Indianapolis Colts (7-4) at Detroit Lions (4-7)
The Lions are in a bad spot and normally this is the type of team I like to stay away from. They are favorites after a loss as dogs and will next be dogs. Last week, they lost to the Texans and next week they have to go to Green Bay. That’s called a sandwich game. Teams tend to take it easy in the middle part of that 3 game stretch because they are coming off a tough loss and have another tough game next on the schedule, with an easier game in the middle. Teams are 59-83 ATS in this spot since 2008.
It especially hurts that this game is a non-conference matchup and that their next game is against a divisional opponent, especially since a hated divisional opponent like the Packers. Non-conference favorites before being divisional dogs are 32-61 ATS since 2002 and teams have tended to struggle before playing the Packers over the past 2 years anyway. In the last 2 seasons, teams are 9-18 ATS before playing the Packers.
The Colts, meanwhile, will be extra focused. They are dogs before being favorites, a situation teams are 97-57 ATS in over the last 2 seasons. When you combine that with the sandwich game trend, you find out that teams are 111-57 ATS since 2008 as dogs before being favorites when their opponent will next be dogs. Yes, the Colts have a divisional matchup next, but because they are dogs as they will next be favorites, it won’t matter much. Since 2002, non-conference dogs are 67-44 ATS before being divisional favorites. It seems to matter more that the Lions have a divisional game next. If we go to back to 1989 to get a bigger sample size, teams are 33-19 ATS as non-conference dogs before being divisional favorites when their opponent will next be divisional dogs.
However, all this does assume that the Lions will take the Colts lightly and they could easily not. Yes, they are in a bad spot, but the Colts aren’t some scrubs. They are 7-4 and isn’t pretty hard to overlook a 7-4 team. The Lions, meanwhile, are 4-7 so while they may technically be favorites, they might not act like favorites on the field because their opponents have 3 more wins than them. In fact, if you look at history, teams are 72-61 ATS since 1989 as favorites against an opponent who has 3+ more wins than them. That’s not strong enough to be considered a trend, but it’s worth noting.
That asks the question, if Detroit has 3 fewer wins than Indianapolis, why are they favorites here and why favorites by 5 whole points? This is just the 20th time since 1989 that a team has been favored by 5 or more points against a team with 3+ more wins than them (they are 11-8 ATS, which is also worth noting). The public seems to be asking that question an awful lot this week because there’s a pretty strong public lean on the Colts, which is rare with dogs.
The answer is, I believe, that the Colts are not as good as their record would suggest and the Lions are better than their record would suggest. Using the net points per drive method of computing line value, this line should actually be Detroit -9. That might not make sense at first, but it will once you know that Detroit is actually -13 in points differential this year and Indianapolis, despite their record, is -43.
This method of computing line value doesn’t take into account things like special teams and strength of schedule, but DVOA does, so we can look at that to confirm what net points per drive tells us (DVOA is a formula based heavily on net points per drive, which takes into account strength of schedule and other things). In DVOA, Detroit ranks 11th in both regular and weighted (weighted weights more recent games heavier), while Indianapolis ranks 28th and 27th respectively.
In net points per drive, Detroit ranks 13th, while Indianapolis ranks 23th, so the gap is even bigger when we take into account schedule, which makes sense. Indianapolis plays in the easier conference in one of the easiest divisions in football and is playing a last place schedule (and has yet to face the toughest team in their division, Houston, at all). Detroit, meanwhile, plays in the tougher NFC in arguably the toughest division in football and is playing a 2nd place schedule. The NFC, by the way, is 27-19 against the AFC this season, which is why I say they have the tougher conference.
The reason Indianapolis has such a poor points differential in comparison to their record is that they’ve been blown out on several occasions and they only have one win by more than a touchdown. Their biggest win was by 17, while they’ve lost games by 20, 26, and 25. They are 7-4 because they are 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, but that’s unsustainable.
Teams who win a game by a touchdown or less win their next game 52% of the time if it’s decided by a touchdown or less. Most of the time, there’s less skill involved specifically in winning close games than you think (there is skill involved in outplaying opponents, but not in consistently winning close games). The exception is teams with elite quarterbacks and I don’t think Andrew Luck is there yet. Detroit, meanwhile, hasn’t lost a single game by more than 10 all season.
The notable thing about the Colts’ 3 blowout losses is that they were all on the road. They really haven’t been a good road team this season. They are 5-1 at home, but only 2-3 on the road with 2 wins against crappy Jacksonville and crappy Tennessee, along with those 3 losses. They’re just 1-3 ATS as road dogs. They got blown out by the Jets on the road. That’s ridiculous! Andrew Luck’s home/road splits are very notable. His completion percentage and YPA is the same pretty much both home and away, but at home, he has 9 touchdowns to 3 picks and on the road, he has 4 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, which is perfectly understandable for a rookie.
Now that we’ve established that this line not only makes sense, but might actually be too low, it’s time to talk about line movement. This line actually opened at -3.5, but it’s now -5, despite action being on Indianapolis. This is what’s called reverse line movement and it’s often the sign of a trap line. It’s rare that you’ll see a trap line that wants more action on the dog, but this is a pretty rare case where we’re actually getting a ton of line value with the favorite.
Besides, I love fading the public, especially when they back a dog. The odds makers always make money in the long run so siding with them (and against the public) isn’t a bad idea, especially when the public is backing a dog. Odds makers want two things, to make money and for favorites and dogs to cover evenly (so the public can’t key in on just one). The public rarely backs a dog, but when they do, it’s a risky bet and that’s even in cases where it’s not a trap line. This is a special case.
I wish the Lions were in a better situation trends wise, but it’s definitely possible they won’t overlook their opponent just because their opponent has such a good record. The Lions do have a few things going for them trends wise. Home favorites are 9-4 ATS since 1989 off back-to-back losses at home. Meanwhile, home teams are 15-8 ATS since 1989 off back-to-back losses as home dogs, including 3-2 ATS as favorites. They’re also rested off a Thursday game, as teams are 117-97 ATS on a Sunday after a Thursday game since 1989. Meanwhile, teams are 26-10 ATS since 2002 off a loss at home in overtime, excluding road dogs. It’s a medium sized play on the Lions, who should be the right side in this one. Detroit is also my survivor pick in a super shitty week for survivor plays.
Public lean: Indianapolis (70% range)
Sharps lean: IND 16 DET 14
Final update: No change. Like the Jets’ line, this line has gone up to -6 in some places, which could bring the six and six rule into play. However, I still like the Lions for a big play. The line going up to 6 means we have opposite line movement because the public is on Indianapolis. Maybe this game will be decided by exactly 6. Maybe this will be an exception to the rule. I really feel like Detroit covers here and I like getting them at lower than 6. At 6 or more, it probably wouldn’t be a big play.
Detroit Lions 31 Indianapolis Colts 20 Survivor Pick (HOU, NE, NO, BAL, SF, ATL, CHI, GB, SD, SEA, DAL, DEN)
Pick against spread: Detroit -5 (-110) 3 units