The Cleveland Browns roll into Pittsburgh this week on a three-game winning streak, re-energized and ready to crash the party in the AFC playoff hunt.
Baker Mayfield is hitting his stride with a 9:2 TD-to-interception rate since the bye week.
Cleveland’s offense boasts two top-tier wide receivers along with a pair of top-tier running backs.
On the other hand, Pittsburgh limps into the matchup with a third-string, undrafted rookie quarterback behind a backup center, supported by a bevy of unproven young receivers and running backs.
The Steelers also have with the memory of a decisive 21-7 Week 11 defeat to the Browns fresh in their minds.
According to Bet MGM, the Browns are a 1.5 point favorite against the Steelers.
In a season that’s seen double-digit Vegas point spreads almost every week, how is it possible the Browns are only a 1.5 point favorite?
Why are some betting platforms calling the game a toss-up?
To the casual fan and bettor, especially those who root for the Browns, it’s obvious Cleveland has the upper hand in this rematch of the infamous Thursday Night Football Helmet Bowl.
But it turns out Vegas doesn’t put as much weight into the current state of a team as they do trends.
As any Browns or Steeler fan knows, trends are not something the Browns want to contemplate.
Setting a betting line is more of an exercise in mathematical probability than anything else.
Recent biases are discounted by the question, “what is more likely?”
For example, is it more likely that Mayfield and Odell Beckham connect for a touchdown because they just did it last week or that they go ten weeks without a touchdown connection like they did before the Miami game?
Trends generally win out and that starts with head-to-head records.
What is more likely to happen?
The Browns beat the Steelers twice in a row or that the Steelers continue their dominance of the rivalry?
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) November 30, 2019
Vegas doesn’t see a one-game winning streak as much as Cleveland’s 7-34-1 record against Pittsburgh since returning to the league in 1999.
Maybe it is fairer to look at recent history.
Cleveland is 1-7-1 against the Steelers in their last 9 tries.
The Browns haven’t won in Pittsburgh since 2003.
What about Pittsburgh?
It seems like they have fallen on hard times, following up their loss to Cleveland with a near-loss to the hapless Bengals.
But overall, the Steelers have won 5 of their last 6 games. They are 4-1 at home this season.
The home field is generally worth about 3 points when factoring NFL lines.
When a home team is favored by 3, it means the teams themselves are ranked about even.
The number can bump up a bit in places like Seattle with the 12th man noise or considering Denver’s thin air.
Steelers fans and players will tell you their terrible towels rally the home defense and put fear into opponents.
But statistically, there is only a one-point difference in points allowed at home versus away for Pittsburgh.
Speaking of statistics, once trends are considered, six statistical considerations are added to the equation that determines the point spread.
They include offensive passing yards, rushing yards, and points scored per game.
Defensive yards and points allowed per game and turnover differential are the other three factors.
Offensively, Cleveland has an advantage over Pittsburgh in all categories, including 1.8 points-per-game on average.
However, Pittsburgh’s advantage on defense is more decisive, including 3.6 fewer points allowed per game.
The Steelers (+10) also have a huge advantage in turnover differential versus the Browns (-3).
Vegas gives slightly more weight to the teams’ last three games, which brings Cleveland closer to their rivals defensively.
The Browns are trending up in all statistical categories.
Betting lines also take into consideration a team’s popularity.
To improve the bookies’ odds, point spreads can change when more fans bet on one team than the other during the week.
Two things that are not considered are emotions and coaching staff.
Statistics and trends should reflect which team is better coached and professionals are expected to match emotions at game time.
These issues tend to influence casual bettors much more than professional bettors or the Vegas line setters.
There are very few other factors that can change a line. Injuries and suspensions are the most common.
If Baker Mayfield suffered an injury in practice Wednesday that threated to knock him from the game, the 1.5 point advantage given to Cleveland would likely disappear.
Sometimes, a question about a player’s availability can have enough potential impact that Vegas will suspend betting.
For instance, if Lamar Jackson was questionable up to game time, the impact on the point spread would be too high to take bets.
Not to pile on Mason Rudolph, but when the Steelers announced a change at quarterback this week, most betting lines did not move.
Devlin Hodges versus Rudolph was seen as a wash.
With all that, Vegas still decided to tab the Browns 1.5 point favorites on the road against the Steelers.
It is the first time Cleveland has been a favorite in Heinz Field in this generation.
It might not look like much, but it is more complimentary to Cleveland than it appears.