September 11, 2019 - by Jason Lisk
Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills will try to go 2 for 2 against New York teams (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)
With a dramatic opening week of the 2019 NFL season now in the books, it’s time for our Week 2 advice for football pick’em contests.
For the unfamiliar, this pick advice is different than what you’re probably used to reading. Of course, it’s important to identify the most likely winner of each game. But maximizing your edge in an NFL or college football pick’em pool also requires you to consider how your opponents are going to pick.
After all, you can only rise in the pool standings if you score points that your opponents miss. So you always need to be on the lookout for underrated teams that might be worth an educated gamble, and you need to avoid trendy upset picks that aren’t worth the risk.
This approach to pick making is a big reason why 80% our subscribers reported winning a prize in a football pick’em contest last year.
It was a frustrating start to the season for a value-driven pick approach, but sometimes the public has its day.
Last week, the favorites of three points or more that were the “least overrated” by the public were Chicago and Minnesota, and we highlighted both teams in our writeup. Minnesota’s 28-12 romp of Atlanta paid off for players that increased confidence points on them, but Chicago was upset 10-3 by Green Bay in a very sloppy start to the 2019 season.
The only two favorites that were underrated by the public last week were Denver (which closed as a 3-point favorite, after opening as a 2.5-point underdog, quite a big swing) and Tampa Bay (which closed as a 1-point favorite). Both teams lost, though it’s worth noting that Tampa Bay’s pick popularity jumped up to nearly 50% after hovering around 33% earlier in the week. That move erased almost all the contrarian value that the Bucs had initially shown.
(That’s also why it’s important to stay on top of pick popularity changes right up until your pick submission deadline, which our Football Pick’em Picks product does automatically.)
Meanwhile, both Carolina and Jacksonville remained top contrarian value plays heading into Sunday, if you wanted to take some extra risks in your pool. Carolina had a solid shot, only falling by three despite losing the turnover battle 3-1. The Jags fell behind early, but also lost starting QB Nick Foles to injury.
If you find yourself a couple games under the average in your pool after Week 1 because you followed value, it’s no cause for alarm. Of the six teams we highlighted last week, Vegas implied win odds expected around three wins, but only one happened. In the longer term, that bad luck will even out, and there are plenty of games left to pick this season.
Using Vegas odds, data-driven predictions, and pick popularity data from national football pick’em contests, we’ve analyzed the entire NFL Week 2 slate and identified the best and worst value picking opportunities.
Keep in mind that we are not recommending that you make all of the picks below — the upset picks especially. The best Week 2 picks for your NFL pool depend on factors such as its size, rules, and prize structure, plus situational factors like your current place in the standings and the number of weeks left in the pool.
(Our Football Pick’em Picks product recommends weekly picks that take all these factors into account.)
What we are saying is that the teams mentioned in this post offer some of the best opportunities to differentiate your Week 2 picks from your pool opponents, or they serve as prime examples of when picking against the crowd is most likely a bad idea.
Note: Win odds and estimated national pick popularity data below may change between publication time and kickoff time. If you want to see the latest numbers, our product updates multiple times per day.
[Editor’s Update: The same five teams are still in the write-up below, but the dnumbers in this post have been revised to reflect current pick popularity and odds as of Friday afternoon]
Most favorites are overrated by the public, but the team below is more fairly valued in Week 2. You should think twice about picking against them, not because we think they are a lock to win (we certainly don’t), but because other games offer more compelling upset pick opportunities.
(By the way, please don’t be that person in your pool who picks against the Patriots or the Ravens in Week 2. Given how ridiculously high New England’s win probability is as an 18-point favorite, that would just be silly given that the same percentage of pick’em players — 97% — is picking Carolina, only a 7-point favorite, to beat Tampa Bay. If you want to get all crazy, at least do yourself a favor and pick the Bucs.)
LA Rams (vs. New Orleans)
The Rams and Saints played in the NFC Championship Game a year ago, and apparently a good portion of the public expects the Saints to get revenge on the road this week. 54% of pick’em pool players are picking the Rams to win at home, a rate that is in line with LAR’s win odds as a 2-point favorite.
It’s always hard to decode the public’s view of a game, but there doesn’t seem to be any smoking gun coming out of last week that would lead the public to more fairly assess the Rams’ chances here, compared to how it typically overrates favorites. Los Angeles won on the road at Carolina by the exact margin expected by the 3-point closing spread. The Saints, meanwhile, as much larger 6.5-point home favorites, trailed Houston for much of Monday Night’s game and barely survived on a last-second 58-yard field goal.
Again, if you are dead-set on picking an underdog in this risk range this week, it’s better to go with a different one such as the Falcons over the Eagles. Atlanta is also a 2-point underdog, yet twice as many pick’em players (46%) have the similarly risky Saints pulling the upset compared to the Falcons (23%).
Week 2 features a few teams that the public is picking at a lower rate than their chance to win. These type of teams are as close as you can get to “no brainer picks” in NFL pick’em contests, since both win odds and value are on your side.
Pittsburgh (vs. Seattle)
The Steelers lost by 30 in the prime time Sunday Night game against New England, while Seattle (at home) barely squeaked by Cincinnati. While the Steelers’ offense showcased their struggles to a national audience, the Seahawks did not embarrass themselves in front of quite so many people watching on TV.
Yes, Pittsburgh looked utterly awful. But going against the team that finished dead last in yards allowed last season, Seattle managed only 233 total yards (the 4th-lowest total of last week). The Bengals also out-gained the Seahawks by nearly 200 yards. In short, Seattle got significantly outplayed last week as well; the Seahawks just happened to survive with a lucky win.
In this battle of opening week disappointments, Pittsburgh was favored by 3.5 points in the betting markets at post time, with implied win odds a bit under 63%. Our models are a bit less optimistic, giving the Steelers about 60% win odds.
Still, with the public picking Pittsburgh at a very similar 58% clip, this is not the game where you want to think upset pick. By betting odds, Pittsburgh is actually being underrated by the public, which is rare for a favorite of this magnitude.
For comparison, the Tennessee Titans, as 3-point favorites vs. Indianapolis in Week 2, have similar win odds than Pittsburgh. Yet Tennessee is being picked by a whopping 87% of the public. Compared to picking Seattle, picking Indianapolis offers similar risk but a much higher reward if you’re right.
Buffalo (at NY Giants)
The Bills played at the Meadowlands just a week ago, beating the Jets 17-16 on the road. They return to the same stadium, shared by the Jets and Giants, in Week 2.
Buffalo was able to win its first road game despite four first half turnovers, and came back in the fourth quarter from two scores down. The Bills also soundly won the yardage battle against the Jets. As a result, it looks like bad luck played a role in the slim 1-point win margin.
The Giants, meanwhile, gave up five straight long touchdown drives to the Dallas Cowboys to effectively end the game by the middle of the third quarter, and eventually lost 35-17. New York has been in the bottom quarter of the league in total defense the last two seasons, and at least for Week 1, that trend did not change. The Giants allowed 470 yards to Dallas, and New York is now 31st in our NFL predictive power ratings.
The public is siding with New York in this one, picking the Giants 56% of the time. By our current ratings, Buffalo is 3.6 points better than New York on a neutral field and should still be the favorite even after home field advantage is included. The betting markets agree, making Buffalo a 2-point favorite. Pick the Bills, and you’re getting a favorite at an underdog price.
All upset picks are not created equal. If you’re going to make a gamble on an underdog, you need to make sure that the potential reward — that is, how much your odds to win your pool will increase if your gamble pays off — is as big as possible. Take a bunch of extra risk on a super trendy upset pick, and the joke is on you.
The two picks below are definitely not appropriate for all pools. If you’re in a smaller, season-long pool with lots of games left, they’re probably not worth the risk.
However, if you’re in a single-week pool with a larger number of entries, or if you only care about winning weekly prizes in your season-long pool, or if you’re just feeling lucky, these highly unpopular underdogs with decent chances to win present compelling cases.
Detroit (vs. LA Chargers)
Detroit was an up-and-down team a year ago, putting up some highs (dominating the Patriots at home) and lows (getting blown out by the Jets). The Lions managed to showcase both sides of that split personality in the 2019 opener.
For most of the game, they dominated but did not put away Arizona. The Cardinals only had 100 total yards in the first three quarters, and Detroit built a 24-6 lead. But then, the Arizona offense got going in the fourth quarter and came all the way back. It ended in an overtime tie.
Similarly, the Chargers were unable to close out the Colts in regulation despite having a 24-9 fourth quarter lead. That game also went to overtime, but LAC was able to win the coin toss and drive for a touchdown to win the game. It could have just as easily gone the other way.
The Chargers are the slight favorite in this game, and the line has actually moved down from 2.5 points to 1.5 points by Friday in the betting markets, but the public is picking the Chargers at an extremely high rate (89%) for a less-than-field-goal favorite. That gives Detroit the biggest positive differential between win odds and pick popularity in all of Week 2.
To put the relative value in perspective, Detroit has about the same chance to pull off an upset as the Giants this week, but the Giants are over five times as popular an upset pick. If you want to take a moderate gamble to differentiate your picks from the crowd, Detroit is a great choice.
Denver (vs. Chicago)
Denver, also a strong value pick last week, closed out Week 1 with a dud of a performance against Oakland on the road, losing 24-16. A closer look at the numbers, though, shows a game that was virtually even in yards and first downs for both teams. The Raiders went an unsustainable 10 of 14 on third downs against Denver, including a 3rd-and-8 conversion at the two-minute warning that sealed the victory.
Meanwhile, Chicago opened the week with an offensive thud, managing only three points in a home loss to Green Bay. QB Mitch Trubisky struggled in the opener, and the Bears finished with more than twice as many penalty yards as rushing yards. But that game was on Thursday night, so perhaps the Bears’ struggles are not quite so fresh in the public’s mind.
Former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is making his home head coaching debut with Denver against his old team. It will be interesting to see how he game plans against Trubisky, and what surprises Chicago head coach Matt Nagy throws in against his former coordinator.
Chicago is a very popular pick here, with 80% of pick’em entries nationwide taking the Bears. But they are only a slight favorite, and both the betting lines (Denver is +2.5) and our models put the Broncos’ win odds in the 44-45% range. That’s solid differentiation potential for a team with close to a 50/50 chance to win.
Our custom betting trends tool goes back to the 1985 season, and Denver has the highest home winning percentage of any franchise over that period (70.6% winning percentage at home). Denver’s storied home field advantage is almost certainly priced into the betting lines in an accurate way, but perhaps the Monday Night Football loss is causing the public to underweight it.
Once you know the best value opportunities of Week 2, you can typically increase your odds to win your pool by making educated gambles on them. Perhaps you bump the number of confidence points you assign to a value pick like Pittsburgh or Buffalo. Maybe you take even more risk and pick a team like Detroit or Denver to win.
There are a lot of decisions to make, and not all of them make sense for your specific pool.
Our solution to winning more pick’em pools was to build technology to do all the heavy lifting. We developed a product that customizes weekly pick recommendations based on the strategy dynamics of your specific NFL pick’em pool, all driven by research-based algorithms.
It leverages betting market odds and objective game predictions, aggregates national pick popularity data to project your opponents’ picks, and adjusts your weekly recommended picks for factors like your pool’s scoring system and format, prize structure, and your position in the standings.
It also covers game winner or spread-based contests; confidence pools; and pools with end-of-season prizes, weekly prizes, or both. In fact, it’s so advanced that we had to come up with an appropriately technical, massively creative name for it: Football Pick’em Picks.
If you learned something from this article, we encourage you to check it out.
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