The Patriots lost last week, taking out a substantial portion of survivor pools (48 percent) by my count, including all five of my entries. (I've bought back into one that allows it so as to have a live stake as I write this column). Several useful things can be learned from this:
(1) There's no such thing as a lock in the NFL;
(2) Fading the most commonly-picked team results in a good payout, i.e., those who avoided the Patriots this week have far more pool equity than those who picked the Pats would have had if the Pats won and say the Giants or Texans had lost; and
(3) The Vegas odds (and my odds) making the Pats such a heavy favorite were wrong.
I want to make two comments on this before turning to this week's slate. First, it's odd that I lost with the chalk because I so often fade it in favor of the better payout. But because the Pats (according to Vegas' and my own odds) were such big favorites to win, I felt the greater payout from the Giants didn't justify the what I took to be the added risk. I stand by this process 100 percent.
Second, while my process was good, my assessment of the teams was not. This wasn't a game where the Pats completely dominated, and the Cardinals got lucky. In fact, the Pats were lucky even to be in the situation to attempt the game-winning field goal. And even if you thought the Pats outplayed them generally, it certainly wasn't by the margin that the odds implied. Simply put, it looks very much like my 89/11 framing was wrong.
I make this point not so much to take responsibility for other people's pool deaths – though I'm sure some at least relied on this advice – but to distance myself from a weak tendency in our industry to blame losses on bad luck. A poker player who shoves his chips in as a 90/10 favorite can lose on the river and justifiably curse his bad luck, but in poker the odds of making a hand are knowable with certainty. The cards are always the same, and we can replicate the situation as many times as needed to figure it out precisely. In the NFL, we are still only estimating, based on inexact precedent, often incorrectly.
There was one numbers-based site that said of the Giants-Patriots first Super Bowl that it was one of the most lopsided match-ups in history and gave the Giants something like a 13 percent chance to win it. When the Giants pulled it out, they addressed their error by implying that the 13 percent had simply happened, and that they weren't wrong since 13 percent can always happen. But if you watched that game, it wasn't as though the Giants got two kick return TDs and a blocked punt. It was a tight game. The right response was to admit they were wrong, and that number crunching – which is always based on the past – is sometimes behind the curve, particularly when teams like the 2007 Giants make a quantum leap in a short time.
Likewise, I was behind the curve here as my numbers on this game were off. As a result, I'm a donor for most of my pools this year (though I intend to recoup that investment by winning the re-buy one).
That out of the way, let's take a look at the Week 3 slate:
Home Team in CAPS
* according to OfficeFootballPools.com
** average of the two moneylines
Looking at these numbers, the Bears seem like the play to me. The Saints have a slightly better chance of winning (79 to 78 percent), but 36 percent of pools are on New Orleans vs. 17 on Chicago. In other words, according to Vegas, the Saints have a 21 percent chance of losing, while Chicago's is 22. That's a ratio of 1.05 to 1.
If we imagine our hypothetical 100-person pool at $10 a head, then the payout for taking the Saints if the Bears lose is to have 17 people knocked out (83 left) versus the payout for taking the Bears if the Saints lose (36 knocked out, 64 left).
With 83 left (Saints win, Bears lose), one's equity goes from $10 to $12.05. With 64 left (Bears win, Saints lose), one's equity is $15.63. The ratio of $15.63 to $12.05 is 1.3 to 1. In other words, you are very well compensated for taking on ever-so-slightly more (1.05 to 1) risk.
1. Chicago Bears - I know the Rams have played well so far this year, nearly winning in Detroit and beating the Redskins at home, but I like Chicago to be focused with 10 days to contemplate an awful showing in Green Bay. The Bears defense is plenty stout, and I expect Jay Cutler to bounce back at home. I give the Bears a 79 percent chance to win this game.
2. Dallas Cowboys - Like the Bears, I expect Dallas to recover from a bad road loss now that they're at home. And like the Rams, the Bucs are an improved team, but won't be quite up to the task of beating a focused Cowboys team in their own building. I give the Cowboys a 76 percent chance to win this game.
3. San Francisco 49ers - They're arguably the best team in the NFL, and while I'm loathe to take an physical, outdoor, grass-field team on the road in a dome, there's a vast disparity between the quality of these two teams. I give the 49ers a 77 percent chance to win this game.
New Orleans Saints - They were unbeatable at home last year, but they've already lost to the Redskins in the Superdome and couldn't hang with Carolina last week on the road. The Chiefs will be just as desperate as the Saints not to start 0-3, especially because unlike New Orleans they won't have an excuse.
Pittsburgh Steelers - I don't think they're as sound on defense as the Niners right now, so I'm less comfortable backing them on the road.