The NFL has become a passing league. Virtually all pro football teams now throw the ball more than ever before. This doesn’t mean we should disregard rushing data, however. In fact, recent rushing statistics can have significant predictive value in picking point-spread winners.

Titans RB Travis Henry, NFL rushing
After putting up impressive rushing stats last week, running back Travis Henry and the Tennessee Titans may be worth a strong look in NFL Week #12 versus the Jacksonville Jaguars (Image: Mark Zaleski/AP)

Consider just one stat, which measures the effectiveness of the running game:

Teams that rushed for more yards than average in their previous game tend to be solid bet-on situations when facing teams that rushed for fewer yards than average in their previous game.

This stat is very easy to track. Examine the box score of a team’s last game and look at the total rushing yards. Teams that rushed for 150 or more yards, which is well above the league average, tend to be solid offensively.  Because they can run the ball, they’re able to control the line of scrimmage. More often than not, they also enjoy significant edges in time of possession. These stats are vitally important when picking games against the spread.

How a Team Fared Rushing the Ball in Its Previous Game May Have Significant Predictive Value

Conversely, examine teams that rushed for 50 or fewer yards in their previous game, which often indicates offensive ineptitude. Generally speaking, these teams weren’t able to control the line of scrimmage. They were also likely to have lost the time of possession battle, which means their defenses were on the field more than average, and were worn out by game’s end. Rushing for so few yards typically means the offensive line is either banged up or simply isn’t very good — and perhaps both. This has serious implications for the entire offense.

Superior Rushing Data Speaks

Consider data for situations when one team rushed for 150 or more yards in the previous game versus opponents that rushed for 50 yards or fewer in the previous game:

Since 2003, the superior rushing team has posted an 85-56-0 straight up record, which translates into winning the game 60.3 percent of the time.

Since 2003, the superior rushing team has posted a 79-59-3 against-the-spread record, which translates into covering the number 57.2 percent of the time.

These are strong indicators.

Run Defenses Beware

In Week #12, two NFL games apply to this solid betting trend:

  • Green Bay +3.5 vs. San Francisco
  • Tennessee -3 vs. Jacksonville

The Packers and Titans both ran the ball much better than their opponents did in their previous game. Note that San Francisco’s rushing yardage (19 carries for 34 yards in Week 11 versus Arizona) might be surprising, since the 49ers won and covered (in the season’s worst bad beat, so far).

Obviously, there are many other factors to consider when betting NFL games. However, seeing what’s happened in the trenches is vital in trying to forecast future outcomes. Teams that beat their foes on the line of scrimmage are prone to both win the game, and cover the spread. Bettors are advised to target those teams with such advantages when making picks.