NFL Office Pool Strategy: Do’s & Don’ts For Making Smarter Picks (Part 1)

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NFL and college football pick’em contests are a great complement to fantasy football. Who doesn’t love yet another way to test your NFL knowledge against your friends and co-workers, or even in a large public contest offering serious prizes?

The good news is, football office pools can also offer fantastic profit opportunities — as long as you know the “Do’s” and “Don’ts” of smart picking strategy. 

At TeamRankings, we’ve researched football pool strategy for the better part of a decade. In this two-part series for the Fantasy Footballers, we outline what it takes to increase your edge in football pick’em pools, based on objective analysis and real-world results.

Every year, our subscribers put these strategies into action. And last season, 80% of them reported winning at least one prize in a football pick’em pool.

To kick things off, we’re going to start with three “Do’s” in terms of NFL office pool strategy. Our next post will cover three “Don’ts.” 


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DO: Understand the Nature of an NFL Pick’em Contest

In football pick’em pools, you don’t play against a “house,” and you don’t have to achieve a certain score to win. The only way to win is to get a higher score than everyone else in your pool.

As a result, the competitive dynamic in pick’em pools is much like playing in a fantasy football league.

In fantasy, smart owners adapt their weekly decisions based on factors like their opponent and scoring system. For instance, are you the favorite or underdog in the current week? The answer might impact your decision to start or sit a quarterback on the same team (in real life) as your opponent’s best receiver.

In short, there is no universal “best starting lineup” for your fantasy team.

Likewise, in NFL pick’em contests, there is no universal “best pick” for each game. For instance, Kansas City, as a 3.5-point favorite, is likely to beat Jacksonville in Week 1. But depending on various factors we highlight in this post, underdog Jacksonville still might be your better play.

DO: Recognize That The Size Of Your NFL Office Pool Matters

You would use a different strategy to win a small local fantasy league than you would to try to win a big contest like the Megalabowl.

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In a smaller fantasy league, consistently decent scores and a bit of luck in the playoffs often give you a great shot to win. So you generally want your team to have a high floor in terms of its weekly scoring potential.

On the other hand, to have a legitimate chance to win the Megalabowl (or similarly, to win a very large DFS contest), you usually need to adopt a more unique, boom-or-bust oriented strategy. With many opponents to beat, it often pays to take some extra drafting risks — e.g. by picking more under-the-radar players with breakout potential, or by stacking a QB and his receiver(s) — so that your team has a higher scoring ceiling if things happen to break the right way.

The same dynamic applies to pool size in NFL office pools. We’ll use an overly simplified, three-game football pool to illustrate this point.

The Van Halen Pool

Eddie Van Halen and Sammy Hagar and are playing in an NFL pick’em pool this year, picking straight-up game-winners.

Their pool is a short one, though, and only includes three Week 1 games (approximate win odds in parentheses, based on point spreads at publication time):

  • Seattle (80%) vs. Cincinnati (20%)
  • New England (70%) vs. Pittsburgh (30%)
  • LA Rams (60%) at Carolina (40%) 

Eddie and Sammy both have very different picking strategies, though:

  • Eddie is steady and likes to take all the favorites (Seattle, New England, LA Rams)
  • Sammy likes to take risks, both with his driving and his picking and takes all the underdogs (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Carolina)

Who’s more likely to get the higher score? Steady Eddie is, of course. Assuming each correct game winner is worth 1 point, Eddie’s ultra-conservative strategy is expected score is 2.1 points. Sammy is only expected to score 0.9 points.

Best Strategy For A Small Pick’em Pool

Now let’s imagine that David Lee Roth and Gary Cherone are joining Sammy and Eddie to make it a 4-person pool. These new players take more of a moderated strategy, each picking two favorites and one upset (Diamond Dave likes the Steelers, Gary likes Carolina).

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We’ll spare you all the math and cut to the conclusion. In this very small pool, ultra-conservative Eddie is still the most likely winner. By picking a grand total of zero upsets, he let his opponents shoot themselves in the foot by taking unnecessary risks for such a small pool.

Eddie wins the pool if New England and the LA Rams prevail (which should happen about 42% of the time) and it doesn’t even matter what happens with Seattle.

Importantly, even if one of the other three players had also picked all the favorites too, staying ultra-conservative in this tiny pool still results in the highest expected winnings.

Best Strategy For A Large Pick’em Pool

However, in a larger pool — let’s say, of four hundred players — things change.

There’s only a 2.5% chance that wild Sammy hits on all three of his upset picks. Based on pick popularity estimates, though, you can safely assume that only a handful of players (at most) would make similarly “crazy” picks. Most of the public tends to pick like Eddie, Gary, or Dave.

In big pools, players like steady Eddie or Gary will still, on average, end up with a higher score than wild Sammy. The problem is, when they do, many other players who picked like Eddie and Gary also end up with great scores. That outcome deals a big blow to expected profits in a big pool, compared to a riskier but much more differentiated picking strategy.

In a very large pool, Sammy’s “crazy” strategy actually delivers higher expected pool winnings over the long term. In short, pool size matters in determining the picking strategy that maximizes your edge.

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DO: Consider How Your Opponents Are Likely To Pick 

The Van Halen pool highlights another important factor in pick’em strategy. Many pool contestants just make their picks based on the team they think will win. They spend a few minutes trying to figure out which team is better and which upset picks they like, make their calls and move on. 

To maximize your odds of winning a pool, you need to graduate to the next level of analysis, and also consider what your opponents are thinking. The fantasy football analogy here is the average draft position (ADP) data. ADP allows you to make a general forecast of how your opponents are likely to act in a draft and plan your own draft strategy accordingly.

Pick popularity data serves a similar purpose in NFL pick’em contests. At TeamRankings, we monitor picking trends at a variety of national NFL office pool hosting sites to gain an understanding of how the general public is likely to pick each game, and we use that data to identify the best and worst value picking opportunities each week.

In some pools, just like in fantasy drafts against your friends, knowing the specific tendencies of the other contestants can give you even further opportunities to exploit.

If you are in an NFL pool with a bunch of Steelers fans, for example, you can make an educated guess that every week, Pittsburgh will be a more popular pick in your pool than they will be nationwide. That informed hunch should lead you to give extra consideration to picking against them.

Winning Isn’t Only About Getting More Picks Right

Why does pick popularity matter? Because as we alluded to earlier, the only way to win an NFL pick’em pool is to earn points that your opponents miss. The best-case outcome happens when you make a pick in a matchup, and all of your opponents happen to pick the other team, and you get the pick right. If that happens, your entry goes shooting up the standings.

On the other hand, if you make a pick that everyone else in your pool also gets right, your odds to win the pool haven’t gone up a bit. The fact that you got a pick right conveys the illusion that you’re doing well in the pool, but you’re actually no better off than you were before the game.

In short, you need to weigh the potential reward of every pick you make along with the risk. And the potential reward of getting a pick right is directly proportional to how many of your opponents made the same pick.

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Better Upset Pick: Atlanta or Jacksonville?

Let’s come back to the example we gave in the introduction. In Week 1 of 2019, Kansas City is a 3.5-point favorite at Jacksonville. Meanwhile, Minnesota is favored by four over Atlanta. 

According to the very reliable betting markets, that means Minnesota is more likely to win its opening game than Kansas City. But nationally, as of publication time, 94% of pool entries were picking Kansas City to win, versus 73% of entries picking Minnesota.

Given those differences, if you are dead set on making an upset pick on either of these two games in an NFL pick’em pool, it almost certainly makes more sense to pick Jacksonville than Atlanta. The Jaguars offer both less risk and a higher reward if you get the pick right; you’ll gain ground on 93% of your opponents if the Jags win, as opposed to only 73% if Atlanta wins.

Hopefully, these strategy tips will help you craft better NFL office pool picks in 2019. If you’d like to read more, here’s a link to Part 2 of this article: The “Don’ts” of NFL Pick’em Pool Strategy.

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The TeamRankings Solution

Figuring out the weekly NFL pick’em pool picks that give you the best chance to win your pool isn’t easy. You certainly don’t have to give it a ton of thought, especially if you think it sucks all the fun out of the process.

But if you want to give yourself the best chance to win, well, you’re probably competing against some skilled players who understand and apply these advanced strategy concepts. There’s simply no way around the fact that maximizing your edge in an NFL office pool takes a lot of data and a lot of math.

Our solution was to build technology to do all the heavy lifting. Our Football Pick’em Picks product aggregates the data you need to evaluate both the risk and reward of every potential NFL pick. And based on data about your pool’s size, rules, and payout structure, it uses sophisticated algorithms to customize a complete list of weekly pick recommendations.

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FantasyFootballers readers can get free premium access to TeamRankings for NFL Week 1, including all game predictions plus picks for your NFL survivor pools and pick’em contests: Get Free Week 1 Picks

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