Washington QB Taylor Heinicke is one of several notable starters inactive this weekend due to COVID-19 protocols. (Photo via Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
BETTING & FANTASY

COVID Uncertainty & Market Movement in NFL Betting

What happens to betting lines when an NFL team suffers a coronavirus flare-up? Let’s explain what sports bettors need to know about how the markets behave.

What a mess! I can’t find a different word to describe this week. As of Friday morning, more than 120 NFL players have tested positive for COVID-19. We cannot tell why exactly this is happening, but that’s not the purpose of this article. The fact is that some NFL rosters are getting decimated by COVID before their Week 15 matchups. A few teams have up to 20 players on the COVID list going into the weekend.

Some teams that are a lot more fortunate in terms of the total number of absent players are also missing key players. For example, the Seahawks only have two players on the COVID list, but one is star wide receiver Tyler Lockett.

It’s not only a mess for NFL teams and football fans; it’s also a significant mess for sports bettors who have to navigate all the reports. Many roads lead to Rome — bettors can try to grab numbers earlier in the week by taking a risk. But the risk has up and downsides. If someone took the Raiders at +6.5 on Monday morning, they’re now looking at a 10-point advantage because Las Vegas is listed as 3.5-point favorites after Cleveland’s COVID outbreak. If someone took the Browns at -6, they would hold a ticket that has a high chance of losing. 

Other bettors might wait a little more and decide based on more information.

Both approaches are entirely valid.

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What seems like a mess for many be heaven for a few. Bettors could react quickly to injury news and chase the steam. Perhaps they have player-level models that constitute a significant advantage when deciphering the impact of players added to the COVID list. When it comes to the outliers like Washington, Cleveland, or the Los Angeles Rams, there could also be angles where the amount of absent players presents non-linear effects that are tough to price by the market.

But no matter what approach bettors choose, every mess offers a chance.

Steam on the Eagles

Some of the line movement has been wild. Let’s dig into the matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Football Team.

After coming off their bye week, Philly entered the week with a health advantage over Washington. QB1 Taylor Heinicke left the Cowboys game with a knee contusion, wide receiver Terry McLaurin had a concussion, and center Tyler Larsen tore his Achilles. There are additionally some key defensive line guys on the COVID list.

Casual football fans might not see a significant difference between two teams, ratings-wise. But sportsbooks (in this case, Pinnacle) opened the spread at Eagles -3.5 -105 on Sunday night. The markets instantly bet the Eagles and pushed them to -4 -108. 

On Monday around 4 p.m. several beat writers and ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Washington placed defensive tackle Jonathan Allen on the Reserve/COVID list. He was not the only one, but was the most prominent name on the list.

He matters for the spread, as he’s one of the best interior defenders in the league and Washington’s best player on defense. The markets pushed the Eagles further to -5.5, but some Washington bettors stepped in and repurchased WFT to +4.5. On Tuesday, Washington added starting cornerback Kendall Fuller to the COVID list. The number held in that range before the crazy action started.

One-Way Action

On Wednesday morning, a significant betting group came in hard on the Eagles, flipping them from -4.5 to -6 -120 in some places. This move was not a front-run of information that would get public later. The move occurred roughly three hours before the next COVID update from Washington.

However, the action was proven to be the right one as Washington added eight more players to the COVID list. More money came in on Philadelphia, pushing them to -6.5 and -7.

It was primarily one-way action at this point because the Football Team was not only down several starters, but also backup quarterback Kyle Allen — Taylor Heinicke soon followed him there. On Thursday, with more COVID adds, the Eagles settled around -9.5. The spread isn’t even available in every book as of Friday morning. BetCris, for example, took it off the board overnight.

Overall, Washington had 18 players on the COVID list as of Friday morning, and the market number shot from -4 up to -9.5. 

Even More Uncertainty

Bettors who could grab Philadelphia at the beginning of the week are sitting on some superb closing line value. They could even middle the game now. Middling means they take the other side at different odds and hope the final scoring margin falls between both numbers.

For example, someone grabbed Philly -4.5 and will take Washington at +10. If Philly wins by seven points, the bettor will cash both tickets.

The NFL changed their COVID protocol rules which could lead to the information game getting even messier in the future. Vaccinated players who test positive for COVID but are asymptomatic, can re-join the team with only one negative test or a test that shows a CT value of 35 or greater. Usually, when a player tests positive during the week, he will have a hard time getting cleared for Sunday.

But the time frame might get shorter — and so does the uncertainty for bettors.

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