September 5, 2019 - by Jason Lisk
Russell Wilson has the MVP vibe working in 2019 (Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire)
Survivor pool season 2019 has arrived! It’s time to get ready to sweat your Week 1 survivor pick — or survivor picks, if you’re like a lot of our readers who are way into these pool and play like 37 different entries.
As we’ve done in past years, in this post we analyze the five most popular survivor and knockout pool picks of the week using the “Holy Trinity” of pick data (more on that shortly).
How do we know that’s a sound approach? Over the past two years, our subscribers have reported nearly $1.5 million in survivor pool winnings using our data-driven survivor picks and tools.
We’ll briefly explain the key strategies behind that success, then get to the Week 1 survivor pick analysis.
Our survivor pick analysis is different than what you’re probably used to reading elsewhere.
Most survivor advice-givers explain why they think a specific team is definitely going to win its Week 1 game, and why that team is therefore a great survivor pick. Sadly, that’s junior high level survivor pick strategy.
If you think winning an NFL survivor or knockout pool is all about identifying the most likely team to win, then you are exactly the type of player that true survivor pros want to have in their pool.
At TeamRankings, we evaluate Week 1 survivor picks using the most important yardstick of all: how likely they are to help you win your pool. This level of analysis forces you to go much deeper than just looking at how safe a pick is.
Keep The End Goal In Mind
Never forget that your goal as a survivor pool player isn’t to maximize your odds to survive the early weeks and then “figure it out” from there. Your goal is to out-survive every opponent in your pool, no matter how long that may take. And in most years, it’s likely going to take longer than you think. So you need to think about the future right from the start.
At the same time, it also seems like many survivor players lose sight of the fact that to out-survive opponents, you need to make picks that are different than them. To win a survivor pool, you need to make picks that win, while your opponents pick other teams, and those teams lose. It’s as simple as that. So at some point, you’ve got to start zagging when your opponents zig.
If you want the best chance to win your pool, you need to be ready to “zag” as early as Week 1. If you follow the crowd and pick all the safest, most popular teams in the early going, you could miss out on the best opportunity of the entire season to survive a week while many of your opponents get eliminated.
We don’t even have to look very far back in survivor pool history to find a perfect illustration of what we mean.
In Week 3 of the 2018 season, Minnesota’s loss to Buffalo eliminated nearly 60% of still-alive survivor pool entries nationwide. If you were one of the minority of players that recognized the significant expected value of avoiding a team picked by nearly 60% of your opponents — and you had the guts to act on that knowledge, and make a riskier pick than you had to in Week 3 — you had a great shot at winning your survivor pool last season.
Figuring out which Week 1 survivor pick will give you the biggest boost in expected pool winnings requires you to evaluate three factors for every team. We call these factors the “Holy Trinity” of NFL survivor pool strategy:
All else being equal, picking a less popular team and saving a better team for the future will increase your odds to win an NFL survivor pool.
By extension, your expected profit from a survivor pool can sometimes go up significantly if you avoid the most popular pick of the week. Taking on a modest amount of additional risk that your pick loses and you’re eliminated from the pool, in exchange for a greatly increased probability that a big chunk of your pool gets eliminated but you survive, is often a very worthy tradeoff from an economic standpoint.
How much added risk it makes sense to take varies, though. It depends a lot on factors such as the size of your survivor pool and its rules. We built our NFL Survivor Picks product to do all this pick optimization number crunching for you.
The Fourth Key: Mental Toughness
You can crunch all the numbers you want, but at the end of the day, you need to act when action is called for. So just as important as the Survivor Holy Trinity is your willingness as a player to make the highest expected value pick decisions whenever they happen to present themselves — and not simply ignore them until you’ve hopefully had the satisfaction of surviving the early weeks.
That’s admittedly a very hard thing to do from a psychological perspective. Making riskier picks in the first few weeks of a survivor pool increases the chance that you are eliminated from the pool before your less savvy friends and coworkers are. If you catch some bad luck in a given year and that happens, be prepared for their unrelenting mockery.
But if you’re not mentally ready to make a gamble that makes clear economic sense in the early weeks, then why on earth are you spending your hard earned money to dabble in the insanely risky world of NFL survivor pools?
You might as well just hold up a sign that says, “Hello sharks, it’s me the minnow, into which of your bank accounts would you prefer me to deposit my pool entry fees?”
Now that we’ve covered the important high level strategy, let’s get to the Week 1 pick analysis.
Below we review the five most popular Week 1 survivor picks, aka, the picks that you are most likely considering making in your survivor or knockout pool this week. (We estimate survivor pick popularity based on picking trends data from several popular survivor pool hosting sites.)
To be clear, we are NOT saying that the first team listed, Seattle, is the best survivor pick of the week. Rather, Seattle is the most popular Week 1 pick in survivor pools nationwide. Philadelphia is the second most popular, and on down the line. We analyze the pros and cons of picking each team.
Why don’t we just tell you the “best” pick of the week? Well, that’s the problem with pretty much every other survivor pick article out there. There is no such thing as a universally “best” survivor pick. Our recommended Week 1 pick for your pool would almost certainly change based on factors like your pool’s size and rules.
Hop over to our NFL Survivor Picks product (which is free for Week 1) and tell us a few things about your pool, and you can see pick recommendations for your specific situation.
If you’d rather make picks completely on your own, no sweat. Based on factors that have a big impact on your odds to win your pool, the analysis below weighs the biggest pros and cons of the picks you’re probably considering.
Note: Data referenced below was current as of Wednesday evening, and could change between posting time and kickoff time. Our product updates multiple times per day with the latest information.
Survivor Pool Pick Popularity: 27% (#1)
Point Spread: -10
It’s not a huge surprise that Seattle is the most popular survivor pick in Week 1. Until betting lines recently moved in Philadelphia’s favor, the Seahawks (a 10-point favorite) were the most likely team to win this week, playing at home against a Bengals team coming off a disappointing season and adjusting to new head coach Zac Taylor.
Cincinnati is expected to finish in last place in the AFC North, and the Bengals will be without star receiver A.J. Green for this game. Seattle, meanwhile, is expected to compete for a playoff spot in 2019, and the Seahawks have been tough to beat at home with Russell Wilson at quarterback and Pete Carroll at head coach. Seattle has won 27 of 31 home games when favored by at least nine points with Wilson at QB.
Our models put Seattle’s win odds just shy of 80%, and the next week in which the Seahawks project so strongly isn’t until Week 16 when they are home vs. Arizona. And at that point in the season, Seattle may be resting starters if they have a playoff spot locked up.
That’s definitely something to keep in mind if you are playing in a smaller survivor pool that is unlikely to last until Week 16. In that case, Seattle’s future value is significantly lower than other big favorites this week, a fact that helps counteract the downside of Seattle’s very high (but not insanely, “Week 3 2018 Vikings” high) pick popularity.
Survivor Pick Popularity: 21% (#2)
Point Spread: -10
Philadelphia enters Week 1 with the second-highest pick popularity, but as of Wednesday the Eagles had become the safest team (both the Eagles and Seahawks were 10-point favorites, but Philadelphia’s money line was slightly better).
The Eagles are expected to bounce back as a Super Bowl contender this season, with an average projection of 9.9 wins in our season simulations after finishing 9-7 a year ago. Carson Wentz is back as starting quarterback, now more than a year removed from the knee injury that cost him the end of his 2017 season, in which he looked like an MVP candidate before going down.
Washington, meanwhile, has lower expectations entering the season. Journeyman Case Keenum will start at quarterback over rookie Dwayne Haskins, the skill positions are far from settled, and OT Trent Williams is holding out.
Philadelphia being the safest, but not the most popular, pick in Week 1 is a certainly a nice combo. The relative concern lies with future value, especially in bigger pools.
The Eagles project as having the top win odds in Week 14, and top-3 win odds in at least three more weeks (Week 3 against Detroit, Week 5 against the Jets, Week 13 at Miami). Viable alternatives to pick may exist in several of those weeks, but with over 20% of survivor entries burning the Eagles in Week 1, it increases the odds that Philadelphia will be a relatively safe yet unpopular pick in at least one of them.
Survivor Pick Popularity: 12% (#3)
Point Spread: -6.5
With roughly half of survivor entries nationwide taking either Seattle or Philadelphia in Week 1, the other half of entries is settling for riskier but significantly less popular teams.
After the Andrew Luck retirement news, the LA Chargers (No. 4 in our NFL preseason rankings) moved up to the third most popular survivor pick of Week 1. The line moved by 3 or 4 points in LA’s favor with the Colts change in quarterback to Jacoby Brissett, giving the Chargers around 72% win odds compared to roughly 80% for the Seahawks and Eagles.
A week ago, the Chargers had climbed to 8% pick popularity. It reached 12% on Wednesday. If LAC’s pick popularity continues to rise before kickoff time, it will negatively impact the expected value of picking the Chargers this week.
Like the Eagles, the Chargers have multiple weeks ahead with “good survivor pick” level win odds, and the Chargers could be among the better survivor options in Week 4 (at Miami) and Week 5 (Denver). After Week 5, there’s a lull in high win odds games all the way until Oakland in Week 16.
Multiple favorable matchups in near-term matchups means that the Chargers rate quite highly in terms of future value this week. In addition, they are riskier than the two top favorites, and they are not a very unpopular pick either. In general, that’s not the most compelling profile.
Survivor Pick Popularity: 11% (#4)
Point Spread: -6.5
The Miami Dolphins seem to be in tank-for-the-future mode. They traded away veterans like OT Laremy Tunsil for draft picks, and will start 36-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. Baltimore, on the other hand, is handing the keys to young QB Lamar Jackson after he helped the Ravens make the playoffs a year ago. For an outside Super Bowl contender, the Ravens have made a lot of offseason changes, getting a lot younger at receiver and in the front seven, while adding veterans in RB Mark Ingram and S Earl Thomas.
The point spread in this game has bounced around quite a bit in the early going. It opened at Ravens -4 and started climbing, spiking to Ravens -7.5 earlier in the week. It has now gone back down to Ravens -6.5. That puts Baltimore in the same range as the Chargers when it comes to risk, with about a 72% chance of winning.
Baltimore is also similarly popular as the Chargers, with 11% pick popularity vs. 12% for LAC. The fact that Ravens are on the road, which scares some survivor pickers (even though it shouldn’t), may be a factor in them being slightly less popular of a pick than the Chargers.
From a future value perspective, Baltimore doesn’t boast as compelling a profile as the Chargers. The main wildcard looks to be Week 2, when the Ravens should be the clear top favorite of the week when hosting Arizona. In addition, New England and Kansas City, both teams expected to be elite this year, project as the second and third most likely winners of Week 2 even though both of them are on the road. As a result, Baltimore could be an extremely popular pick next week, a potentially strong reason to avoid picking them.
The primary negative we see this week for Baltimore is that our models are relatively pessimistic about their chances. We give the Chargers higher win odds than Baltimore, but Baltimore has slightly better money line odds in the betting markets.
Survivor Pick Popularity: 6% (#5)
Point Spread: -7.5
Dallas checks in as the fifth-most popular survivor pick this week, but the Cowboys’ 6% pick popularity is nearly half that of the next most popular pick, Baltimore. Add into the mix the third-highest win odds of the week (76%), and you’re off to an interesting start.
Dallas’ popularity has risen slightly, though, with the news of Ezekiel Elliott’s contract extension and return to the team on Wednesday. Whether it continues to rise for the rest of the week is something to keep an eye on, as it will negatively impact the expected value of picking the Cowboys if it does.
On the future value front, Dallas falls somewhere in between Seattle and Philadelphia. The Cowboys look like they will be the safest pick in Week 3, at home against Miami. But with the next-safest options that week likely to be New England and Philadelphia, Dallas could also be a very popular Week 3 pick. Then, starting in Week 4, Dallas’ schedule gets tougher for a while, and they don’t have a projected 70% win odds game until they host Buffalo in Week 13. That’s relatively late in the season, but early enough that you’ll likely need to make it there to win a pool.
The teams above are the most popular picks this week, but that doesn’t mean one of them is the best pick for you. Every possible survivor pick has an expected value and future value associated with it, and those values vary based on the characteristics of your pool.
As a result, it takes a lot of data and math to figure out which pick (or combination of picks, if you’re playing multiple entries) gives the biggest boost to your expected survivor pool winnings.
We built our NFL Survivor Picks tool to do all of this analytical work for you. You answer a few questions about your pool’s size and rules, and it provides customized pick recommendations for your pool using the latest matchup data, betting market odds, and public picking trends from national survivor pool sites.
The product even does a second layer of optimization if you are playing multiple survivor entries, recommending exactly how you should split a “portfolio” of survivor pool entries across one, two, or more teams. (Our product optimizes picks for up to 30 unique survivor pool entries.)
We invite you to try it out, and good luck in your survivor pools this week!
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