There’s an old, old joke about two hikers encountering a hungry bear. One is terrified, but the other says, “No problem – I can run really fast.”
The other guy says, “That’s crazy! Bears can run up to 45 miles per hour! You can’t outrun a bear!”
The first grins confidently, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”
The situation is the same with the office football pool. You don’t have to pick all the winning teams, you just have to pick more winning teams than the other folks. And to do that, you need to be thinking about your opponents, the other people playing the pool, not the NFL teams’ opponents.
Your goal is NOT to be the office pigskin prognosticator, the ultimate football guru that knows every stat and the current medical condition of the third string cornerbacks. Your goal is to make money.
So, let’s take a look at your competition: The folks you need to outrun.
Let’s say that someone knows very little about football, or better yet, nothing. It’s a lottery for them and for the purposes of this essay, we’ll call them “cannon fodder.” Sure they might get lucky, but the cards are really stacked against them. Basically, all they do is contribute to the pot. You can ignore them as they are not your competition in the long run.
An important note: Don’t consider all the ladies to be “cannon fodder.” My mom could more than hold her own betting the NFL. The bookies heaved a sigh of relief when she passed away.
Next are the “fans.”
They like football, probably played some back in high school, and think that makes them experts. Just because they know a little about the game doesn’t mean they can figure out who’s gonna win. But these folks’ worst fault is that since they like the game, they have favorite teams and bet on them when they stand no chance of winning to “show their support.” And the other side of the coin are the anti-fans that hate a team and will bet against them every time. They give up a game or so every week betting for or against favorites and loathed. Ignore them because you’ll beat them like a drum over the long haul.
And now the “analysts.”
These are people that can’t get enough of sports. They listen to sports talk radio around the clock. They read every sports column on Earth. And from all this mumbo jumbo, they try to pick the winners. The problem is when you read everything, you are reading a lot stuff from the hometown sports writers who, to keep their jobs, always find something good to say about the home teams. So even though a team has no chance, they can convince themselves that “they just might do it.” They are also not your competition.
And of course, the “gamblers.”
These are the ones that try to pick the upsets. They are the folks that would go to a horse race and pick the 100 to 1-odds horse because they’ll win a lot “when” it wins. But there is a reason that horse is 100 to 1. The “gamblers” will sometimes win, because there are weeks when everyone seems to get upset, but in the long run, they are gonna lose along with everyone else. They are also not your competition.
And finally, the “pros.”
It’s these people, the “pros,” that you have to put the work in to beat. They are consistent and do their homework. And believe me, they do it well. You have to be a better “pro” than they are. That’s not easy, but it’s also obviously not impossible. The reason they can be beat is that despite their pro status, they also suffer to a lesser extent from all the other players’ afflictions: they will beat themselves some of the time. They have favorite teams which might influence their decisions. They sometimes take long shots because “they’ve got a hunch.”
So, how do you win?
You divorce yourself from favorites, divorce yourself from home teams, divorce yourself from all emotions.
And to do that, you turn to the computers and the REAL pros that run them. These are the people that don’t have $5 on the line. They have millions and millions of dollars riding on the outcome of the games. They are the odds makers, the sports books, and the other bookies. My current preferred reference primary source is: https://www.oddsshark.com/nfl/computer-picks
Start by ranking all the games by the “predicted points,” not the point spread. That’s a whole different issue (it’s a beauty contest). Take the four highest differentials and call them the “sure things.” Maybe the “gamblers,” “fans” or “cannon fodders” may bet on the underdogs, and they might get lucky, but in the long run they’re gonna lose.
The reason those four teams are the “sure things” is because the “pros” are going to pick the favorites. So you also pick them. If they get upset, so what. You lose but so do the “pros” so you stay even with them. In essence, you’re now picking 4 less games and your statistical odds have gone up.
In between you’ll have 5 to 8 games depending on the number of byes that week. I’ve found that every time I try to get tricky and follow hunches with these, I end up worse in the long run than just going with the computer picks. So, that’s what I do: go with the point differential favorites. I’ve found that in the long run, I come out about even with the “pros” by doing that.
By the way, make your picks as late as possible. Be the last one to turn in your betting sheet. That way if the star of the highly favored team gets T-boned by a rutabaga truck before the game, you’ll know about it. So will the bookies and they’ll adjust their prediction.
For the bottom four close games, I flip a coin. Literally! If it comes up Heads, I go with the Home team. If it’s Tails, I pick the Travel team. Some weeks you’ll bomb out, some weeks you’ll be back in the pack, but in the long run, you’ll win some pots and do better than break even on your money.
I realize that some (most) of you are thinking that tossing in some totally random picks can’t possibly be an improvement. So, next season make your picks for the office pool as you usually do, but also keep a record of how you’d have done following the computer and random picks scheme. Compare them at the end of the season. Over a full season, I think you’ll be very surprised.