Week 3 NFL Survivor Strategy: With 50% Eliminated, We Soldier On

Welcome to the Week 3 installment of our series of NFL Survivor contest advice columns, where we use a data-driven strategy to get an edge. This post includes analysis based on NFL predictions from our algorithmic Team Rankings models, public pick trends, future week schedules, and other data. This post presents our PRELIMINARY Survivor pick of the week; we publish our final pick on Fridays.

Note: Our final pick & analysis has now been posted.

OK people…we’ve got great news, good news, and bad news this week.

First, the bad news. TR’s resident Survivor guru, David Hess, is on vacation this week and next week. (Audience groans.) Seriously, I am still not sure why I even entertained his request to take time off during football season, primarily for a family wedding of all things. I mean, how important can those be?

So you have a replacement survivor analyst crunching the numbers this week and next. Hopefully, I will do better than the replacement NFL refs. Similar to them, though, this post is taking me like 18 times as long.

I am looking at this task not unlike a 16×1 week relay, where I have been chosen to run Weeks 3 and 4, after my all-star teammate has already built us an enviable early lead. All I can hope to do is hold the lead until Week 5, at which point I can hand the baton back to the Usain Bolt of Survivor pool strategy, collapse to the ground in pain, and never be heard from again. Which would be fine with me, because this is some serious pressure here.

OK, now the good news. David doesn’t just write down a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper, chew it up, cough twice, and then spit out our Survivor pick each week. The brunt of our Survivor analysis and data lives on various web pages and spreadsheets, and yours truly got the crash course last week. So I’m not exactly entering the Indy 500 having never driven a car before. I’ve at least practiced a bit in the parking lot.

David’s analytical skills when it comes to custom analysis of your questions are far better than mine, so don’t expect much wizardry from me in that department. But I should be able to get us to an official pick of the week that’s defensible to people who aren’t idiots.

Week 2 NFL Survivor Review

And let’s not forget the great news. In case you just got back from a Mars Rover expedition, the Patriots choked last week, the Redskins (picked by ~5% of people) also lost, and the Bengals, Giants, Steelers, and Texans — all of whom we thought were decent picks — all won!!! All that means the typical follower of our Survivor advice more than doubled their odds to win their pool in one single week, as a total of around 57% of entries in Yahoo!’s Survivor contest bit the big one in Week 2. Cha-ching.

Admittedly, we did see a case for picking the Patriots in very small pools, where the winner is likely to be determined well in advance of Week 17, or in small pools that allow multiple losses during the season. If you’re in that group, I know it stings, but the Pats were still a reasonable decision. Fluke losses happen, and you’re just playing the odds.

We’ll see how things play out during the rest of the season, but most advanced power ratings systems and Vegas futures odds still imply that the Pats are a top-tier team even after the loss to Arizona. If Arizona again played New England in Foxboro during Week 3, I don’t think the Vegas line would be too much different than it was for Week 2. Sure, it would be lower, but I’d bet it would still be as high or higher than any other team in Week 2, and the Patriots would again be considered the safest pick of the week.

Some Updates To Our Methods

One last bit of news before we get to the Week 3 breakdown. In talking through our Survivor analysis methods last week, David and I discussed a few minor tweaks that I am going to put into practice this week. None will make a huge impact on our numbers, but they could make a difference on the fringes, for example in “close call” situations between two appealing picks.

  • Future value fudging. How we’ve calculated future value for teams in the past was OK, but not all that sophisticated. We basically looked for future weeks where our power ratings gave a team 75%+ win odds, and counted them. So we’re going to make this process a bit smarter. First, every power ratings system can be a bit wonky in the very early weeks of the season, so we’re going to do more cross-checking of our projected win odds for future games with other intelligent sources of similar information. Second, we’re going to discount some future value if a high-probability win comes in Week 17, when resting starters stand a decent chance of making our current projections for Week 17 games look horrible. Third, we’re going to look more at possible alternative picks on a week-by-week basis. Instead of blindly giving credit only for a 75%+ win odds game, for instance, we’ll give some future value credit for a 72% win odds game, if it comes in a week when good alternatives look very scarce.
  • Spread adjustment to consistent -110 payout odds. On our site we publish and use spreads from Pinnacle Sports, a reliable offshore sports book. But not all of Pinny’s point spreads are at typical -110 (bet 11 to win 10) payout odds. As a result, to compare apples to apples, in our Survivor analysis we will now use a “consensus” spread obtained by looking at various sports books and figuring out what the -110 number is or inferring what it would be. Thanks to Greg Matthews at Stats In The Wild for pointing this out and prompting the update.

Week 3 NFL Survivor Decision Factors

This is the heart of our column, the table showing the factors that influence our weekly Survivor pick decision. For every team, here are the three questions we ask ourselves (and the data in our table that helps us answer them):

1. How likely are they to win? (Vegas Line at -110 payout odds & TR Odds from our NFL win picks page)

2. How popular is this team? (Average public Pick % from sites like Yahoo! and OfficeFootballPool)

3. Should I save this team for later? (Future Val: the number of future games where the team is expected to have win odds of 75%+ from our NFL Survivor Tool, modified by some manual fudges for Week 17 and special-case weeks)

Teams are listed in order of how attractive we think they are as a choice this week. They’re also separated into rough tiers. If two teams are in the same tier, you may want to choose among them based on which pros and cons are more important to your particular situation.

Teams We Already Picked: Houston Texans (WIN), Cincinnati Bengals (WIN)

TeamOpponentLine (@ -110)TR OddsPick %Future ValNotes
Tier 1: Top Options
Chicagovs St Louis-7.078%14.5%1High safety + contrarian
Dallasvs Tampa Bay-7.070%7.5%2.5Oddly unpopular
Tier 2: Might Be Worth A Look
New Orleansvs Kansas City-8.077%33.5%1.5Best chance to use them?
Tier 3: AVOID!
San Franciscoat Minnesota-7.074%20.7%5Too much future value

Weighing the Options

Chicago Bears (vs. St. Louis Rams) — Our Decision Tree model, our most reliable and sophisticated algorithm, likes the Bears this week, giving them higher win odds than even New Orleans. The Bears sit in a pack of four teams with point spreads of 7, 7, 7, and 8, yet they’re only being picked by around 14% of the public — compared to 34% and 21% for the Saints and 49ers — and they have little future value.

While we’re as frightened by Chicago’s volatility as the next guy, the contrarian nature of this pick is intriguing. It’s relatively unpopular; everyone thought Jay Cutler and company looked horrible last week, but the score wasn’t a blowout despite Green Bay’s +2 turnover advantage; and the Rams are coming off their fist win, which was at home against a Redskins team that the public may be vastly overrating right now because of the Week 1 upset of the Saints, who themselves could be much worse than the public currently believes. With all that said…we’re talking about Jay Cutler and the Bears here. There’s a non-zero chance that he throws 17 interceptions and gets sacked 41 times.

Dallas Cowboys (vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers) — Ah, the Enigma Team. I don’t think anyone is sure what to make of the Cowboys at this point, but our models are more pessimistic than the spread implies this week. In addition, it’s not a secret that public money can put a “point spread premium” on Dallas, especially playing at home. Another negative is that from a schedule standpoint, based on what we know today, the Cowboys have the most future value of any of our top three considerations this week. Still, their off-the-charts ratio of safety to (lack of) popularity vaults them into must-consider status.

New Orleans Saints (vs. Kansas City Chiefs) — I can’t imagine it’s that common of a case for an 0-2 team to have the highest spread of any team in Week 3. Enter New Orleans. Are we dealing with an unwarranted extension of preseason hype here, or is this just a fluke bad start? 34% of the typical pool is betting on the latter, and that seems a bit risky. Make no mistake, the Saints have the highest spread of the week, and by the numbers they are the safest pick, albeit by a very slim margin. And according to our models and other sources, they also have almost zero future value. No-brainer, right?

Not so fast. First, when 34% of people (and almost double the percentage of next most popular team) are taking a team that doesn’t have significantly better win odds than the alternatives, it starts to smell like opportunity. Second, I keep thinking about the likely outcomes for New Orleans this year, given their shaky beginning. Let’s say it turns out the Saints aren’t a very good team this year, and the public’s unwillingness to believe that (yet) is a factor behind this week’s -8 spread. In that case, despite the fact that Kansas City may well suck, the odds that New Orleans loses this game could be significantly higher than what the current spread implies. Tough to tell if that is the case.

On the flip side, if this is just a fluke start to a season that eventually rights itself, New Orleans could have significantly more future value than we’re giving them right now. If that happens, and you don’t pick the Saints this week, you’ve saved a potential gem for later on. There’s not a much safer pick on the board this week anyway, and it’s not like either the Bears or Cowboys have far greater future value. Right now our models think that the Saints are downright useless from here on out; if that ends up being wrong even by a little, the Saints quickly would drop to being a modestly worse pick than those other teams. So we’re passing right now.

San Francisco 49ers (at Minnesota Vikings) — Don’t even think about it. There are three other alternatives on the board with far less future value and equivalent or better win odds, that are not playing on the road (granted, that’s already factored into the spread/win odds), and two of them are significantly less popular. When looking at the Niners, Saints, Cowboys, and Bears, does it feel safest to pick undefeated San Fran, who put a hurt on the mighty Packers at Lambeau, and then beat the Lions, who most people think are a good team? Yeah, a lot of people will be thinking that way, but guess what…they’re wrong. It’s clearly a sub-optimal decision given the other options. The Niners would likely be our top rated pick if you didn’t have any of the other three teams listed above in your quiver. But that’s impossible since it’s only Week 3, so just like that, San Fran goes from a #4 pick ranking into dreaded STAY AWAY status.

The Rest — It’s not like last week, when a bunch of teams were running close. After the Niners, the Bills and Lions rate as our next best picks, but there’s a significant gap and it’s not worth considering them or any other teams. The fact that more people are picking Pittsburgh than Dallas right now strikes us are particularly barf-worthy.

Preliminary Week 3 NFL Survivor Pick: Chicago Bears over St. Louis Rams

The Bears and Cowboys look similarly safe, and the Cowboys are less popular. Still, Dallas looks to have more future value than Chicago on account of some favorable future home matchups, and that’s enough to tilt the overall scale to Chicago for this week, provided nothing major changes by Friday.

Our preliminary pick is the Chicago Bears.

If the Cowboys looked to be a decently safer pick than Chicago, we’d probably lean the other way, because it’s always tricky to predict the far future in Week 3. But they’re not. If you’ve already used Chicago, though, Dallas still grades out as a decently better pick than New Orleans.

As always, feel free to ask questions about your specific situation in the comments section.

(And btw, do you get the headline now?)

Update Thursday 9/20 at 2:30 pm Eastern: There has been some line movement over the last 18 hours that might impact our final pick on Friday. In short, Dallas’s line has made a favorable move to -8/-110, Chicago a slight favorable move to -7.5, and San Fran has retreated to -6.5. Public picking percentages look to be holding pretty steady. The quick read on this is that Dallas looks better, New Orleans looks worse, and San Fran now looks even more worse. It’s going to be neck and neck between Chicago and Dallas based on where lines and our TR odds end up tomorrow.