NFL 2020 Week 17 Predictions – Zoltar Likes Steelers, Lions, Bengals, Texans, Eagles

Zoltar is my NFL prediction computer program. It uses a deep neural network and reinforcement learning. The results for the first half of the season were completely crazy. The covid-19 pandemic has had a massive effect on the NFL. I switched Zoltar into experimental mode starting in week #8. I fiddled with five of Zoltar’s parameters:

Base rating pts for a win: 16 to 14
Rout definition: win by 20+ to win by 22+
Rout rating pts: 4 to 2
Underdog away win bonus pts: 4 to 2
Home field advantage: 3 pts to 2 pts

These changes made Zoltar more conservative with regards to his betting strategy.

To me, the most interesting parameter is the home field advantage. For decades, both humans and Zoltar have given 3 points to the home team. But with covid-19, you can argue that the home field advantage is dramatically greater (say 5 or 6 points or more), or dramatically smaller (say 0 or 1 point), or even negative. I won’t know until after the 2020 season is completed and I have enough data to analyze.

Using the experimental parameters, here are Zoltar’s predictions for week #17 (last regular season games) of the 2020 NFL season:

Zoltar:    steelers  by    1  dog =      browns    Vegas:      browns  by    7
Zoltar:       bills  by    5  dog =    dolphins    Vegas:       bills  by    3
Zoltar:  buccaneers  by    6  dog =     falcons    Vegas:  buccaneers  by  6.5
Zoltar:     vikings  by    1  dog =       lions    Vegas:     vikings  by  6.5
Zoltar:      ravens  by    6  dog =     bengals    Vegas:      ravens  by 11.5
Zoltar:     cowboys  by    1  dog =      giants    Vegas:     cowboys  by    3
Zoltar:    patriots  by    5  dog =        jets    Vegas:    patriots  by    5
Zoltar:      titans  by    1  dog =      texans    Vegas:      titans  by  7.5
Zoltar:       colts  by   10  dog =     jaguars    Vegas:       colts  by   14
Zoltar:      chiefs  by   10  dog =    chargers    Vegas:      chiefs  by    3
Zoltar:      saints  by    5  dog =    panthers    Vegas:      saints  by  6.5
Zoltar:     packers  by    2  dog =       bears    Vegas:     packers  by  5.5
Zoltar:     raiders  by    1  dog =     broncos    Vegas:     raiders  by  2.5
Zoltar:    seahawks  by    1  dog = fortyniners    Vegas:    seahawks  by  4.5
Zoltar:        rams  by    5  dog =   cardinals    Vegas:   cardinals  by    1
Zoltar:      eagles  by    3  dog =    redskins    Vegas:    redskins  by  1.5

Old Zoltar theoretically used to suggest betting when the Vegas line is more than 3.0 points different from Zoltar’s prediction. At this point, it’s beginning to look like an improved strategy will be something like bet on Vegas underdogs only if Zoltar and Vegas differ by more than 6 points, or bet on Vegas favorites if Zoltar and Vegas differ by more than 2 points. I’ll have to do an analysis after this season is over.

When you bet on an underdog, your bet pays off if the underdog wins by any score, or if the game is a tie, or if the favorite team wins but by more than the Vegas point spread. If the favorite team wins by exactly the point spread, the bet is a push. You lose your bet if the favorite wins by more than the Vegas point spread.

Theoretically, if you must bet $110 to win $100 (typical in Vegas) then you’ll make money if you predict at 53% accuracy or better. But realistically, you need to predict at 60% accuracy or better.

Because experimental Zoltar is very conservative, he mostly agrees with the Vegas point spreads in week #17. However, Zoltar tentatively likes five Vegas underdogs: Steelers against the Browns, Lions against the Vikings, Bengals against the Ravens, Texans against the Titans, and Eagles against the Redskins. Zoltar sort of likes the Chiefs against the Chargers, and the Rams against the Cardinals – but that’s based on very early point spread data that will certainly change over the next few days.

Against the Vegas point spread last week, experimental Zoltar was 1-2, correctly liking the underdog Jets (who upset the heavily favored Browns). But Zoltar missed badly by liking underdogs Lions (who got destroyed by the Buccaneers) and Patriots (who got crushed by the Bills).

For fun, I track how well Zoltar and the Vegas point spreads do when just predicting which team will win (not by how much). In week #16, just predicting the winning team, Zoltar was a mediocre 11-5. The Las Vegas point spread was the same at 11-5 just predicting winners.



My NFL prediction system is named after the Zoltar fortune teller machine you can find in arcades. Machine learning Zoltar uses a neural network; machine Zoltar uses a crystal ball. The use of movie scenes with a crystal ball was very common in the 1930s and 1940s, including four of the 38 Charlie Chan films featuring Warner Oland (16 films) and Sidney Toler (22 films). Left: In “The Black Camel” (1931) Chan (Oland) solves the murder of a movie actress who was filming in Honolulu and who often consulted with her fortune teller. Left Center: In “Charlie Chan’s Secret” (1936) Chan (Oland) is called to solve the case of a murdered heir to a fortune in a creepy house where frequent seances are held. Right Center: In “Charlie Chan at Treasure Island” (1939) Chan (Toler) visits the Golden Gate International Exposition (1939-1940) on Treasure Island in San Francisco bay and solves the case of a blackmailing, murdering magician. Right: In “Black Magic” (1944) Chan (Toler) becomes involved when a murder occurs at a seance attended by one of his daughters.

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