If you're a fan of the mental game of football, you might be using the old Sandwich Game Theory when you make your NFL picks. Now that's what we call betting the spread.
A long, long time ago, well before the age of Moneyball, football bettors obsessed over the mindset of players. Would they perform better in revenge games? What about road trips to towns with too much nightlife, or not enough? Lots of bettors still take these angles into consideration when they make their NFL picks, but just like phrenology and ESP, they don't seem to hold much water these days.
Here's an oldie but goodie: the Sandwich Game. Let's say your favorite team is playing a difficult opponent one week, then an easy opponent, then another difficult one. The Sandwich Game Theory tells us that your team will underperform against the easy opponent. Emotions will be drained from the first difficult game, and your team will be looking ahead to the following week's tough matchup. Just fade the favorites, and presto, instant profit.
Now It's Time for a Letdown
It makes sense at one level. Assuming you're not a psychopath, it's easy enough to put yourself in the player's shoes and imagine losing focus against a cupcake opponent. And you can always find examples where teams got tripped up in these situations. Here's one: Last year's Denver Broncos had a tough road game against the Kansas City Chiefs (–1) in Week 13. They won that game, came back home to Mile High, and couldn't cover against the Buffalo Bills (+9). One week later, Denver covered another divisional road game against the pesky San Diego Chargers (+4).
All well and good, but it's just as easy to find teams that don't honk their Sandwich games. Exactly one year earlier, the Broncos won a road game against the Chiefs (+5), then crushed the Tennessee Titans as 13-point home faves before losing to the Chargers (+10 away). All right, the NFL odds weren't as bullish on Kansas City and San Diego that year, but those were tough matchups in retrospect.
Which brings us to the main problem with the Sandwich Game Theory: It works a lot better looking backward than it does forward. Of course we can retrofit explanations to past events, but how predictive is the explanation for future results? I've sent my research assistants into the field to drum up some answers – okay, I used Google – and I've found zero data to back up the reliability of the Sandwich Game Theory.
That's not to say there isn't any value in it. If you've got a football pick that looks strong when it comes to market value and the clash of styles, and it also happens to fit the Sandwich model, then you can rightly feel that much more confident about your bet. However, if you're allowing this betting angle to dictate your handicapping, you might as well be trying to turn lead into gold.