Gambling on the NFL is big business, especially after a 2018 Supreme Court decision striking down a federal ban on sports betting. Recent estimates suggest that as many as 46.6 million people will place a bet on the NFL this year, representing nearly one out of every five Americans of legal gambling age. As a result, there's been an explosion in sports betting content, most of which promises to make you a more profitable bettor. Given that backdrop, it can be hard to know who to trust.
Fortunately, you can trust me when I promise that I'm not going to make you a more profitable sports bettor. And neither will any of those other columns. It's essentially impossible for any written column to do so, for a number of reasons I detailed here. (I'm not saying it's impossible to be profitable betting on the NFL, just that it's impossible to get there thanks to a weekly picks column.)
This column's animating philosophy is not to make betting more profitable but to make betting more entertaining. And maybe along the way, we can make it a bit less unprofitable in the process, discussing how to find bets where the house's edge is smaller, how to manage your bankroll, and how to dramatically increase your return on investment in any family or office pick pools (because Dave in HR and Sarah in accounting are much softer marks than Caesar's and MGM).
If that sounds interesting to you, feel free to join me as we discuss the weekly Odds and Ends.
Beating Vegas is Hard. Beating your Coworkers is Not.
I've gone on at length already about how I have no edge against Las Vegas (and even if I did, it's not like I could pass it on to you). But office pick pools are another thing entirely. At my wife's work, they used to do an annual picks pool. My wife doesn't follow football at all, but she kicked in her $20 every year and gave me the password to her account so I could pick teams for her. And in two seasons in the pool, I finished 1st and 2nd (in a field of 40+ entrants) before she got booted for bringing in a ringer.
How is it that I can't beat Vegas, but I can beat a bunch of other people in a contest designed around beating Vegas? There was obviously a fair bit of luck involved, but I also have three tips to help give a significant edge against your coworkers.
Lesson 1: The Best Ability is Availability
The biggest secret to winning a picks pool is simply making all the picks. Oftentimes you'll find a quarter to half of the field essentially eliminates itself along the way simply by forgetting to get their picks in on occasion. There are 272 games a season, meaning if you flipped a coin for each pick, you'd expect to notch 136 wins. If someone forgets to submit their picks for a non-bye week, they'll need to win 53.1% of their remaining picks just to get to 136 wins (and substantially more than that to beat 136 wins). Even if participants just forget to get a few Thursday Night picks in before the game kicks off, each missed pick is like losing an extra half a win.
Personally, I set a reminder for myself as soon as the contest opened up for picks every week to go in and place some dummy picks. Go with all favorites, all underdogs, all home teams, all road teams, go with whichever team has the shortest name or the scariest mascot or the cutest quarterback, it doesn't matter. Just getting your picks in-- any picks at all-- is worth a baseline of 6-8 wins a week. You can (and should) always log back in later in the week to change your picks, but getting some dummy picks in ASAP protects against the possibility of life happening and it slipping your mind.
Lesson 2: Leveraging Vegas Against your Colleagues
Most pick pools freeze lines at a certain point in time so that everyone is operating on an even playing field. Remember, the reason why it's so hard to beat Vegas is because spreads are a moving target, but that's not the case in pick pools. In fact, you can use line movement to your advantage.
Say the Broncos are playing the Raiders, and the line opens at Denver -2. Then let's say that over the course of the week, the line moves further in Denver's favor, settling at Denver -3. Las Vegas is basically saying that if you're given the line "Denver -2" you should take the Broncos, because the Broncos are actually three points better than the Raiders. Now, you can't use this to your advantage when betting because that "Denver -2" line is long gone. But you can and should use it to your advantage in pick pools where the lines are frozen in place. Whenever the line moves during the course of the week, always pick the team that the line moved towards. Doing this all but guarantees you a better than 50% success rate.
Lesson 3: You Only Have to Outrun the Bear
We've all heard the "outrun the bear" joke. Two friends are wandering through the forest, and suddenly a bear sees them from a distance and starts running toward them. One friend bends down to tighten the laces on his shoes, and the other friend says, "surely you don't think you can outrun a bear?!" The first friend says, "Don't have to outrun the bear; I only have to outrun you." That's how it is in office pick pools. You don't have to pick a ton of games correctly. You just need to pick one more game than the second-place finisher got.
Why does this matter? Because you can anticipate who your coworkers will pick and use that against them. In my case, I was participating in a pick pool held just outside of Dallas, Texas. You know who virtually everyone picked virtually every week? The Dallas Cowboys. You know who I picked against every week? The Dallas Cowboys. Is it because I thought the Cowboys were the better pick per se? Nope; it's because I wasn't trying to outrun the bear, I was only trying to outrun my friends.
Imagine a hypothetical league with 100 participants where 99 are die-hard Cowboys fans and will pick Dallas every week, come hell or high water. Let's also imagine, hypothetically speaking, that everyone picks exactly 50% in all other games. If I also pick Dallas every week the best-case scenario is I wind up in a 100-way tie for first. (And the worst-case scenario is I wind up in a 100-way tie for last.) That gives me a 100% chance of having a 1-in-100 shot at winning the pool, which is a 1% shot in expectation. Picking the same team everyone else picks doesn't hurt my odds of winning... but it doesn't help them either.
Now if I pick *against* Dallas every week, I will either wind up all alone in last place (if Dallas covers the spread more often than not) or all alone in first place (if Dallas fails to cover the spread more often than not). Since each scenario is equally likely, that means I have a 50% chance at having a 0% shot at winning and a 50% chance at having a 100% shot at winning. Making the contrarian pick dramatically improves my odds of winning in expectation. In general, the more contrarian your picks are, the more they help you outrun your friends. If you work near a major NFL city and everyone is a fan of the local team, pick against it every week.
Later in the season you can also see where you stand and who your top competitors are and tailor your picks appropriately. If you and another co-worker wind up well ahead of everyone else with two weeks to go, you should try your best to pick the exact same picks as your coworker every week. After all, if you pick the same teams as them, they can't make up any ground (and everyone else is so far back you're not worried about them catching up). Similarly, if you find yourself eight games out of first with three weeks to go, you should double-down on trying to make contrarian picks because you can never make up ground picking the same teams as the people ahead of you, even if those teams are the better picks.
At the end of the day, these strategies don't guarantee you anything. Picking games is still a fairly random activity and randomness is by its very nature unpredictable. I was lucky to participate in these pools in two seasons where the Cowboys did very poorly against the spread, which gave me a pretty solid advantage. Had I participated in strong seasons for the Cowboys, I likely would have finished in the back half of the league.
But while being strategic about who you pick doesn't guarantee you anything, it dramatically increases your odds of walking out of the season with a little bit extra pocket money donated by your unsuspecting friends and colleagues.
Lines I'm Seeing
Revenge Game(s) of the Week
Last week we took a pair of underdogs for our Revenge Game specials, and not only did they both cover, they actually won outright, proving* that The Process works! Let's keep our hot streak alive.
Denver Broncos (-10.5) vs. Houston Texans
Last week I gave you two "revenge games" involving retired players, so this time let's serve up one with an active player. Quarterback Josh Johnson was signed and cut by the Houston Texans twice in 2017 (this was after he was let go by the 49ers, the Browns, the 49ers three more times, the Bengals, the Jets, the Colts twice, the Bills, the Ravens, and the Giants twice, but before he was let go by Oakland, Washington, Detroit, San Francisco again, the Jets again, and the Ravens again). Well, now Johnson is on the Broncos and looking for revenge. Unfortunately, he's somehow on Denver's practice squad (Seriously? The guy's 36 years old!) and unlikely to get it. Take the Texans and the points.
Kansas City Chiefs (-4) vs. Los Angeles Chargers
Quarterback revenge games are fun; let's do another one. Chase Daniels has had a charmed NFL career to this point, lasting 13 years and making over $41 million in lifetime earnings for five career starts. Daniels spent three years in Kansas City, cashing $10 million in checks for 68 pass attempts, nearly $150,000 per throw. The Chiefs cap department is going to be thirsty for revenge for all that money spent on keeping the bench warm, and if there's one thing I know, it's never cross an accountant with a grudge. Give me the Chiefs, and I'll give the points.
Lead-Pipe Double-Extra Cinchy Lock of the Week
Unfortunately, my Lead-Pipe Double-Extra Cinchy Lock of the Week last week failed to pay off, so we're retiring the feature. In its place, we'll unveil the...
Lead-Pipe Triple-Extra Cinchy Lock of the Week
New Orleans Saints (+3) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What? Picking the Saints again after they burned me last week? Yeah, I am, because I trust The Process, which absolutely doesn't involve me just rolling dice to see which game and which team I'll be declaring a lock every week. Are you kidding, this is 2022; there are tons of free random number generators on the internet to handle that for me. Gimme the Saints!
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