NFL scoring uptick challenges bookies, benefits bettors

Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports

Scoring is up in the NFL, and it's posing challenges to oddsmakers, and producing winners for the betting public.

In the Super Bowl era, NFL games had never averaged more than 50 points through the first four weeks of a season -- until now. This season, games are averaging 51.3 points per game, 3.2 points more than the next highest-scoring start to a season, back in 2018.

It's a small sample size, and after the high-scoring start in 2018 points per game regressed to 46.7 for the season, in line with the five-year average (45.4). This season is unique, however, if you haven't noticed.

The coronavirus pandemic led to a canceled preseason and a regular season with limited crowds, reducing home-field advantage. There's been a decrease in offensive holding penalties, which are often drive-killers, and quarterback play around the league is reaching new heights. Oddsmakers are struggling to get a handle on just how big of an impact these factors are having on scoring, while the betting public is loading up on the "over" and cashing in week after week.

"We're adjusting, but maybe we're not adjusting enough," Johnny Avello, sportsbook director at DraftKings, said.

In Week 4, the average closing total at sportsbooks -- the over/under on number of points scored in a game -- was 49.4, the highest in a single week since totals started to be recorded 35 years ago, according to ESPN's database. Seven Week 4 games had totals in the 50s, the most since 1986. Yet the inflated totals didn't deter bettors from backing the overs.

At William Hill U.S. sportsbooks, more bets were placed on the over than were placed on the under in all 15 Week 4 games. Overall, only five of the 48 games played on Sunday this season have attracted more bets on the under than the over, according to data from William Hill. And bettors have been rewarded for backing the over: 58.7% of games this season have eclipsed the betting total, despite some of the highest numbers sportsbooks have ever posted. The average closing total in Week 4 was 49.4, the highest since at least 1986.

Kenny White, a longtime Las Vegas oddsmaker who consults with U.S. and international sportsbooks, said offensive and defensive strengths and pace of play are among the factors he uses when calculating his over/under projections. White said his average over/under total per team was 23.1 entering the season. "Now it's 24.3," White told ESPN. "Remember this is per team, so the increase would be 2.4 points per game."

Three teams -- the Saints, Bills and Raiders -- are 4-0 to the over, while the Cardinals are the only team to have all four games go under the total.

"When we get into serious games towards the end of the year, I think the defenses will probably tighten up then," Avello said, "but right now it seems like a free-for-all, running around the field."

Even some professional bettors -- who often find themselves on the under and betting against the public -- are scratching their heads about how to approach betting totals.

"I've gotten to where I'm not betting unders right now," Jeff Whitelaw, a respected Las Vegas sports bettor, said. "I'm looking either to bet over or pass."

Sportsbook PointsBet said it hasn't had more than three games in any week that attracted more money on the under than on the over, and in those cases it was caused by professional bettors backing the under with larger bets.

John Murray, executive director at the SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, said Sunday that he noticed more sharp action on the overs -- for the game and in second halves -- than is typical. "We will be keeping an eye on it moving forward," Murray added.

For now, oddsmakers say they're willing to go as high as the betting market demands. As of Tuesday, the average total for Week 5 games was 50.3, which would be the highest ever.