are sitting in a playoff spot (Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

I know what you’re thinking: of course, we’re going to miss on season-long win totals, injuries can change a team’s entire trajectory (see Burrow, Rodgers, etc.), but now that we’re in Week 15, we can tell who’s playing to win and who’s playing for next year. Bad teams have no incentive to win, so we can profit by betting against these obviously overmatched teams, right?

Well, if you think you’re that confident, let’s take a look at some individual games and see whether this is a smart endeavor or not (spoiler alert: it’s not).

Don’t get trapped

There are four games this weekend featuring teams in the playoff hunt against teams with nothing to play for; coincidentally, those four teams happen to have the worst records in the league and are either eliminated or have less than a 0.1% chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN Analytics.

In a shocking and completely unexpected turn of events, the four favorites are all receiving a large majority of bets against the spread. It’s difficult to get past the mental hurdle of betting on a worse team. But it’s necessary in order to become a profitable bettor.

We’re coming off of a Week 14 where eight underdogs were victorious, including both games on “Monday Night Football.” The upset victories Monday also capped a week where five of the eight worst teams entering the week won (with two of the others on bye).

The best time to capitalize on bad teams is to react before the market adjusts mid-season. By Week 15, the sportsbooks are acutely aware of how bad the Panthers offense has been. If teams were actively tanking and playing worse in an attempt to lose games, we should see it in their recent results, yet we’re seeing the opposite happen.

  • The Commanders are 3-3 ATS in their past six games after starting the season 3-4 against the spread.

  • The Panthers are 3-4 ATS in their past five after starting the season 0-5-1 ATS.

  • The Cardinals are 4-2 ATS in their past six after starting the season 3-4 ATS.

  • Even the Patriots are 2-5 in their past seven ATS after opening the season 1-5 ATS.

To help you digest all those numbers, let me frame it this way. We just had underdogs post a winning record last week, with the worst six teams in action going 5-1 outright, and each of the teams with the most incentive to tank have actually played better against the spread in the last month-plus.

If I could tell you with certainty which of those underdogs will cover this week, I’d be living on a tropical island somewhere. But let it serve as a reminder that while narratives are fun to discuss, following them blindly is a net negative in the long run.

All season long, I’ve been preaching about fading the public narrative and not buying into the hype.

  • We faded Deion Sanders after a 3-0 start: they lost by 36 and went 1-8 the rest of the season.

  • We faded the Chiefs at the peak of Taylor-mania: they nearly lost outright to Zach Wilson that week.

  • We were wary of betting parlays featuring extreme favorites on the moneyline, and the Giants nearly knocked off the Bills as 14-point underdogs.

But the one week I bought into the hype, I lost. I wrote 2,000 words waxing poetic on the end of the Patriots dynasty and said their offense was too poor to keep pace with the Bills; Mac Jones led New England to a comeback win.

Over the next month, they continued to lose more. I sat at a sports bar in central Connecticut last month, watching Patriots fans actively cheering for their team to fall to the Giants. Every incompletion drew applause. Chad Ryland’s missed field goal at the end of the game nearly blew the roof off the building. Belichick had to be tanking on purpose, it was so obvious. For once, a team was willing to do what was necessary to ensure a top pick.

One week ago, the Pats traveled to Pittsburgh as significant underdogs without their starting QB, their leading rusher or either of their top two receivers. The “tanking” team led 21-3 in the first half, covered and cruised to a win.

Now, 72% of the early-week bets are on the Chiefs to cover against the Patriots. I’m not going to say you can’t bet on Kansas City to cover this weekend (who wants to bet against an angry Patrick Mahomes anyway?), but if you’re going to do it, I hope you have a better reason than simply “the Pats are tanking.”

The bets

Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals (-3.5, 39.5)
Saturday 1 p.m. ET, Paycor Stadium, Cincinnati

Same-game parlay: Joe Mixon over 2.5 receptions and T.J. Hockenson longest reception over 19.5 yards (+200 on ESPN BET)

Despite Chase Brown seeing additional work in the Bengals’ backfield, Joe Mixon’s job as the lead back is secure, with at least 24 touches in back-to-back games. He’s seen 13 targets in three Jake Browning starts, nine of which have come on designed screen passes where he’s clearly the first read. Those are valuable and consistent looks that should continue this weekend against the Vikings in an effort to counteract Brian Flores’ defense that blitzes at the highest rate in the league. Minnesota has allowed the seventh-most catches to running backs this season.

Hockenson has a catch of 20-plus yards in seven of his past eight games, and the Bengals allow the most receptions and yards to tight ends. Six different tight ends have seen at least six targets against the Bengals this season: five of them recorded a catch of 20+ yards and the only one who didn’t was Dalton Kincaid, whose aDOT in the game was a paltry 4.1 yards and whose current role in the Bills offense is a high-percentage chain mover, and not a downfield threat like Hockenson.


Jared Goff under 1.5 pass TD (-130)

Goff has split just about half his games over and under 1.5 TD this season, but this bet is more about the Broncos’ defense improving throughout the year. Denver allowed 12 pass TDs in its first four games but has allowed only eight in the past nine games combined. After letting four straight QBs to reach multiple pass TDs to start the season, only one signal-caller has gotten there in the last two months. This includes games against Josh Allen, CJ Stroud, Jordan Love, Justin Herbert, Josh Dobbs and Patrick Mahomes twice.

Dan Campbell still wants to be a run-first team, and that’s the path of least resistance against the Broncos. The Lions have the fifth-highest rush rate in the league and that number jumps to second in the red zone. Expect a low-scoring, grinding affair that won’t force Goff to air it out too much.

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