The NFL appears to be wide open, with no clear front-runner in sight. Three of the current division leaders enjoy a one-game or smaller lead over their closest competitor, and just two division leaders, the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North, have more than a two-game lead.
The parity has shown up for NFL bettors. Favorites are just 68-92-1 against the spread (.425) and 96-64-1 (.599) straight up this season, the lowest cover and win rates through Week 11 since 2002, when the league expanded to 32 teams. That level of parity makes for some interesting betting opportunities not just weekly, but also in the Super Bowl futures market.
To evaluate the value each championship betting interest offers we need to look at a few bits of data. The first is each team's estimated chances of winning the Super Bowl. These could be drawn from forecasts from various sports analytics outlets, such as FiveThirtyEight, Football Outsiders and ESPN, or they could be taken from your own analysis.
Next, you want to shop around for the best price. For example, on Tuesday morning, DraftKings was offering +600 odds on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, meaning you would win $600 for every $100 wagered, while FanDuel had the Buccaneers at the less appealing +550. And finally, we will need to compute the expected value of each of our potential bets, which is how much you can anticipate to make, on average, if you placed this bet over and over, thousands of times.
Don't fret, the formula for expected value is simple: It's the probability of winning times the amount won per bet minus the probability of losing times the amount lost per bet. (Probability of winning x amount won per bet) - (probability of losing x amount lost per bet).
If we thought the Bucs had a 19% chance (Football Outsider) to win the Super Bowl - the most optimistic view among FiveThirtyEight, Football Outsiders and ESPN - we would multiply that times $600, the amount we would win if we wagered on DraftKings, and subtract the probability we would lose (81%) times the amount we would lose ($100). That gives us an expected value of $0.33, meaning this wager has positive expected value, or plus EV. If we thought Tampa Bay had an 10% chance (FiveThirtyEight), the least optimistic view, that would drop the expected value to minus-$0.30, negative EV. As you can see, adjusting your outlook and the odds offered can quickly turn a positive EV wager into a negative one, and vice versa, so it pays (literally) to get the best price for your odds. (And, it goes without saying, to settle on a forecast whose projections make you most comfortable.)
As shown below, the expected value changes based on the odds and the perceived chances of making the Super Bowl. If you think the Bucs have a 19% chance, then +600 is a great price. If you think they only have a 10% chance, then you are better off shopping for better value with a different team.
For brevity's sake, we will use the odds offered by DraftKings and the estimates from FiveThirtyEight to evaluate the best bets in Super Bowl futures, starting with the Indianapolis Colts. I chose DraftKings for its nationwide availability and competitive prices, and FiveThirtyEight because its projection system has done very well looking forward at this time of year. Going back to 2002, of the 57 teams ranked among the top three favorites by FiveThirtyEight at the beginning of December, 20 appeared in a Super Bowl and 14 others made it to the conference championship game.
• 4% chance to win the Super Bowl at 40-1 odds equals an expected value of $0.64
A 41-15 victory against the Bills pushed Indianapolis over the .500 mark for the first time this season. Running back Jonathan Taylor hammered Buffalo for 185 rushing yards and five touchdowns (four rushing plus one receiving) and now leads the NFL with 1,122 rushing yards.
The schedule is a bit daunting - four of the Colts' remaining six games are against teams with a .500 or better record, starting with Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers in Week 12 - but they wouldn't be 40-1 if all the lights were green.
Here are the other teams with positive expected value heading into Week 12.
• 8% chance, 18-1 odds, $0.52 in expected value
Yes, a loss to the Houston Texans when favored by 10 looks terrible on Tennessee's resume. The Titans came out flat and had multiple turnovers, including four interceptions from quarterback Ryan Tannehill, which ultimately cost them the game. The injury to receiver A.J. Brown is also worth monitoring. However, Tennessee's defense is the NFL's fifth-best overall with the second-best secondary, per the game charters at Pro Football Focus, holding opposing quarterbacks to an 88.7 passer rating this season. The league average is 92.4.
Plus, the Titans are still the projected No. 1 seed in the AFC, a position that comes with a first-round bye in the playoffs. That's a huge potential advantage in an AFC field with no clear front-runner.
Green Bay Packers
• 13% chance, 10-1 odds, $0.43 expected value
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the fourth-most valuable passer of 2021, per ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating, and has a star wideout in Davante Adams to throw to. Adams has hauled in 72 of 106 targets for 979 yards and five touchdowns in 10 games. Green Bay's offensive line is one of the best pass-blocking units this season, per Pro Football Focus, and Football Outsiders rank the Packers' pass defense as the eighth-best heading into Week 12.
• 14% chance, 9-1 odds, $0.40 expected value
The Cardinals, 9-2 and for now the No. 1 seed in the NFC, have gotten little respect considering their performance to date - and that is good from a wagering standpoint. Otherwise, the team wouldn't be close to double-digit odds at this point of the season.
Yet it looks like these Cardinals are poised for a deep run in the playoffs. Arizona is scoring almost three points more per game than expected based on the down, distance and field position of each offensive play, per data from TruMedia, the fifth-best mark in the league. The defense is saving almost 10 points per game, second only to the Buffalo Bills.
• Baltimore Ravens: 7% chance, 14-1 odds, $0.05 expected value
• New England Patriots: 7% chance, 14-1 odds, $0.05 expected value
• Los Angeles Chargers: 5% chance, 20-1 odds, $0.05 expected value
• Minnesota Vikings: 2% chance, 50-1 odds, $0.02 expected value