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October 8, 2015

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Records against the spread unlock the doors to team performance



Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher (54) puts his helmet on before an NFL football preseason game between the Chicago Bears and the Tennessee Titans on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn.

When the San Francisco 49ers visit Detroit for Sunday’s matchup against the Lions, the game will be hyped as a clash between a pair of NFC division leaders. For bettors, it will have added significance: It’s a showdown between the only two teams in the NFL that are unbeaten against the point spread this season.

When the Lions held on to cover against the Chicago Bears on Monday night, they joined the 49ers with a league-best 4-0-1 against-the-spread (ATS) record. Every other NFL team has failed to cover the spread at least once. At the other end of the spectrum, the St. Louis Rams (0-4 ATS) and the Miami Dolphins (0-3-1 ATS) have not yet covered the number.

Examining teams’ records against the point spread is a good way to determine which squads are exceeding the expectations of oddsmakers and the betting marketplace, and which teams are falling short of expectations.

The Lions are favored by 4.5 or 5 points against the 49ers Sunday in Las Vegas sports books. Coincidentally, the Lions opened as a 4.5-point favorite on the early Las Vegas line that was set and opened for wagering before the season. It’s only logical that the line would stay about the same when the top two teams in surpassing expectations play each other.

The lines in this coming weekend’s games involving the Rams and Dolphins have had more substantial moves. St. Louis opened as a 9.5-point underdog against Green Bay on the early preseason line, but the Packers are now favored by 15. Miami opened as a 6.5-point underdog against the Jets on the early line, but New York is now favored by 7.5 or 8 points in Las Vegas—a move that crossed the 7, a crucial point-spread number in football. Both moves underscore the betting market’s disaffection with the performance of the Rams and Dolphins.

In college football, Rutgers and Stanford top the ATS standings, each at 5-0. Nine college squads have the worst ATS record at 1-5, including three huge names: Nebraska, Penn State and UCLA. There has been a flurry of rumors that the head coaching positions at Penn State and UCLA might be opening soon. We’ll leave it to the conspiracy theorists to decide if it’s a coincidence.

A version of this story first appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.

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