2021 NFL Week 1: Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans
Updated: Sep 7, 2021
The Play: Houston Texans +3 -110
DeShaun Watson and the Houston Texans went 10-6 SU in 2019, good for their second consecutive trip to the post-season (where they were ultimately dispatched by the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round). In a dramatic turnaround though, Houston managed only four wins last year, resulting in Watson asking to be traded (...further complicating matters for the Texans, the 5th year QB out of Clemson is now facing 22 active civil lawsuits related to alleged sexual misconduct). Watson ranked 5th in the NFL last season by FootballOutsiders DYAR, among quarterbacks that attempted at least 200 passes.
But in addition to issues under center, the Texans lost elite defender J.J. Watt and top-ten receiver Will Fuller to free agency, most notably.
Given the turmoil in H-Town, bookmakers opened the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars as three-point favorites for the week 1 face-off between these AFC South also-rans -- mind you, the Jags mustered only a single win last season, have eclipsed the 50% win rate only once in the last decade and are 41-51 ATS laying the chalk since 2003.
This context suggests the betting spread unduly reflects the headlines surrounding the Texans (and perhaps the public's disdain for Watson, in light of the allegations against him), rather than fundamental differences between these teams. Accordingly we are taking the field goal and siding with the Texans to beat the number.
With few exceptions, outside of QBs, individual players do not move betting spreads very much. As great as Will Fuller played last year, for instance, his productivity was undoubtedly linked to Watson's excellence. This perspective is echoed by sports consultants that talked to Mark Gallant for The Action Network a few years ago. A couple of years earlier, David Augur for Sports Insights interviewed several bookmakers and likewise concluded that non-QB positions do not dramatically impact NFL betting spreads, as did Fairway Jay for The Lines, after speaking with Steve Fizzik in 2018. Thus, we discount the value of key departures beyond the QB position.
In two head-to-head meetings last year the Texans were favored by 6 to 6.5 points, on the road and at home. After last season, Todd Dewey for the Las Vegas Review-Journal approached Chris Andrews, sportsbook director for South Point, for insight on QBs value to the betting line. Andrews suggested Watson is good for six spread points, one less than the elites (Brady, Wilson and Roethlisberger).
If the Texans were six point favorites over the Jags last year, and Watson is worth six points, and other players don't count for much (spread-wise), we smell value with Houston +3.
And this is before factoring in home field advantage -- which should matter this year (as far as we know, the Texans are selling tickets based on an assumption of full capcacity at NRG Stadium). If the delta variant does not ravage the League's attendance plans, we estimate the Texans probably deserve at least a point as the host team (and arguably as much as 2.5 points). Per Jimmy Boyd's True Home Field Edge methodology, the Texans home field advantage equaled about a point in each of the last two seasons. In 2018 this figure was a shade over two points per contest, and in 2017, the first year of the DeShaun Watson era, the Texans played 5.5 points better in their building. Houston's median/average true home field advantage over the last four seasons was roughly 1.5/2.5.
Across the ball, off a historically horrendous season, the Jacksonville Jaguars owned five of this year's top 65 draft picks, including the number one spot. Thus, it is probably inevitable that the Jags improve. But Jacksonville didn't acquire Brady, Wilson or Roethlisberger, so their offseason moves (which earned a B- grade from Bleacher Report's Brad Gagnon) probably do not warrant much spread consideration.
Through a different lens, we have observed empirical, environmental data that likewise supports Houston's inaugural campaign of the 2021 season:
In NFL week 1 action, it has proven very profitable historically to back underdogs that missed last season's playoffs versus opposition from the same division...
This simple system has delivered a 30% return on investment back to the 2004-05 season, and has submitted cover rates south of 50% in only two of those years.
From a slightly different angle, taking the road less travelled (ATS) early in the NFL regular season has likewise proven quite fruitful historically.
Betting on dogs backed by no more than 40% of spread wagers has yielded strong profits versus competition from the same division, over the first third of the regular NFL season...
This approach has delivered a 21% long-term return on investment, with only one season with a hit rate below 50% (the system finished that year 8-9-1 ATS).
Of course though, these numbers can move dramatically over the course of the next month. This system will not officially trigger a play on Houston unless the Texans' support holds south of the '40% of spread bets' threshold at kickoff.