The Washington Commanders are favored by 4.5 points to defeat the New York Giants this Sunday. Several reasons are given for this: The fact that Washington is the home team, and that Washington is “hot” while the Giants are “cold”. And one more supposed advantage - Washington is rested, coming off their bye week, with a lot of time for them to prepare for the Giants.
A lot of this is actually pretty head-scratching.
Here are the results of the last five games the Giants have played in Washington:
2017: WAS 20, NYG 10
2018: NYG 40, WAS 16
2019: NYG 41, WAS 35
2020: NYG 23, WAS 20
2021: WAS 30, NYG 29
The Giants are a Dexter Lawrence offsides away from being 4-1 in Washington during a time period in which the Giants have been one of the worst teams in the NFL.
Play the hot hand?
No doubt the Giants have not played well in the past month and a half, going 1-4-1. A lot of it can be traced to the injuries on the offensive line and to defensive backs Adoree’ Jackson and Xavier McKinney, which have limited Mike Kafka’s playbook and blunted the effectiveness of Wink Martindale’s pressure schemes.
But the narrative that the Commanders have momentum is a bit of a mirage. Almost all of it derives from their impressive victory over Philadelphia last month. They have won six of their last seven aside from the 20-20 tie with the Giants. Their other wins are over Chicago, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Houston, and Atlanta. None of those are likely to see the playoffs, and three of them were beaten by the Giants when everyone saw the Giants as an ascending team. The Commanders were on the verge of losing three of those games, just as they were on the verge of losing to the Giants until Jon Feliciano decided to flex his muscles at an inopportune time.
Credit to Washington for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat regardless of the opponent. But the 20-20 result of the first Giants-Commanders game sums up the state of these teams - they are evenly matched. As former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver said, “Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.” Whichever pitcher, er, quarterback, has the hot hand is more likely to decide Sunday night’s game.
Advantage, bye week team?
There have been numerous studies looking at this question, with results suggesting that the bye helps good teams more than bad teams and that it helps more early in the season than late in the season. Here are statistics from one such study covering the years 2014-2018:
There is something to the idea of a beneficial bye week, but it is a relatively small effect that starts to emerge when many years of games are considered. Good teams seem to benefit from the bye on average more than poor teams. In smaller sample sizes like individual years, and for individual teams and games, though, the effect is dwarfed by other variables.
Here is how the Giants and Commanders have fared since 2017 in their games coming off the bye:
There is no evidence that the bye week has helped the fortunes of either team in recent years. Washington had a nice victory over Tampa Bay last year at a time when the Buccaneers were struggling. But both teams have suffered two embarrassing losses as well.
Six teams will have their bye this week, but here are the results for the other 26 teams coming off the bye in 2022:
Two games on this list were played by teams that were both coming off their bye facing each other (NYJ at NE, HOU at LV). For the other games, the team coming off its bye was 14-8. The bye teams have collectively outscored their opponents by 25 points, or a little more than one point per game. This makes it seem as if the bye really is something of an advantage.
But look more closely. There were two upsets that few people expected in which the team coming off the bye prevailed: Carolina defeating Seattle on the road, and Jacksonville coming from behind at home to beat the Ravens. But we also had upsets in the other direction: Well-rested Dallas losing at Lambeau to an inferior Green Bay team and Seattle losing to Las Vegas at home. Other games had an expected result but not an expected score: The juggernaut Detroit offense being completely shut down at Dallas, the impressive 49ers squeaking out a home win over the injury-depleted Chargers during their dominant seven-game winning streak, and frankly, the 6-2 Giants only defeating lowly Houston at home by 8 points. Most of the other bye week winners were expected to win their games anyway (Philadelphia, Minnesota, Buffalo, Miami, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Tennessee, and the Chargers).
The bye week, coming on top of the preceding game against the Giants, gives Washington extra time to rest and prepare. If this game were being played 100 times then it would make some difference in the odds of Washington winning. About the only meaningful advantage of Washington’s bye this week, though, was that they seem to have avoided any of their players taking rides on ATVs. These are two evenly matched teams. The team that plays better - and smarter - wins Sunday night. No excuses.