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Did the New York Giants Risk Losing the Game to Cover the Spread?

Last Sunday, the New York Giants played the Chicago Bears in football. The point spread on the game favored the Giants by 1.5 points, meaning that if the Giants won by only one point, those who bet on them would lose.

Having watched the game myself, I was not at all surprised to receive the following e-mail from a fan who prefers to remain anonymous:

Yesterday was the usual Sunday fare, sitting on my couch watching football games that I had bet on while I worked on research. The day had gone in a most familiar way – lost hundred of dollars on the Chiefs +6 against the Chargers, but looked like I was about to win it back with the Raiders +3.5 against the Broncos.

My last game of the day was the Bears +1.5 against the New York Giants. The Bears grabbed an early lead, and things were going pretty well, with a 16-7 advantage midway through the fourth quarter. My 1.5 points looked good, since the worst case scenario looked like a 17-16 Giants win. In which case, I would still win my bet.

The Giants proceeded to score a touchdown with under 7 minutes left. No problem — the Bears will take the next kick-off, chew up several minutes with a few first downs, and, worst case scenario, punt. What actually happened was a three and out, and now the Bears punted to the Giants, but at least they started on their own 23 with less than 5 minutes remaining.

The Giants promptly drove down the field, and with 1:37 remaining found themselves at the Bears’ 2 yard line, at first and goal. I quickly computed in my head that this was okay, because in the process, the Bears had used 2 of their 3 timeouts. Thus, the Giants should just kneel a few times, get the ball to the middle of the field, and run the clock to a few seconds before kicking the game-winning field goal (which would amount to an extra point) as time expired. The fact that the Bears called a timeout to allow the Giants to think this through made me really confident that Coughlin would proceed in this direction. Even the announcer, Troy Aikman, recognized this and called for that strategy. The game would end 17-16, I would win my final bet of the afternoon, and maintain my cheerful holiday mood for our planned tree decorating later that night.

Alas, the ending was not as our hero had planned.

If the Giants had followed the obvious plan, they would have been left with a field goal roughly the length of an extra point to win the game. The success rate on extra points in the NFL is 96 percent. So the Giants were virtually assured of winning the game.

The only problem was that they would only win by one point. Which means they wouldn’t cover the spread.

Could that explain why instead, the Giants ran a sweep on first down, scoring a touchdown? This gave them a five point lead, but also gave the Bears the ball back with 1:33 on the clock and a timeout! It also required the Giants to kick off to Devin Hester, perhaps the most dangerous returner in the history of football. The Bears very nearly did come back to score a touchdown, although they ultimately failed.

So what do we think? Simply a case of bad decision making by an NFL coach (it wouldn’t be the first time according to economist David Romer)? Or something more devious?