Week 5 NFL Survivor Strategy: Do Road Teams Make You Nervous?

Welcome to the Week 5 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.

Thank you, Garrett Hartley.

Our pick last week, the Green Bay Packers, escaped by the hairs of their chinny chin chins against the New Orleans Saints, winning 28-27 via a late fourth quarter touchdown and a missed 48 yard field goal by Hartley. As we’ve said time and time again, you need a lot of luck to win your survivor pool, and we received a healthy dose Sunday. Our alternate pick, the Broncos, who we recommended for people in small pools where the winner could be determined in the next few weeks, destroyed the Raiders by a 37-6 score.

After Week 3’s bloodbath, Week 4 was very tame. Only 3% of remaining Yahoo! entries were eliminated last week, which means about 7.5% of the original 330,000 Yahoo! contestants remain. The biggest upset was St. Louis over Seattle, which knocked out 1.3% of our opponents.

Recap Of “End Game” Strategy

Despite the lack of upsets last week, a lot of you are probably in pools with only a few people left. It’s important to remember that in small pools, the correct strategy can change considerably. Here’s a refresher on the three points we made last week about Survivor end-game tactics:

  • It’s less likely that your opponents’ picks will closely mimic the national public picking averages.
  • Future value means less.
  • Resist the urge to play overly conservative just because you’re close to winning.

For an expanded discussion on these points, see the Week 4 NFL Survivor post.

Week 5 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? (consensus sportsbook Spread at -110 payout odds, Pinnacle Money Line, and 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 estimated number of future games where the team is expected to have win odds of 75%+, based on averaging projections from our NFL Survivor Tool [which uses data from only this season] and our NFL Season Projections [which incorporates our preseason team projections]. Near Value: a modified version of Future Value that places more emphasis on 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.

One note on a change from last week: this week we’ve scaled Near Val so that it has roughly the same total as Future Val. This allows you to see at a glance whether a team’s future value is front loaded (higher Near Val than Future Val) or back loaded (lower Near Val than Future Val).

Teams We Already Picked: Houston Texans (WIN), Cincinnati Bengals (WIN), Dallas Cowboys (WIN), Green Bay Packers (WIN)

TeamOpponentLineMoney LineTR OddsPick %Future ValNear Val
Tier 1: The Frontrunner
San Franciscovs Buffalo-10.0-430 / +36980%22.9%1.51.4
Tier 2: Other Top Options
Green Bayat Indianapolis-7.0-285 / +25274%11.8%1.51.4
Chicagoat Jacksonville-6.0-245 / +21870%3.6%1.52.8
Tier 3: Some Clear Negatives
Minnesotavs Tennessee-5.5-230 / +20565%6.8%0.51.1
NY Giantsvs Cleveland-8.0-365 / +31874%39.7%1.01.4
Houstonat NY Jets-8.0-340 / +29774%3.8%6.55.6
New Orleansvs San Diego-3.5-188 / +16963%0.8%1.00.3
Baltimoreat Kansas City-6.0-260 / +23162%2.6%3.04.1
Pittsburghvs Philadelphia-3.5-168 / +15265%0.4%2.02.3
Carolinavs Seattle-3.0-155 / +14061%0.7%0.00.0
Cincinnativs Miami-3.5-175 / +15861%4.1%1.00.8
New Englandvs Denver-6.5-267 / +23769%1.1%8.09.2
Atlantaat Washington-3.0-156 / +14156%0.5%5.55.1
Arizonaat St Louis-1.0-110 / +10055%1.0%2.52.1

Weighing the Options

San Francisco 49ers (vs. Buffalo Bills) — The 49ers are the safest pick of the week (biggest Vegas favorite, highest TR win odds), yet are not the most popular team. That’s always a good combo. Granted, they are the second most popular, but the difference between 23% (SF) and 40% (NYG) is rather large. The Niners and the Texans are far and away the best picks if you ignore future value. Of course, you can’t really do that, so people are likely opting for the Giants because they have less future value. But it’s not like the 49ers are going to be huge favorites in several future weeks — their easiest game (home vs. the Rams in Week 10) comes during a week with lots of other good options. Given their high immediate EV, it’s probably worth spending your San Francisco pick now.

Green Bay Packers (at Indianapolis Colts) — It’s rather surprising that a road team is the third most popular pick of the week (12%), as many people seem to try to stay away from visiting teams, even when the Vegas line indicates they are strong favorites. It’s especially surprising given that the Packers nearly lost last week. Despite their popularity, we see them as a good pick. Why? Because our models see them as the second safest pick of the week, basically tied with the Giants and Texans. The Giants are way too popular, and the Texans have tons of future value, so the Packers rank above either of them. The Packers are a reasonable pick this week, though we’ve already used them.

Chicago Bears (at Jacksonville Jaguars) — Hmm, another road team. The Bears are definitely another notch below the Packers/Giants/Texans in terms of Vegas and TR win odds, but they are much less popular than New York, and have much less future value than Houston, so are a better pick than either of those two. Compared to Green Bay, the lower win odds and lower pick percentage are basically a wash, though the math points slightly in Green Bay’s direction. One other factor is that the future value of the Bears is front loaded, with their best matchup coming in Week 8 (vs. Carolina). If there are only a few people left in your pool, it’s probably best to save the Bears to give you some picking flexibility over the next few weeks. In huge pools, the Bears are as good of a pick as the Packers.

Minnesota Vikings (vs Tennessee Titans) — The main reason to consider the Vikings this week is that they have very little future value. The only decent chance to use them going forward is against Tampa Bay in Week 8, but there should be other options that week. So if you’ve already burned 3 or 4 excellent teams (Atlanta, New England, Houston, Denver, Baltimore, Green Bay), Minnesota might be a decent pick to try to preserve some future value. They also could be good for those of you in pools where the tiebreaker is fewest wins by the teams you’ve picked. However, they are a very risky pick, so you need to have a clear reason to choose them over the 49ers, Packers, or Bears.

New York Giants (vs Cleveland Browns) — The Giants are relatively safe (roughly tied for second highest spread, money line, and win odds this week). And they have very little future value. But they are super popular, which means you should avoid picking them if you have other reasonable options.

Houston Texans (at New York Jets) — Given their combo of high win odds and low pick percentage, the Texans are essentially tied with the 49ers as the pick with the highest immediate EV (expected value) this week. The big problem is that they have tons of future value, so it’s probably wiser to save them for later. In pools where you can re-use teams, the Texans could be a decent pick, presuming your pick percentages are similar to the ones in our table. Of course, in pools where you can re-use teams, your pick percentages will likely NOT be similar to those in our table, as people won’t be trying to save Houston for later. We’ve already used them.

Baltimore Ravens (at Kansas City Chiefs) — The Ravens’ profile is very similar to that of the Bears, with the exception that the Ravens have much more future value. Plus, that future value is front loaded, which makes it even more helpful in small pools. Our models are also fairly low on Baltimore this week. Given that, we don’t see a reason to pick the Ravens this week.

New England Patriots (at Denver Broncos) — While the Patriots are reasonably safe, and very unpopular, they have tons of future value. STAY AWAY and save them for later.

The rest of the teams have spreads and money lines low enough that we can dismiss them without a second thought.

Preliminary Week 5 NFL Survivor Pick: San Francisco 49ers Over Buffalo Bills

This is a fairly straightforward week. There are four teams that grade out as the safest choices of the week: San Francisco, Green Bay, Houston, and New York.

The Texans are out because they have a ton of future value (that, and we’ve already used them). The Giants are out because 40% of the public is picking them, so we want to avoid them and root for an upset.

That leaves San Francisco and Green Bay. Both have very similar future values, so we can just focus on immediate expected value — that is, the balance between win odds and popularity.

Vegas gives SF about a 6% higher chance to win, and our models give them a 4% higher chance. This is compared to a 12% higher pick rate for the 49ers. The math is clear here: San Francisco’s advantage in win odds outweighs Green Bay’s lower popularity:

  • 59% of the time, both win, so it doesn’t matter who we picked.
  • 21% of the time, SF wins while GB loses. This eliminates 12% of the pool, which boosts our win odds by a factor of about 1/(1-0.12) = 1.14. That 1.14 factor multiplied by a 21% chance equals 0.24.
  • 15% of the time, GB wins while SF loses. This eliminates 23% of the pool, which boosts our win odds by a factor of about 1/(1-0.23) = 1.30. That 1.30 factor multiplied by a 16% chance equals 0.19.
  • 6% of the time, both lose, so it doesn’t matter who we picked.

That 0.24 versus 0.19 comparison is what matters here. What do those numbers mean? Well, they aren’t really on the correct scale, because we haven’t taken other games and outcomes into account, but they are essentially unitless estimates of the expected value of each pick.

Fooling around with the numbers a bit, we can see that the tipping point is around a 3-to-1 popularity ratio — if you think that San Francisco will be 3 times as popular as Green Bay in your pool, rather than just two, then the Packers become the better choice.

Of course, we already picked Green Bay, so all this math is moot for us. But hopefully it’s informative, and it could help those of you that haven’t been directly following our picks.

As always, feel free to ask questions about your specific situation in the comments section. However, please note that a lot can change between now and Friday, when we publish our finalized pick. So if your picks aren’t due until the weekend, you may want to hold off on asking for advice until Friday.