Week 4 NFL Survivor Strategy: More Than Meets The Eye, As Usual

Welcome to the Week 4 installment of our NFL Survivor contest advice column. We apply a data-driven strategy to get an edge in Survivor pools, using analysis based on NFL predictions from our algorithmic Team Rankings models, public picking trends, future team schedules, and other data. This article presents our PRELIMINARY Survivor pick of the week; we publish our final, official pick on Fridays.

I’ll sum up last week in a song: “It’s a part….of my NFL Survivor fantasy….”

For those of you who did not grow up on 100.7 WZLX, Boston’s Classic Rock (in its early ’90s prime, by far the greatest radio station ever to hit the airwaves, by the way), I stole that line from a Bad Company song.

I know, I know, in this day and age I should probably be lifting quotes from Jay-Z or Kings of Leon or Justin Bieber to be relevant, but oh well. All I can say is, if you want to command respect in this world, pretty much all you need is that song blasting, a handlebar mustache, and this puppy right here.

Week 3 NFL Survivor Review

Last week was indeed a Survivor fantasy. It’s not too often that both of the picks that our numbers advocated (Dallas and Chicago) win, and pretty much every other team of Survivor significance loses, including our shout-it-from-the-top-of-the-mountain advice to AVOID San Francisco.

Let’s not kid ourselves. We got lucky. Out of Dallas, Chicago, New Orleans, and San Francisco, you would have expected one of those teams to lose. The fact that two lost, and that those two teams were the Saints and Niners, was primarily evidence of good fortune shining down on us.

But then to have our lovely friends in Oakland deliver a tasty dessert of spit-roasted Pittsburgh to top off the feast…man, last Sunday was like, All-You-Can-Eat Brazilian Steakhouse good!

The big takeaway here is a point we stress over and over and over. You will always need luck to win a pool, but if you are playing the odds intelligently, you can squeeze maximum returns out of good luck when it comes your way. Since we stayed off the most popular picks last week and we got lucky, our opposition simply got decimated. Over 70% of surviving entries on Yahoo! bit the dust on Sunday, a death toll significantly worse than even what the Cardinals/Patriots upset inflicted on pools in Week 2. Overall, the average Survivor pool has now lost almost 90% of its starting entries, and it’s only been three weeks.

So take a minute to pat yourself on the back if you’re still alive. Your odds to win your survivor pool are now around 10 times greater than they were at the start of this month. And if you’re in a smaller pool, your animal instincts are starting to detect the tantalizing scent of victory nearby. It’s the end-game now. You’re going to need to play even smarter and get another lucky break or two to pull it off, but we could have hardly asked for a better set-up heading into Week 4.

Notes On “End Game” Strategy

If you’re reading this post, odds are you’ve been following our Survivor advice and now find yourself one of few people remaining in your pool. If you started out in a big pool and there are still 100 or so people left, or 500, or 1,000, your approach to strategy shouldn’t change that much. You’ve done really well so far, but you’re still a longshot to win it all, and you need to keep taking smart risks to maximize your odds.

However, in smaller pools, it could be just you and one or two other people left at his point — or five or ten other people. That definitely changes things. Here are the main reasons how:

  • It’s less likely that your opponents’ picks will closely mimic the national public picking averages. Due to the combination of randomness, the very small number of people left in your pool, and things like regional bias, the distribution of picks in your tiny pool could be modestly or significantly different then the public picking trends on which we base our official weekly pick. For example, if 55% of people nationally are picking Baltimore this week, in a 5-person pool, your initial guess would be that three of those five people pick the Ravens. However, if it turns out one or two people in your pool just happen to hate the Ravens, or if no one in your pool has used Houston so far, you may only get one (20%) or two (40%) of your opponents on Baltimore. That’s way off the national average, and could be enough to completely change our advice for you. So a key skill at this point is figuring out which teams your opponents left still have available, sizing up their tendencies and personal opinions about teams, and producing your best guess on how you think they will all pick.
  • Future value means less. If your pool is down to a very small number of people, odds are that the winner is going to be crowned well before Week 17. That means you will likely end up not using a greater number of teams, and should be less concerned with “burning” good teams early. Specifically, even a good team that happens to have several of its favorable match-ups toward the very end of the year is worth less than it would have been if 70% of your pool were still alive.
  • Resist the urge to play overly conservative just because you’re close to winning. This is probably the most important point, referring to the mentality that separates those who are truly willing to make the best decision (i.e. the one that offers the highest expected value) from those who get nervous and make sub-optimal decisions late in the game. If you’ve been following our advice, you got this far because of trusting the numbers. So why in the world would you abandon them now, even if you feel they are recommending a somewhat “risky” pick? Every pick has risk. See Patriots, Week 2, and 49ers, Week 3. If you believe the announcers, these are the best teams in the NFL! The safest picks you can make! Yet wow, they sure are losing a lot lately, aren’t they! So tune out the hype. The bottom line is, an opportunity to take a smart risk and “go for the kill,” so to speak, can come at any time. It may not come until Week 10. It may come this week. You’ll never be certain, and you need to have the confidence to recognize a smart gamble when it presents itself, and go for it.

Updates To Our Methods: Introducing “Near Term Value”

The uniqueness of the current situation, with only 10% of entries left in the average pool, prompted yet another minor enhancement to our methods this week. Because future value of teams is less important now for people in small pools, we developed a second measure of future value I’m going to call Near Term Value.

The approach is pretty darn crude, the application doesn’t totally reflect the theory behind it, and the calculation is a bit arbitrary. With all that said, directionally it should help. Plus, we can always continue to refine it in the future.

What we’ve done is broken up future value into three-week increments. So instead of looking at future value for the rest of the season, we’re looking at future value in Weeks 5-7, Weeks 8-10, Weeks 11-13, and Weeks 14-16. (We ignore Week 17, when resting starters make pretty much any set of predictions unreliable.)

Then, we apply declining weights to the value of each segment. In other words, favorable matchups in Weeks 14-16 are worth very little, while favorable matchups over the next three weeks get full credit.

It’s not the most refined technique, but it should be better than our current approach to a team’s Future Value as it relates to small pool analysis. It also enables us to substitute Near Term Value for Future Value into our Survivor pick formulae, and see if the resulting top picks change from our larger pool recommendations.

Week 4 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 Value: 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. Near Value: a modified version of Future Value that assesses near term value and is more relevant to players in very small pools)

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), Dallas Cowboys (WIN)

TeamOpponentLineTR OddsPick %Future ValNear Val
Tier 1: Top Options
Houstonvs Tennessee-12.081%11.0%5.51.9
Green Bayvs New Orleans-7.577%2.2%4.01.6
Tier 2: Might Be Worth A Look
Denvervs Oakland-6.566%3.7%3.01.2
San Franciscoat New York Jets-4.066%1.2%1.50.9
Baltimorevs Cleveland-12.080%56.1%42.4
Atlantavs Carolina-7.068%8.1%74.3
Arizonavs Miami-6.067%10.2%53.2

Weighing the Options

Houston Texans (vs. Tennessee Titans) — Not much to say here. The Texans grade out as the best pick of the week by a decent margin. They’re the safest option (on money lines, this afternoon they were -613 at Pinnacle compared to -558 for Baltimore), yet the ratio of people picking Baltimore to people picking Houston is a whopping 5:1. (A lot more people have used Houston so far, plus some people are just dumb.) The Texans do have significant future value, but not as much in the near future, and even high future value isn’t enough to outweigh the other benefits. It’s quite the overall package, and friggedy-frack, we’ve already used them.

Green Bay Packers (vs. New Orleans Saints) — Well this is interesting. Solid spread and win odds, although granted they’re not in the same ballpark as Houston or Baltimore. And…wait…2.2% picked? Is that a typo? Part of it might be that everybody and their mother can’t possibly believe that the Saints could start the season 0-4, and that the Packers aren’t as good as usual. Well, put it this way…if I were going to come up with a plan for my 0-3 team (which, by the way, has now lost to three not good teams) to notch its first victory, it probably wouldn’t involve Lambeau field and a pissed off Aaron Rodgers and friends. That’s all personal opinion though, so let’s get back to the numbers. The numbers say that if 55%+ of your pool is taking Baltimore, and almost no one is on Green Bay, then the Packers look very appealing. Yes, they are riskier than Houston or Baltimore, but not by a ton. Even if we assume we’re overrating the Packers and underrating Houston/Baltimore, it would be about 85% win odds for Houston/Baltimore compared to 75% for Green Bay. The Packers are intriguing.

Denver Broncos (vs. Oakland) — This pick has a nice profile. Decent (not fantastic) win odds, very few people picking Denver (although still slightly more than Green Bay), but with the advantage of lower future value. With Oakland hitting the road after upsetting Pittsburgh and Denver coming off a home loss, it also seems appealing from the contrarian standpoint of exploiting people’s tendencies to overreact to the last game.

San Francisco 49ers (at New York Jets) — The 49ers barely made the consideration list, largely because our models like their chances and they have the least future value out of our seven top scoring Survivor picks this week. You’d need to get over the fact that they are on the road again after getting upset in Minnesota last week, though. San Francisco is the riskiest pick we’d consider this week, but relative to future weeks, now looks like a favorable time to use them.

Baltimore Ravens (vs Cleveland Brows) — Ah, the Obvious Pick. Are they safe? You bet. Conservative? Yup. If you pick them and they end up losing, you could never feel bad right? I don’t know, ask some of the people who picked the Patriots in Week 2. As of Wednesday, the Ravens are the most popular Survivor pick so far this year, with over 55% of people picking them. That’s a huge amount, and in a midsize or bigger pool especially, it’s a huge opportunity. There could be a special case where the Ravens are the best pick, but it’s looking doubtful.

Arizona Cardinals (vs Miami Dolphins) — The Cardinals are the third most popular pick of the week, are not particularly safe, and now look like they could have some decent future value. In isolation, the profile of this pick isn’t so bad, but there is absolutely no defensible reason to take them instead of Green Bay or Denver, both of whom have better win odds and similar or less future value, and are less popular picks. As a result, Arizona earns a spot on our Week 4 AVOID list.

Atlanta Falcons (vs Carolina Panthers) — The argument against the Falcons is similar to the argument against the Arizona. The Falcons are a bit safer, but they have way more future value, especially in the near term. You want these guys in your pocket for the weeks ahead, and it’s not worth burning them this week. Stay away from Atlanta.

Preliminary Week 4 NFL Survivor Pick: Green Bay Packers Over New Orleans Saints

First off, if you’ve still got the Texans in your pocket, it looks like the time to use them is now. Pick Houston.

If (like us) you don’t, Baltimore’s -12 spread be damned, our preliminary pick for Week 4 is Green Bay. This has nothing to do with the Seattle game’s ending or riding emotion or anything like that. It just comes down to the fact that in an eliminator-style contest, whenever 55% of a pool is on one team, it’s going to take some pretty special circumstances to conspire to make that team the best pick. And a 10% bump in safety for Baltimore just doesn’t cut it, especially when a relatively safe and hugely unpopular alternative like Green Bay exists.

In essence, we’re trading down from 85% win odds (a very safe pick) to 75% win odds (a safe pick) in exchange for an 11% chance to more than double the odds that we win our pool. Those types of opportunities don’t present themselves often, and we need to take advantage when we can. Looking forward, it seems doubtful that we’ll see this polarized of a public picking distribution in upcoming weeks.

To add some perspective here, this is a very similar situation to Week 2, only more attractive. There is a significantly larger concentration of people picking Baltimore this week (55%) as were picking the Patriots in Week 2 (45%), despite the fact that the Patriots, at a -13.5 spread, were technically a safer pick at the time. And we have a safer alternative to us available this week than we did in Week 2 with the Bengals.

As it turns out, the extreme public bias toward Baltimore is so great that it still pays to take the Green Bay gamble in smaller pools as well. That is, if you are in a 10-person pool, and your best guess is that at least five people will take Baltimore, but no one will take Green Bay, then the Packers are still the pick according to our numbers.

Note (Thursday 3:30 pm ET): The one probable exception to taking Green Bay, which was raised in the comments, is if you are in a heads-up play situation, competing against only one other surviving entry. In that case, we would not take on the added risk of Green Bay this week, and would pick Baltimore in a heads-up situation.

As we all know by now, a lot can change between Wednesday and Friday, so stay tuned. We’re going to spend some time projecting what will happen in the weeks immediately following Week 4 in terms of public picking tendencies, charting out our likely path of picks, and projecting which teams will still be widely available vs. scarce in future weeks. We’ll see what else comes to light.

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