NFL contest strategies for the 2023 season
Football betting contests are all the rage these days, including big ones like the DraftKings Pro Football Survivor and Pro Football Pick ‘Em, as well as the Circa Million, Circa Survivor, and Westgate SuperContest. Copycat contests have also sprung up at other sportsbooks and are also run by individuals using the same or similar rules.
Contest strategies can vary because everybody has a different way of trying to achieve the same goal. For the purposes of this strategy piece, I have split the tips and tricks into two categories - Pick ‘Em and Survivor. You may have a different approach that you like, but I’ll try to cover the bases on the main ones and shed some light on how to give yourself the best chance at cashing.
Pick ‘Em Contests
Think Circa Million, Westgate SuperContest, or Pro Football Pick ‘Em here. These are contests in which you have to pick X number of games against the spread based on the rules that are provided and the lines that are available. The vast majority of contests like these are going to post lines on the same day and they will not move. They are referred to as “static” lines.
Here are some contest strategies in this type of pool:
Play the “Stale” Lines
This is a really popular contest strategy. The NFL betting market is the most efficient one there is, so line moves should be taken seriously. If a contest line is -2.5 and the betting market line is -3.5, that creates a really good opportunity to take a favorable position in a contest setting because 3 is such an important number. The same is true of a number like 7, if a line is +7.5 in a contest and moves to +7 or +6.5.
Sometimes you’ll get an even more obvious example like when a quarterback gets hurt on Friday or is ruled out. For example, if Joe Burrow were to be ruled out in Week 1, that line (currently Bengals -1 at DraftKings) could swing to Browns -4 or -4.5, if not higher. If that announcement came down on Friday, it would be really hard not to take Cleveland with that much line value. Those opportunities will come up throughout the season for sure.
Fade the Consensus
A lot of people believe that the public is largely flipping coins when it comes to betting. They’re going to win 50% of the time and lose 50% of the time. If you can isolate the sides that will be the most popular from a groupthink standpoint in a contest, it could be good to go against those teams.
It can create a two-point swing in a contest where there are a finite number of picks and a set number of chances to earn points. In something like the Circa Million, the maximum number of picks is 90, so these potential two-point swings can be extremely valuable. In larger pools, this could be a more useful strategy because there is more incentive in being creative and different because you can’t just follow the masses and win all the same games they do and lose all the same games they do.
In smaller pools, this could potentially be less effective because it’s more about racking up as many points as possible and not worrying so much about what others are doing.
Play Only Half-Point Lines
There is a lot of game theory that goes into contest participation. One element of that mindset is to only play games where a push is not possible. A push isn’t a loss, but it isn’t a win either. With most contest rules, a push is worth a half-point. There is often more equity in taking the chance at full points, which can be guaranteed by playing games that have a half-point line and cannot tie.
The reason for this is what I mentioned above. In larger pools with a lot of entrants, a half-point isn’t going to get you very far because others are also getting a half-point for being on the other side. Also, you’ll get jumped by people who are getting full points. Sure, you’ll move ahead of people that got zero points on games, but the juice isn’t always worth the squeeze.
It is also important to point out that the time of year matters with these contests. If you need to jump over a lot of people later in the year, taking more chances is essential. That might mean picking some bad teams or playing only half-point lines in the spirit of game theory.
Survivor contests have really increased in popularity over the last few seasons because the concept is really simple. Just pick a team to win every week, but once you use them, you lose them. Some Survivor pools have wrinkles like picking against the spread or picking against a team only once, but the most prominent version just requires picking a team to win straight up week in and week out.
As simple as the concept itself is, the execution is not. Big favorites can and will lose and we’ll see more than a few take out large swaths of the Survivor field during the upcoming season.
Here are some options for this type of contest:
Create a Blueprint for the Season
Some contestants like to have the entire year planned out because you can only use each team once. That might mean staying away from division games or having to use a road team, so you study the schedule to find the best options on a weekly basis. Contestants will start with, say, Kansas City and find the game where they are going to be the largest favorite. At first glance, that looks like Week 3 at home against the Bears.
The Eagles host Arizona in Week 17. The Bills host the Buccaneers in Week 8 on a Thursday night. The Cowboys also host the Rams in Week 8. Decisions, decisions!
Mapping out which teams will be available and when is something that a lot of Survivor contestants will do so that they have a plan. This comes from the mindset of needing to go 18-0 (or better if your contest has a Thanksgiving or Christmas wrinkle) to win and will be a route that many choose to take.
Just Go 1-0
The other primary option is to just try to go 1-0 for 18 straight weeks and take whatever the best pick is that week and not worry about saving a team for later. What difference does it make if the Eagles will be -17 against the Cardinals in Week 17 if you don’t make it that far? Why save a team if you need them right now?
The other advantage to this mindset is that holding off on the Eagles until Week 17 is all well and good, but what if Jalen Hurts gets injured or if the Eagles don’t need to play anybody that week because of the playoff picture?
The only game that matters is the one coming up that weekend. Somebody could always get hurt or something could happen that makes a team much more attractive than they would have looked at the start of the season.
Also, you have to pick 18 (or more) of the 32 teams to win, so being able to “sneak” a lesser opponent through could create a huge advantage. That’s true of both the 18-0 mindset and the 1-0 mindset, but sometimes it’s easier to make that call while living in the present. On the other hand, you could get caught on a week where there aren’t many big favorites and have to take a weak team because you didn’t plan accordingly.
Avoid the No. 1 Pick
Upsets do happen. Remember back in 2021 when the Jaguars won 9-6 over the Bills as more than a two-touchdown underdog? How about when the Jets beat the Rams as a 17-point underdog back in 2020? How about the Dolphins in Week 17 over the Patriots getting 16 points back in 2019?
It is rare, but we’ll probably get at least one underdog of 14+ points that wins this season. Over the last 850 games, about 14% of underdogs getting 10.5 or more points have won outright. Some Survivor players will shy away from the most obvious pick in hopes that the team slips up and goes down and a large chunk of the field gets eliminated. Not only could that mean staying alive while others falter, but it could also mean saving that team for a future game.
There is risk involved to say the least, but the reward could be really nice, especially if you like another team nearly as much. There is risk in each and every one of these strategies and maybe taking a hybrid approach is the way to go, but it all depends on the individual, the type of contest, the stakes, and the prize amounts.