Week 1 NFL Pick’em Strategy: Winner & Point Spread Value Picks

posted in NFL Pick'ems

The NFL season starts on Wednesday — when did they start playing pro games on Wednesday? — which means it’s time to jump online and set your Week NFL 1 pick’em picks. Or at least your pick for Cowboys at Giants.

Hopefully your league commissioner was kind enough to set Sunday morning as the deadline for the rest of the games.

To help you get back in the swing of things, here’s a little assistance on those picks. We’ll be doing this every week, all season, just like we did last year. Our conservative picks ended up finishing in the 98th percentile in ESPN’s game winner based NFL pick’em last year, and against the spread, our Conservative strategy led to a similar 98th percentile finish in ESPN’s spread based NFL pick’em.

So it’s a good bet that following this column won’t be a waste of your time. Also, we enjoy answering questions, so if you’ve got any specific pick ideas of theories you want feedback on, by all means, fire away in the comments.

Our Week 1 NFL Office Pool Picks

If you’re a new reader of this column or new to TeamRankings.com (or just need a reminder), here’s where you can find our computer generated picks for NFL office pools:

A few notes on these pages:

  • If your contest uses a different set of games than those options, our NFL game winner picks page combined with the advice dispensed in this weekly column should provide you with an edge.
  • Both our game winner and spread based picks have underlying detailed analysis pages (game winners | against the spread) that you can view, which display win probabilities and public picking percentages for each team.
  • We generally “freeze” our weekly pick’em picks the day before games begin in a given week. Before that, our picks and confidence order are subject to change. All our predictions are computer driven, and they can change over the course of a week based on new information. In addition, public picking percentages can change over the course of the week, which impacts value analysis.

General NFL Pick’Em Strategy

Before we go much further, we’re going to assign you some recommended reading. If you haven’t checked out our NFL pick’em strategy series, do yourself a favor and go absorb that knowledge. It’ll ensure our choices here make a lot more sense.

Done reading? OK, good. As you now know, the best picks in your particular pool are not always simply the teams that have the best chance to win. If you’re in a very small pool, safe picks are great because all you’re aiming to do in those cases is make par, and hope your opponents shoot themselves in the foot. But in larger pools (think hundreds or thousands of people) the winner will be someone who took some risks, and got a bit lucky. Your goal in larger pools, then, is to take smart risks that are justified by the expected returns.

To that end, we’ll present this handy table each week, which summarizes a few teams that look like they could be smart Game Winner picks for people that need to take some risks. It’s based on our detailed pick’em analysis page, with only a couple tweaks.

Week 1 Value Pick Highlights: Game Winners

TeamOpponentAdj Win OddsPublic %ValueSpreadValue Indicator
Tampa Bayvs. Carolina49%~20%29%+1Low Risk Upset
Oaklandvs. San Diego47%~35%12%+1Low Risk Upset
Kansas Cityvs. Atlanta42%~20%22%+3High Risk Upset
Dallasat NY Giants37%~10%27%+4High Risk Upset
Cincinnatiat Baltimore33%~5%28%+6Long Shot Upset
Tennesseevs. New England31%~5%26%+6Long Shot Upset

This week, there aren’t any slam dunk contrarian value picks, as our adjusted win odds (a combination of our NFL game winner picks and the Vegas line) agree with the public on the winner of every game. If you’re in a small pool, you should play it pretty close to the vest this week, and pick all of our favored teams. Yes, this sounds boring. But in small pools, your main goal early in the season is just to avoid shooting yourself in the foot with crazy upset picks.

If you’re in a medium-sized pool, it’s probably worth spending a pick on Tampa Bay or Oakland. They’re only slight underdogs, but very few people are picking them. If your slight gamble comes through, you’ll be starting off with a small lead against 65% to 80% of your pool. Not bad. In a large pool, you should probably choose both of those teams.

In truly huge pools, you’ll want to add another one or two of our High Risk or Long Shot Upset Picks. If you pick the Bucs, Raiders, and Chiefs, you’ll have about a 10% chance to get all three of those picks correct. If you do, you’ll take a 3-game lead on everyone who picked all favorites. Better yet, only about 1% or 2% of your opponents will have done the same thing, so you’ll have a jump on about 98% or your pool.

Still, that’s only a wise strategy in huge pools. In smaller pools, that’s too much risk to take at this point in the season.

Against The Spread Pick’em Strategy

In a spread-based pick’em, there are two main ways to find value.

First, you can look for a game where the official spread in your contest is different from the current spread offered at most sports books, and take the “free points.” A lot of point spread based pick’em contests publish the games and associated point spreads at the beginning of the week, but give you until the end of the week (or close to it) to submit your picks. In terms of generating edge, exploiting this opportunity is like taking candy from a baby.

In general, the edge you get from those free points is going to be stronger than any personal opinion you have on which team should cover. (Yeah, yeah, spare us the part about you being “so money” at picking point spread winners…last time we checked, you hadn’t quit your day job and moved to Vegas with your life savings in a duffel bag.) So your best bet is to check your handicapping ego at the door, wait until the very last minute to submit your picks, and give top priority to sides where you are getting the most free points.

We list the biggest line movements from early in the week on the right side of our NFL odds page, and will also highlight them in this column each week. Here they are for Week 1, as of Tuesday evening.

Week 1 Point Spread Movement Highlights

TeamOpponentOpening LineCurrent LineMovement
Houstonvs. Miami-7-11.54.5
Seattleat Arizona+1-2.53.5
Washingtonat New Orleans+9.5+72.5
St. Louisat Detroit+9+72
Atlantaat Kansas City-1-32
Tampa Bayvs. Carolina+3+12

The second major source of value in spread-based pick’ems is finding a game where a huge majority of your opponents are picking one team, when the official contest line is equal to the current Vegas point spread. In this case, you just pick against the majority.

The rationale here is that there is almost never a game where a team has, say, an 80% chance to cover. Most Vegas point spreads are pretty efficient — at least, more efficient than the vast majority of other methods of predicting games. So if 80% of your opponents are picking a certain side to beat the spread this week, that team is almost certainly being severely overvalued. And that means you’ve got roughly a 50/50 shot of pulling ahead of a huge chunk of your opponents by picking against them, no matter what your personal opinion is of that game.

It’s a smart gamble in most pool sizes, as long as you aren’t already comfortably in the lead. (In that case, picking along with the crowd provides some lead-protection insurance, so you’d need to do some math to figure out the likely best option.)

This week, as usual, the public seems to be have a strong preference for favorites, which means there are lot of underdogs that present good value opportunities. For the following six teams, the lines for the Yahoo! ATS pick’em are the same as those found at Pinnacle sports book on Tuesday evening, yet only about 25% or less of the public is selecting these teams to cover:

Week 1 Point Spread Pick Imbalance Highlights

TeamOpponentTR Cover OddsPublic Pick %Current Spread
St Louisat Detroit56%~10%+7
Tennesseevs. New England51%~10%+6
Cincinnatiat Baltimore55%~15%+6
Indianapolisat Chicago53%~20%+9.5
Kansas Cityvs. Atlanta54%~25%+3
San Franciscoat Green Bay48%~25%+5

If the lines in your pick’em contest are the same as those shown above, and if you think your competitors will be picking teams in roughly the same manner as the general public (e.g., in line with the Yahoo! contest picking trends), we’d recommend playing all six of these teams. If the general public were good sports bettors overall, sports books would have gone out of business a long time ago.

For advice on other games in your spread-based pick’em pool this week, check out our NFL office pool spread picks page, or our NFL ATS picks page.

As always, please feel free to ask questions in the comment section below. We’ll do our best to answer as many as possible, and we look forward to a fun and interactive college football weekly pick’em advice column this season.

  • Yunier

    Hey David, quick question, in my work straight pickem league with confidence points we are allowed to have 2 teams if we choose to paid for 2 teams so my plan is to go conservative with 1 and aggressive with the other to try to win single weeks since we paid each week winner and also the top 3 at the end. The pool is small with 40 people and so the question is which strategy to use for the 2nd picks you guy’s “Aggressive Strategy” or “Very Aggressive Strategy”. I used your picks all of last year but can’t remember which strategy “won” most weeks and can’t find last year stats on the site now.

    Thanks in advance for the feedback.


  • http://www.teamrankings.com/ David Hess

    If you’re looking to have one strategy that has a shot to be the best in your whole pool in any given week, that would be the Very Aggressive. That one is a “boom or bust” strategy — on average it will lose to Aggressive, but when it *does* have a good week, it’s likely that the rest of the pool had a bad one, so you’ll have a better chance to win that week. I wouldn’t expect it to place near the top of the pool for the whole season, but it should give you a better chance at the weekly prizes.

  • Nick

    Hey David, just wondering if you have any tips on how to take advantage of homerism in my office. I work in Chicago so naturally we are all Bear fans, and in Week 1 for example, everyone has the Bears over the Colts as their 16 point game. This week probably isn’t the best example since that is actually a legitimate pick, but what about Week 4 vs DAL? If I know the majority of people will be picking the Bears with high confidence, what can I do to take advantage?


  • http://www.teamrankings.com/ David Hess

    Great question. What other people are picking is definitely a very important consideration. In your case, the Bears will be overvalued most weeks. That means you should respond by being a bit biased *against* them.

    In Week 4 vs. Dallas, I’m guessing the Bears will be underdogs, yet the majority of your pool will pick them to win. That is a great situation for you. All you need to do is pick Dallas to win (no need to place them up in the high confidence range, unless that turns out being justified by the line/odds). That gives you a very high expected reward (gaining a lot of ground on a lot of your opponents) with no added risk (you’re making the safer pick by going with Dallas).

    Now consider a game where the Bears are slightly favorites. It could still be smart for you to pick against the Bears, because the reward is still great (gaining a ton of points on 85% of your opponents), and the increased risk is only moderate (45% chance to win vs. 55%, say).

    In both of these situations, the number of confidence points to give to the Bears opponent is tough to judge. The majority of the benefit to picking against the Bears will simply come from your opponents *losing* their high-point pick. So you can get away with giving their opponent a low value, and still see a gain from the pick. Basically, if it’s early, or you are still near the top of the pool, no need to boost the opponent confidence points. If it’s later in the season, and you’re behind and need to make some huge gains, you can increase the size of of your “Bears fade” by raising the opponent confidence points — it increases your risk but also increases your reward.

    The benefits to all the strategies above is that if things play out according to the odds, you’ll generally come out ahead against a good chunk of your pool, and be in great shape. However, if the Bears pull several upsets this year, you will basically be in deep trouble. However, that’s fine — think about what would happen if you went with the crowd and picked the Bears. If they pulled off some upsets, you would still only be in average shape, because everybody else picked the upsets correctly as well. There would be no way for you to get ahead. And if the Bears lost as expected, you’d be in bad shape, behind the few rational people that picked Dallas. So picking against the Bears you’ll end up wither in great or terrible shape. Picking the Bears to win leaves you either in OK or terrible shape. The first one is clearly preferable.