NFL Sandwich Game Theory

In a vacuum, no one NFL game will be viewed as more important than another for participating teams. Players will always go at full bore, no matter the stakes, because that's what they are paid to do. But we know better than to think we live in a bubble. The world of professional sports doesn't work like that, and yet, despite bettors knowing this, human error and complacency as it pertains to athletes can be difficult to account for and plan around.

What Is The Sandwich Theory?

The crux of the Sandwich Game Theory is easy enough to understand. Bettors are operating under the belief that teams will not always be at their best, either by design or due to certain circumstances. They look to work around this by plucking out seemingly innocuous games on the schedule that constitute "trap contests"—matchups squads in question would usually win or cover, but likely won't because of other more important clashes on the surrounding docket.

These games are not especially hard to spot. They will typically be sandwiched between a pair of contests versus divisional rivals or opposing powerhouses that can pose a direct roadblock in the Super Bowl. Here's what a theoretical trap game would look like for a Philadelphia Eagles team trying to win the NFC East division:

  • Week 8: at New York Giants
  • Week 9: vs Cleveland Browns
  • Week 10: vs Dallas Cowboys

Looking at this hypothetical schedule, which game are the Eagles less likely to approach with the utmost seriousness? It would of course be their home tilt against the Cleveland Browns, a team that is not in their division and does not directly impeded their path to the NFC East title.

Some bettors will then treat that matchup as either taboo or a chance to wager against Philadelphia. Steering clear of it altogether is a good idea if you only bet the moneyline; don't leave yourself open to the possibility of the Eagles losing. If you are a spreads wagerer, you might consider investing in the Browns, as you're not explicitly saying the Eagles won't win; you're instead predicting they just won't play as well as expected.

The Sandwich Theory isn't strictly limited to these three-game samples. They can come in all shapes and sizes. Using the Eagles as an example again, you might see something like this:

  • Week 12: at San Francisco 49ers
  • Week 13: at Seattle Seahawks
  • Week 14: at Washington Redskins

Can you identify the trap game in this instance? It's the final matchup with the Washington Redskins. We're again dealing with a three-game sampling, but you'll notice the real danger lies at the tail end of the stretch rather than the middle.

See, in this scenario, the Eagles are wrapping up an extensive stint away from home, which can always incite some sort of complacency and below-level effort due to exhaustion. They're also flying across the country, into Washington, after spending numerous weeks on the West Coast. That only adds to risk involved.

If you were betting on their Week 14 date with the Redskins, then you would consider investing in Washington's spread or moneyline. If you're mostly just unsure about how the Eagles will play and have no faith in the Redskins, then you would avoid this game altogether.

Look for similar quirks in a team's schedule in the event you wish to embrace the Sandwich Game Theory. Maybe a team is playing four straight games against prospective postseason squads and then battling one of the league's worst units in that fifth week. Or perhaps they are facing off against an clearly inferior opponent the week before they enjoy their bye, in which case they may be more mentally checked out than usual.

Anything out of the ordinary, any set of circumstances that seems as if it could result in a team's less than best effort, encourages you to indulge the Sandwich Game Theory by passing on a game altogether or making what would be the anti-consensus bet in any other situation.

Problems With The Sandwich Game Theory

Clear and ever-present issues exist when putting the Sandwich Game Theory into practice.

Most obviously, not all teams react the same way to lulls in the schedule, conclusions to long road trips, games leading into bye weeks, etc. You really need to have a feel for the team you're betting on and their personnel. That makes the Sandwich Game Theory ideal for those who consistently follow and gamble on the same squad(s), while it's not really a stellar approach for those who just seek to fly in and capitalize on one-off opportunities.

Even when you have intimate knowledge on the team you're investing in or against, the Sandwich Game Theory is far from a flawless stratagem. You also need to gauge the stakes of the game at hand.

Yes, the team to which you're applying this blueprint won't have anything real on the line, but their opponent might be in the same boat. Recalling our Eagles divisional sparrings from above, there's no guarantee the sandwiched game will incite peak engagement from the Browns. They may be entering a trap tilt themselves. Or they may simply not be trying to win games.

That's the other, oft-unspoken danger of this process: It doesn't account for motives of the opposing teams. The later in the season you go, the more likely it is that a trap game will come up against a squad that is actively trying to lose and increase its draft position.

Team motives can backfire when looking specifically at the outfit you're monitoring as well. If the Eagles are chasing an NFC East division title, a game against the Browns is not necessarily meaningless relative to matchups with the Giants and Cowboys. Both of those teams may have destroyed the Browns, which would mean the Eagles need their game with Cleveland as well in order to preserve their standing in certain tiebreaker scenarios.

Employing the Sandwich Game Theory is fine, don't get us wrong. Just make sure you're not haphazardly singling out potential contests in which to implement. You need to have a good hold on your primary team of focus, in addition to the potential stakes tied to the clash for both sides, right down to playoff chases and draft-pick pursuits. 

Valuable Alternatives To The Sandwich Game Theory

Since gaining particular knowledge about a team and their play style is so important to the Sandwich Game Theory, you have the ability to explore other avenues that accomplish the same thing in more specific fashion.

Rather than just identifying potential letdown contests on the schedule, also look up the record of your team under similar circumstances for that same season.

If the Eagles are facing a squad with a winning record, see how they've fared against those teams thus far. If their opponent is coming off a bye of their own, check to see what that team's record coming out of byes is with their current quarterback.

Flipping the script can be just as useful, too. For the Eagles' hypothetical game against the Browns, you should see what Cleveland's record is against opponents above .500—particularly those who play outside their own division.

Make no mistake, this involves more legwork. But diving deeper into the details of a matchup you deem to be a trap game is a more efficient betting mechanism than blindly ascribing to the Sandwich Game Theory without any supporting evidence.

Lessons Learned About The Sandwich Game Theory

  • The Sandwich Game Theory seeks to identify trap games in which teams may not be playing at their best
  • Although the Sandwich Game Theory usually refers to a trap contest snuggled between two high-stakes affairs, it can also be a matchup that comes under other circumstances, such as the end of a long road trip, entering a bye week, etc.
  • Utilizing the Sandwich Game Theory can be valuable when you consistently bet on the same team and have intimate knowledge of their inner workings
  • Understand the stakes for every team involved in a game you identify as a trap contest
  • Consider using the Sandwich Game Theory in conjunction with specific research of the team you are betting on