NFL Pick’em Advice Week 9: Have To Play It Safe Again, So Let’s Talk About Confidence Points

This is our weekly column that provides advice for NFL Pick’em contests. We will cover game winner and against the spread (ATS) contests, and touch on confidence points. If you are new to our advice columns, I’d suggest checking out our series on College Football Pick’em contests to get a flavor for our general strategy.

In short, we advise searching for value over the public consensus. This often means picking teams that are small win-odds favorites, but for whatever reason are not being chosen by the public. Or for a more aggressive player, it may mean taking underdogs that are severely undervalued by the public. It is vital to understand the dynamics of the pool you are in. Larger pools may require a more aggressive strategy.

Week 8 in Review:

With so many large favorites last week, we did not see any value opportunities to highlight. Our Game Winners strategies picked 9 out of 13 winners (Conservative) and 8 out of 13 winners (Aggressive and Very Aggressive), respectively. Baltimore and the New York Giants were nearly upset as big favorites at home, but both came back to win. New Orleans was not as fortunate against the Rams. This was our biggest miss last week.

On the ATS side, our Aggressive and Very Aggressive strategies did well last week, as both yielded 8 out of 13 winners. The positions of our various strategies in’s Pick’em Contests are summarized in the table below:

 ESPN Game Winners PercentileESPN ATS Percentile
Conservative Strategy98.398.9
Aggressive Strategy97.496.5
Very Aggressive Strategy83.386.7

Week 9 Advice:

Last week, we went deeper into the theory of placement and strategy selection in Pick’em Pools, establishing a rough rule of thumb that being down more than one game per week (i.e. ten games behind with eight weeks to go) is a signal to switch to a more aggressive strategy. We received some questions about applying that rule to Confidence Point-based games, so we will address that below.

But first, this week again we see lots of large favorites (spread bigger than a touchdown) where the public percentages match our win odds. Again, we see almost no opportunities for smart value plays, other than picking Tennessee at home over the Bengals (-3 Vegas spread, 63% TR win odds, 50% public picking percentage). Here are links to our full Game Winners and ATS Pool picks.

Confidence Point Strategy

Compared to the straight pick’em that we talked about last week, the confidence point setup is more nuanced. We could gain (or lose) one game per week on our competitors, but not gain much ground if we did not assign high confidence to that extra game. In general, you maximize your expected confidence points per week by ordering your teams by the percentage chance you believe they have to win (i.e. most likely gets the most points), but when you are behind, you need to maximize your ability to make up ground.

This may sound exceedingly simple, but it is vital to remember that you get zero points if you do not pick the winner. Additionally, the people who lead your pool are probably going to stick to picking favorites. This means a more aggressive strategy cannot just be picking middling favorites at the top of your confidence point list. Sure it may be that only 50 percent of the public is picking a team with 65 percent win odds; it is likely that the people you are looking to make up ground on are in the 50 percent picking the favorite.

Assume you assign that team a high confidence point value, bumping down other teams that are bigger favorites. Also assume that all of these teams win. Congratulations, you have got a bunch of points. But have you gained on your opponents? If they have simply picked the larger favorites first and still chosen the middling favorites that win, you have not. And you have assumed the risk of making a smaller favorite your largest confidence point team.

Instead, a more aggressive strategy should be based around selecting teams that are not likely being chosen by your direct competitors. This means assuming the risk of slight underdogs or undervalued teams.

So Just How Many Points Behind Can You Be Before You Need To Gamble?

Our Conservative strategy has yielded 690 confidence points, which translates to 85 confidence points per week, or roughly 8.4 confidence points per correct selection. This roughly represents the top of most pools right now (97th percentile).

If we apply our one game extra per week rule of thumb, it at first appears that one could be 76 points behind right now and not have to switch to a more aggressive strategy. But unless you are supremely lucky or confident, the marginal game you gain will not be above your average correct confidence point score. This is because there will be lots of collinearity at the top of the confidence point pool–everyone will select the same favorites. Instead, a more realistic assumption is that the extra game you gain will net you roughly 6 points per week, somewhat less than the average correct selection.

Thus for confidence point pools, our rule of thumb for switching to a more aggressive strategy is being roughly 6 points times the number of weeks remaining behind. Obviously if your pool pays out more places than first, you can raise that number.