Hype, Trap, Bet: How to handle heavy moneyline favorites

“There’s no WAY this team loses.”

“Lock of the century!”

“They’re going to win by 30!”

Every weekend, we watch upsets happen across all levels of football. In the moment, we crave the underdog upset and root for the impossible to happen. Sometimes our wish comes true. But just a few days later, we look at the odds board for the next week’s slate of games and convince ourselves there’s no chance a team favored by this much could lose. They are just that much better than their opponent. This team is a safe bet.

As betting becomes more popular across the country, sportsbooks are seeing a rise in moneyline parlays, with bettors selecting an assortment of elite teams to simply win against a supposedly overmatched team.

This week, David Purdum noted a couple parlays with double-digit legs featuring heavy moneyline favorites in college football last weekend, that unfortunately included the Miami Hurricanes as the final leg.

One lack of a kneel down later, the tickets were worth less than the paper they were printed on.

The rise of heavily-favored moneyline parlays is often fools’ gold. “I was almost there! I got 5 out of 6, this one team messed it up.” Want to know why it always feels like the math ain’t mathing? Grab a seat, have a listen. Let me be the Morpheus to your Neo.

Let’s say 10 teams play on the same day that all have a 90% chance to win, and you want to parlay them all together. Let’s assume they’re all -900 on the moneyline, which is the implied odds of a team with a 90% chance to win. Pretty simple, right? How often do -900 favorites lose?

Well, if you multiply 90% together 10 times, you get .349 or a 35% chance of this parlay hitting (which matches the implied odds of +187 you get for placing this parlay).

The chances of Team A losing and costing you the entire parlay?

Multiply a 10% longshot times 90% for every other team. You get .0387, or a 3.9% chance of that team being the one that foiled your plans.

But it’s not just Team A you have to account for. Team B, Team C, even Team J in your list of 10 could be the Goliath about to be toppled by David. Multiplying 3.9% by 10 leaves you with a 39% chance that your parlay almost hits, but inevitably fails.

You read that right. In a 10-leg parlay of -900 favorites, the most likely outcome is that exactly one team loses.

So now I offer you this choice. You take the blue pill, my advice ends; you go back to betting moneyline parlays and believe whatever you want to believe, that you were this close to a big payout. You take the red pill, you remember this lesson and see how deep the parlay rabbit hole goes.

Remember, all I’m offering is the math, nothing more.

Is it a trap?

Would you look at that? Week 6 features multiple favorites of exactly -900 on the moneyline. The Miami Dolphins are laying 13.5 points against the Carolina Panthers and the Buffalo Bills are favored by a full two touchdowns against the Giants.

New York Giants at Buffalo Bills (-14, 45)
Sunday 8:20 p.m. ET, Highmark Stadium, Orchard Park, New York

Carolina Panthers at Miami Dolphins (-13.5, 48.5)
Sunday 1 p.m. ET, Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida

I’m with you. At first glance, this seems like easy wins for both of the AFC East squads. There is no reason to doubt it. Fire them both up in your survivor pools with confidence. Lock it in and move on.

I believe that’s also how we felt about the Dallas Cowboys going into Arizona in Week 3 before they lost by double digits.

Teams with a 90% or higher implied chance to win have won 86% of their games over the past seven years. Factoring in the juice you have to pay, that seems like fair market value. It also means that sportsbooks are setting appropriate lines on these games.

That’s evident with spread betting in these games as well. Since the start of 2017, moneyline favorites of at least -800 are 50-50-4 ATS. Funny how that works sometimes.

I’m personally staying away from both of these spreads the reasons I’ve laid out above — and I’m certainly not risking $900 to win $100 on the moneyline — but if I had to lean on one of the favorites to cover, I would side with Miami. I trust Mike McDaniel’s offense as currently constructed to continue finding ways to succeed, with or without De’Von Achane, and I believe Frank Reich is focused on building up Bryce Young‘s confidence and not necessarily being aggressive going for a win.

We also just saw Buffalo lose in London after being doomed by late travel and/or lack of preparation; now the Bills come home without a bye week. There’s more on the line for Brian Daboll’s G-Men than there is for the Panthers at the moment. And if I need a tiebreaker, when considering a double-digit spread, give me the team laying 13.5 points instead of the team laying 14. In the long run, those half points can add up.

Maybe Tyrod Taylor can inject some new life into the Giants offense. As we’ve seen this year, backup quarterbacks are not always worse than the starters (Gardner Minshew, Andy Dalton, etc). Taylor led two drives for New York last week in Miami, turning one into a field goal and bringing the other into the red zone. It ended up as a turnover on downs since they needed a touchdown, but it’s worth noting that had New York kicked a field goal there, they end up covering the 12.5-point spread.

The bets to make

Dallas Cowboys (-2, 51) at Los Angeles Chargers
Monday 8:15 p.m. ET, SoFi Stadium, Inglewood, California

All of my friends and many of my colleagues are acutely aware of my unrelenting belief that the Chargers will someday reach their potential. I’m the kid at the arcade playing with the claw game over and over again, determined to win the big prize but forgetting that the game is rigged against me. My hopeless Chargers optimism is one of the few biases I have when it comes to sports prognostication.

But after watching Dallas get dismantled by the San Francisco 49ers last week, combined with the recent play of Justin Herbert and the likely return of Austin Ekeler, I don’t think it’s just Chargers bias that has me leaning towards the underdog here. The Cowboys pass rush is capable of wreaking havoc, but Herbert is unflappable under pressure and Ekeler’s ability to serve as a safety valve underneath will be paramount in this game.

My gut leans Chargers +2.5, but my more confident play would be the over on Austin Ekeler’s receiving usage. Since the start of last season, Ekeler has averaged just over 5 targets per game when Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are both healthy. However with one of them out, Ekeler averaged 9.7 targets per game, which is much closer to the usage that I expect from him on Monday night.

Ekeler’s props aren’t currently listed, but in that split he grabbed 7.4 catches for 46 yards per game. I’d be willing to take his line up to 5.5 receptions at low juice, or 35.5 receiving yards (but hopefully you can find better numbers than that).

If Dallas does win, I fully expect it to be by 7 points or fewer. If there’s one thing the Chargers know how to do, it’s play a close game, trail by one score with the ball, with fewer than 2 minutes left and no timeouts, only to lose in the final seconds. Dating back to last season, the last 7 Chargers losses have come by 3, 2, 1, 3, 7, 3 and 6 points. 20 of their last 27 losses have been by one score.

Game Total Theory Continued

Unders went 9-5 last week and are now hitting at a 57% clip this season, including 64% over the past three weeks. Last week, I dove into a trend in low-total games often staying under the total, and we saw that theory bear fruit again, as the four lowest-total games of the week all stayed under.

Totals that close under 43 points this season have gone 16-9 to the under (64%). And dating back to last season, that number still holds at 59% with a sample size of over 130 games.

Sportsbooks rarely move lines to extremes, with exactly 50% of game totals resting between 41.5 and 45.5 so far in 2023. Sportsbooks know the public likes to bet overs on player props and game totals, so there’s less incentive to post lower and lower numbers, which opens an advantage to number crunchers.

This week, we’ve got another set of low-total games that we can try to extract value from. Continuing this trend would mean betting a half-unit on each of the following games to the under:

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