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The Sports Economist

How did the Cowboys beat the spread?

Point spreads in the betting market reflect calculated estimates of team strength, but the Cowboys defied expectations.

By Guest blogger / November 16, 2010

Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (82) breaks a tackle attempt by New York Giants safety Deon Grant (34) during the second quarter of an NFL football game Nov. 14, in East Rutherford, N.J. The Cowboys won 33-20, despite having lost to the Giants during their previous match-up.

Kathy Willens / AP


I’ve long been interested in the adjustment of expectations to changes in team performance. Several of my papers model point spreads in the betting market based on the market’s implied estimates of team strength. In the case of NFL betting, the season is so short that it is difficult for both the market and statistical models to adjust estimates of team strength based on team performances. Score differences are notoriously random and as a consequence it’s hard to tell what measure of luck or ability is responsible for any given outcome. Nevertheless, the market does adjust, and this year there is a particularly notable example in the form of the Dallas Cowboys. Here are the point spreads and scores to date for Cowboys games: 

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