NFL Week 5 Leveraging Tails: Bet on the Cardinals against the mispriced Bengals

2T008J4 Arizona Cardinals quarterback Joshua Dobbs (9) throws during an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Oct 1, 2023, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Scot Tucker)

• Hanging on to hope: The Bengals are still priced as the 12th-best team in the NFL, while the Cardinals are priced as the third-worst. 

• The Cards have the better offense: The Cardinals are nearly a point more effective on a per-offensive-drive basis, while the Bengals have a slight edge on defense, though not large enough to make up the difference in offensive play. 

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Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Many bettors place wagers in multiple markets — spreads, totals, teasers, props, etc. — where they generally get oriented by following a bottom-up approach: “Which spreads do I like?” or “Which totals stand out this week?”

However, the goal in this space is to follow a top-down approach. We will take a deep dive into one game a week and consider how bettors can best apply a specific theory on a team, player or trend and capitalize on it in the betting market.

Some bets will track more traditional markets, but we will more often look to maximize our upside in the multitude of different markets offered by sportsbooks.

Bet: Arizona Cardinals -2.5 (+162, FanDuel)

If we look at how well each team has moved the ball through our Earned Drive Points metric, we see that the Cardinals have outperformed the Cincinnati Bengals by a wide margin.

The Cardinals are nearly a point more effective on a per-offensive-drive basis, while the Bengals have a slight edge on defense, though not large enough to make up the difference in offensive play. 

But what lies at the heart of the fundamentals is how the market is pricing the Bengals relative to their production. 

If we look at the inpredictbale lines, which derive values based on the current spreads and lookahead lines, we see that the Bengals are still priced as the 12th-best team in the NFL, while the Cardinals are priced as the third-worst. 

Essentially, the market is in no-man's-land, pricing the Bengals somewhere between their preseason expectations as a top team and their current production, which is that of a bottom team.

It is unlikely that the Bengals will be fundamentally average when all is said and done. They are more likely to drift to the top or plummet to the bottom. 

Matchup Angle: Joe Burrow’s Scrambling Issue

Given the team’s current state, I will work under the assumption that the Bengals' pricing is poor. And with four weeks of data, we can begin to paint the picture of what this offense is and see why it's struggling relative to last season. 

The story begins with Joe Burrow’s health. Now, that can manifest in many different ways, but most notably, Burrow has seen a massive drop-off in his ability to pass while scrambling. 

In 2022, Joe Burrow scrambled 8.5% of the time and led the NFL in expected points added (EPA) on “true scramble” passes, plays in which he anticipated pressure and used his legs to buy time and find the open man.

But this year…

Burrow has scrambled only 5% of the time, and his passing EPA is nearly a point worse than last season.

Burrow ran on 25% of his scrambles last year and has yet to run on a single one this season. Whether it is the calf injury or some other reason, Burrow has lost a key element of his game, and his production has decreased.

Perhaps knowing he cannot extend plays, Burrow has averaged 2.29 seconds from snap to pass this year, the quickest in the NFL. He also has a 6.6-yard average depth of target, fourth-lowest. 

With such a fast time to throw, Burrow’s receivers have not had much time to get open. The group has also failed to separate well, as they have the fifth-lowest separation rate in the league.

This compounds with a scheme issue, as the Bengals have forced the seventh-fewest coverage mistakes. And as we studied at PFF this summer, Burrow's inability to scramble magnifies these structural issues.

The result is an entirely different offense from years past, one that is dead last in explosive plays and a bottom offense overall. 

Bottom line

The market has been slow to upgrade the Cardinals, whose fundamentals indicate they are an average to above-average offense.

The Bengals are still priced as a top team despite serious flaws that have made their offense entirely different from years past, both in terms of its structure and results.

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