10 NFL betting lessons of Week 4 from Matt Youmans

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When the autopsy is performed on the Cincinnati Bengals’ season, the cause of their demise will be Joe Burrow’s calf injury in late July. After missing the entire preseason and most of training camp, Burrow rushed his return to the field and still looks like a one-legged quarterback.

In the NFL, it all starts with the quarterback, the head of the snake. It’s obvious the Bengals’ star quarterback is physically unable to lead the team.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with Cincinnati,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “It seems like every week they score three points. To lose at Tennessee is not an embarrassment, but something is wrong.”

A lot has gone wrong, but it begins with Burrow. When the offense is breaking down, the defense and everything else soon follow, and the best (or worst) example of that was Cincinnati’s 27-3 loss at Tennessee. It was a positive result for bookmakers, with more than 70% of the money on the Bengals as 2.5-point favorites.

It was a Sunday that started smoothly for Burrow, who directed an 11-play, 72-yard drive for a 21-yard field goal by Evan McPherson. Burrow made short, quick throws to methodically march down the field. The plays that were scripted to work around Burrow’s lack of mobility with the calf injury worked for only one series. Burrow is averaging 4.8 yards per pass attempt — worst in the league this season — and completing 29% of throws 10 or more yards downfield. He’s not healthy and won’t be anytime soon.

A week after the Titans were held to 94 total yards in a loss at Cleveland, Tennessee turned the tables and outgained Cincinnati 400-211.

A year ago, Cincinnati lost its first two games and rallied to finish 12-4 before making a second straight run to the AFC title game, but a similar comeback is not happening this season. At this point, the odds are against the Bengals even reaching the playoffs.

It’s rarely a good thing to be a trendy team in the NFL. Cincinnati was the favorite in the AFC North, expected to be the NFL’s toughest division top to bottom, and a popular Super Bowl pick this summer. Those bets are dead in early October, and the five-year, $275 million contract extension Burrow signed prior to Week 1 is off to a poor start.

The Bengals (1-3) desperately need to win their next two games against the Cardinals and Seahawks before getting Burrow some rest during a bye week. Jake Browning is the backup quarterback, and he’s not a winning option, so Burrow is forced to keep playing.

It’s not embarrassing to lose at Tennessee, which might have enough to win the AFC South, but scoring three points in a blowout is the worst sign yet for Cincinnati. The betting public got this one wrong. Don’t bet on the Bengals, who are the biggest disappointment in the league, to bounce back until Burrow shows he’s healthy — one of 10 betting lessons to take away from Week 4.

Josh Allen and the Bills made a statement that you should have seen coming.

The power structure in the AFC the past two years has been a three-headed monster with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs at the top, followed by Burrow and the Bengals and Allen and the Bills. It was forecast to stay that way this season, but Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins started 3-0 to emerge as a threat to Buffalo atop the AFC East.

Miami still is a major threat, but the Bills restored order by handing the Dolphins a 48-20 beatdown that was somewhat predictable. (I wrote about Buffalo being my best bet for Week 4 in a VSIN.com column, yet did not expect the game would be so lopsided.) After running up 70 points the previous week, the Dolphins were destined to be square underdogs, and they drew a majority of the money at DraftKings.

“It was a lot of Miami moneyline play,” Avello said. “The Bills showed up.”

Allen completed 21 of 25 passes for 320 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for a touchdown. A Buffalo defense that ranks No. 2 in the league limited Miami to six points in the second half. The Bills were hearing the Dolphins hype all week and wanted to make a bold statement. Beware of the public ‘dog.

Mahomes almost always wins, but rarely covers, as a big favorite.

Buy on bad news. The negativity surrounding the New York Jets and struggling quarterback Zach Wilson meant it was the right time to bet the Jets. That theory might seem to make no sense, but it makes perfect sense in the NFL, where the games rarely mirror public opinion.

It looked too easy to lay the points with the Chiefs. DraftKings kept Kansas City as a 9.5-point favorite while most other books dropped the line to -8. The sharp money was on the ‘dog, but holding the line at -9.5 served as protection against six-point teasers on KC.

Wilson played well, passing for 245 yards and two touchdowns, before losing a fourth-quarter fumble that proved costly. Mahomes threw two interceptions as the Chiefs squandered a 17-0 lead and barely held on to win 23-20.

“The Chiefs went up 17-0 and for some reason stopped playing football,” Avello said. “They seem to lose interest.”

Bettors on the favorite lost when Mahomes scrambled for a first down and went down at the 2-yard line to run out the clock with less than two minutes to go. Mahomes could have scored a touchdown to cover, prompting some to call it a bad beat. The Chiefs were actually fortunate to win and needed some help from the officials to keep their final drive alive, so it would have been a lucky cover.

Evan Abrams, a handicapper who tweets betting trends on X, offered two relevant trends on the Chiefs quarterback: Mahomes is 16-22-1 ATS as a favorite of seven or more, making him the least profitable quarterback in that spot over the last decade, but he does not get upset on the road and is now 20-0 straight up as more than a 5-point favorite.

The Steelers’ bite does not back up Mike Tomlin’s bark.

Pittsburgh’s offense returned to being pitiful in a 30-6 loss at Houston. Kenny Pickett passed for 114 yards with an interception before exiting in the third quarter with a knee injury. He showed tremendous progress late last season and in the preseason, but Pickett has regressed.

The Steelers also took a big step back on defense, allowing Texans rookie CJ Stroud to throw for 306 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions or sacks. Houston was the right side all the way as 3-point underdog, and Pittsburgh’s coach was in a foul mood.

“We’ve got to make some changes,” Tomlin said, in his usual authoritative manner. “That was an ugly product we put out there. We’re not going to do the same things and hope for a different outcome.”

Tomlin should start by firing Matt Canada, who’s probably the worst offensive coordinator in the league. Pickett could get benched, if he’s even healthy enough to play. Tomlin is most dangerous as a home ‘dog, and that’s his role in Week 5 against the Ravens, but I won’t be betting the Steelers again unless Tomlin delivers on the promise to make changes.

The AFC North is not living up to the hype with the Bengals, Browns and Steelers underachieving.

Bet against rookie quarterbacks in their first start.

Stroud and two other rookies — Carolina’s Bryce Young and Indianapolis’ Anthony Richardson — lost and failed to cover in Week 1. Two more rookies got starts as injury replacements in Week 4 and both lost and failed to cover.

Cleveland went with Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a fifth-round pick from UCLA, and the results were disastrous. Thompson-Robinson, replacing Deshaun Watson, was intercepted three times and sacked four times in a 28-3 loss to Baltimore.

Las Vegas rolled the dice on Aidan O’Connell, a fourth-round pick from Purdue, and he nearly rallied the Raiders to a road win as 6-point underdogs. O’Connell passed for 238 yards yet lost two fumbles, was sacked seven times and threw a pick at the Los Angeles 2-yard line with 2:33 remaining in a 24-17 loss to the Chargers. O’Connell showed flashes, but Jimmy Garoppolo’s job is safe when he returns from a concussion.

The problems with the Raiders are many, and Avello took aim at coach Josh McDaniels, who has earned the criticism.

“The Raiders’ coach is a mess,” Avello said. “He really doesn’t know what he’s doing out there, in my opinion. I don’t like the way he manages a game.”

O’Connell and Thompson-Robinson each impressed in the preseason, but the regular season is a different animal, and the rookies are not ready for it right away.

Twenty-point leads are not safe, so resist premature celebrations.

Remember when it was rare for NFL teams to blow a 14-point lead? Times have changed, and bettors should not make the mistake of chalking up a win too soon.

In Week 2, the Cardinals blew a 20-0 halftime lead against the Giants, and the Broncos blew a 21-3 lead against the Commanders.

In Week 4, the Rams let a 23-0 lead get away to the Colts before winning 29-23 in overtime. The Bears were not as fortunate, losing a 28-7 lead late in the third quarter in a 31-28 defeat to the Broncos, who opened as 3.5-point favorites and closed -3.

When push came to shove, Chicago’s blown lead was tied for the largest in franchise history, and quarterback Justin Fields was not to blame. Fields passed for 335 yards and four touchdowns, doing it against a Denver defense that allowed 70 points the previous week. Fields made some mistakes, but maybe he was right when recently blamed “coaching” as a problem.

I said the Bears flubbed when they hired Matt Eberflus, the architect of the team’s 14-game losing streak, and Eberflus should be the first coach fired this season.

There is good news for the Bears, who currently hold the top two picks of a quarterback-loaded 2024 draft. Chicago acquired Carolina’s first-round pick in a trade, and the Bears and Panthers are the league’s only 0-4 teams.

The Eagles are good, yet also lucky to be 4-0.

Philadelphia and San Francisco are the league’s only undefeated teams, but one team is clearly better than the other. The 49ers have the top power rating, a soft schedule and a quarterback who has quieted any doubters. Brock Purdy completed 20 of 21 passes in a 35-16 victory over the Cardinals that was also highlighted by Christian McCaffrey rushing for three touchdowns.

The Eagles, 9.5-point home favorites, had to rally from a 10-point deficit to defeat the Commanders 34-31 in overtime. Philadelphia is playing with fire and is fortunate to be 3-0 in one-score games. 

The Rams remain the best bet on any given Sunday.

Thanks to coach Sean McVay’s mysterious decision to call for a field goal on the last play of the game in a 30-23 loss to the 49ers in Week 2, when San Francisco closed as a 7-point favorite, the Rams are the league’s only undefeated team against the spread (3-0-1).

The Rams blew a 23-0 lead at Indianapolis on Sunday before rallying to win in overtime as 1-point favorites. Matthew Stafford ranks No. 2 with 1,229 passing yards for Los Angeles, which is 2-2 and one of the league’s most pleasant surprises. The Rams’ spread record will be on the line when they host the Eagles in Week 5.

The Buccaneers are much better than expected.

No, the Saints are not going to run away with the NFC South, and Tampa Bay made that clear with a 26-9 win at New Orleans. Baker Mayfield runs hot and cold, and he was hot, passing for 246 yards and three touchdowns as the Bucs cashed as 4.5-point underdogs.

Tampa Bay is 3-1 and will be at home for the next two weeks. New Orleans is 2-2 and headed to New England to face a legendary coach who was just humiliated.

Bill Belichick’s season is on the brink.

Mac Jones deserves most of the blame for the Patriots’ latest black eye. The third-year quarterback suffered through the worst start of his career and was benched after throwing a pick-six and coughing up a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, among his other mistakes. Jones is 0-12 ATS in his last 12 starts as an underdog.

Belichick, who’s in charge of building the roster, has made mistakes too and it all came back to haunt him in the most lopsided loss in his 29 seasons as a head coach. Dallas handed New England a 38-3 defeat that was more agonizing than the score. Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy took it easy on Belichick — and think about that statement for a minute.

Belichick, a six-time Super Bowl winner, is 26-29 since Tom Brady left town. He needs one win to join George Halas and Don Shula as the only NFL coaches with 300 career regular-season wins.

I have bet on the Patriots four times this season and made a fool three times, but I’ll probably do it again this week. Belichick has his back to the wall, and this is a must-win game.