There’s something very important about the number 3 and its quintessential role in how society breaks things down, from references such as “the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” to the “red, white, and blue” and everything else.
At the Olympics, they give out three medals — not two, not four.
There are three musketeers, not six. Three wise men, not nine. And, of course, exactly three Stooges — no more, no less. (As in this meta paragraph, three examples of something are always best to use.)
And then, there is the power of 3 when it comes to NFL point spreads, which is as important this week as it has ever been on a Sunday when the conference title games are being played.
As of Friday morning, all of the major online betting sites had the Green Bay Packers favored by either 3 or 3.5 points over the Tampa Buccaneers in Sunday afternoon’s NFC tilt, and the Kansas City Chiefs were widely a 3-point favorite afterward over the Buffalo Bills.
Whether a bettor gets a game at 3 or 3.5 is a big deal for both him and the sportsbook, and nothing reflects it more than the adjusted vig taking it into account.
Games fall on 3 more than anything else
Why is 3 so important in the NFL? Well, it’s simply because game results fall on it far more often than any other number, according to an analysis provided by wizardofodds.com.
The analysis (which covered 2006-17) said games ended by a 3-point margin 14.5% of the time. Next closest was a 7-point margin, 9.2% of the time. (A 4-point margin arose in 5.2% of games, 2-point margin 3.8%.)
Because it is such a comparatively common number, sportsbooks give a lot of thought to moving games on or off a 3-point spread. Often, they’d rather adjust the vig off the standard 10% than move the line itself in a way that could cost them.
So in the Packers-Bucs game, on which the majority of sites list Green Bay as a 3.5-point favorite (as of Friday morning), FanDuel has the game at 3 but with a steep -130 vig for Packers backers who want to give only that much. Those giving 3.5 elsewhere get a break, meanwhile, with FOX Bet making it an even-money wager to take Green Bay, and William Hill and BetMGM reducing the price to -105.
There are wide options for getting the Chiefs as a 3-point favorite at a time when there’s still uncertainty over whether Patrick Mahomes will return from concussion protocol to start, although he has been practicing and it seems likely. But you pay for the privilege of getting them at 3 instead of 3.5.
The importance of the number 3 was highlighted by BetMGM’s adjustment between Thursday and Friday: It moved from -3.5 at even money to the -3 at -115.
With a field goal’s difference in the game being so common, the books worry a great deal about moving on or off 3 and getting squeezed by having so many bettors who might push in the contest in addition to beating the house.
Home field not the same 3-point edge this year
The nice thing for all football fans, regardless of their betting habits, is how the point spreads for Sunday reflect two games in which participants are deemed close to evenly matched and exciting, competitive games might be expected.
The caveat is that the 3 or 3.5-point spreads don’t suggest quite as much parity as would normally be the case.
Historically, betting lines on NFL games have accounted for a home-field advantage of 3 points or close to it. That was before the COVID era, however.
In the 2020 regular season, NFL home teams went 127-128-1, an unprecedented losing record. The lack of fans in the stands was, apparently, costly for them.
Bookmakers took that into account during the season — reducing the advantage given for teams playing at home — and are undoubtedly doing that in the two conference title games. Sunday’s point spreads favoring the home teams would normally suggest oddsmakers view the Buccaneers as roughly equal to the Packers and the Bills equivalent to the Chiefs, but in this case, they see the home teams being somewhat stronger regardless of the site.
Title games odds aren’t always this close
It is uncommon for the two title games to both be viewed so competitively. Last year, the Chiefs were favored by about a touchdown over the Tennessee Titans and the San Francisco 49ers likewise over the Packers. (Both favorites won, and both covered.)
Only a few times in this millennium was there a similar situation to this year’s in which the two home teams were both favored by about a field goal:
- In 2019, the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots were both road underdogs, winning in slight upsets over the New Orleans Saints and the Chiefs, respectively.
- In 2006, the Seattle Seahawks were favored by about a field goal at home over the Carolina Panthers and beat them decisively, 34-14. The Pittsburgh Steelers were a 3-point road underdog visiting the Denver Broncos but beat them almost as easily, 34-17.
- In 2004, the Panthers went on the road to Philadelphia as 4-point underdogs and beat the Eagles, 14-3, while the Patriots won and covered as 3-point home favorites by beating the Colts, 24-14.
It is hard to find any consistent pattern there for bettors to rely upon, which is often the case, unfortunately. As an example, one need only consider that in the past 20 years, the favorites have gone 10-10 in covering the spread in the NFC title games, and the favorites have been just slightly better than that at 11-9 in the AFC.
There’s no rule of 3, either, that applies to winning any bet this Sunday. But if you do bet the game, look long and hard at how the sportsbooks are applying their juice to that number, or else moving off it.
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