Week 1 NFL Survivor Strategy: It’s Early, Don’t Outsmart Yourself

Welcome to the Week 1 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 and other relevant data.

Our Survivor column is back! Last year we ran undefeated through the regular season, going a perfect 17-0. There’s no doubt that good luck played a huge role, but we also used number-crunching and game theory to put ourselves in a position to take maximum advantage of good luck. We’ll be employing the exact same strategies again this season, and hoping that luck smiles on us again.

Since it’s Week 1, let’s do a 2-minute review of general Survivor Pool strategy before we get to the actual picks. The following important concepts were laid out in last year’s article on Survivor ground rules, and they’re worth recapping, especially if you’re a new reader.

Survivor Strategy Review

1) You’re in it to win it. This is really the master rule, and all others follow from it. Your picks should be made with the goal of maximizing your odds to win your NFL Survivor pool, not maximizing your odds just to survive the current week. Sometimes that will mean choosing a team that isn’t the biggest favorite in a given week — or even the second or third biggest favorite.

2) Plan for the future. If you want to take home the trophy, you have to save some teams for future weeks. One of the best and easiest ways to do this is to use our NFL Survivor Predictor. The Survivor Predictor shows every team’s predicted chance of winning in every week of the season.

3) Pick against the public. In order to beat any given Survivor opponent, there has to be one week of the season where you pick a winner and your foe picks a loser. That means that avoiding very popular teams is often a good strategy, because it provides an opportunity for a single upset to knock out a good chunk of your opponents.

4) Know your pool rules. In some pools, you’re out after one loss. In others, it takes two losses to be eliminated. Some pools run through the playoffs, while some end after the regular season. Any rules variations can affect your weekly choices by increasing or decreasing the amount of risk you can take on, or altering the importance of saving teams for later. If you have specific questions about your pool’s rules, you can ask them in the comments section. Our baseline advice in this column assumes no second chances, and a pool that runs through the regular season only.

If there is one point to stress again, it’s #1. Winning a Survivor contest against 10 or 25 or 100 other people isn’t easy — it’s a longshot. So we will take some calculated risks as the season goes on, confident that we are following optimal strategy, but also knowing that we have a lower chance to survive the current week than some (or many) of our competitors do.

That’s totally fine with us. If we get knocked out in Week 4 or Week 6 because we choose a less popular, slightly less certain pick that ends up losing, while 75% of the people left in your pool go with the more “obvious” pick that ends up winning, we still made the right call. NFL games are far from certainties, and it could have just as easily gone the other way.

Remember, in almost all Survivor pools, if you don’t win, it doesn’t matter when you lost or how long you stayed alive. It’s a binary outcome. You either won (or tied for first) or you lost. Making it to Week 12 or Week 14, compared to Week 5 or Week 7, may have much less to do with someone’s picking skill or ability to figure out the best strategy than you think it does.

OK, keeping those points in mind, let’s get to the Week 1 advice…

Week 1 Survivor Decision Factors

This is the heart of our column, the table showing the factors that influence our decision. For every team, there are basically three questions you should ask yourself:

1. How likely are they to win? Obviously, the better a team’s chances to win this week, the more attractive they are as a pick. To answer this question, we list a team’s point spread as of the writing of this column (from Pinnacle Sports), and their odds from our NFL win picks page.

2. How popular is this team? All else being equal, it’s better to choose a less popular team, because then an upset of the more popular team can knock out more of your opponents. To help answer this question, we show the public pick percentage (Pick %), which is an average of a team’s popularity at various online Survivor Pool sites.

3. Should I save this team for later? In larger pools, you may need to survive the entire season to win a share of the prize pool. That means you need to conserve bullets, and try to save teams that may be useful later. To help answer this question, we include a future value column that estimates how many solid future chances you’ll have to pick this team.

We’re going to try out a slight change for the table this year: we’ll list the teams in order of how attractive we think the team is as a choice this week, assuming a larger pool size. We’re also going to try listing them in separate tiers. If two teams are on the same tier, then we think the difference between the picks is fairly small, and you may want to make your choice based on which pros and cons are more important to your particular pool.

*UPDATE* Since we posted this data, Houston’s public pick percentage has shifted higher, to slightly around 33%, while Chicago’s has dipped a couple points. That is enough to make Houston and Chicago virtually tied for the best pick of the week in our eyes. We’ll be keep Houston as our official pick, but thought we should point out that Chicago is now on the same level. *END UPDATE*

TeamOpponentLineTR OddsPick %Future ValNotes
--------------------------------------------------------------------- TIER 1 ---------------------------------------------------------------------
Houstonvs Miami-11.586%26.4%1popular but safe, little future value
--------------------------------------------------------------------- TIER 2 ---------------------------------------------------------------------
Chicagovs Indianapolis-9.577%17.6%0semi-popular, but little future value
Philadelphiaat Cleveland-9.080%9.2%4less popular than CHI, but more future value
--------------------------------------------------------------------- TIER 3 ---------------------------------------------------------------------
New Orleansvs Washington-9.076%5.1%6
------------------------------------------------------------------- THE REST -------------------------------------------------------------------
Baltimorevs Cincinnati-6.066%3.0%3
Green Bayvs San Francisco-5.571%0.6%5
Detroitvs St Louis-7.069%24.1%3why so popular? STAY AWAY
Minnesotavs Jacksonville-4.061%1.8%1
NY Giantsvs Dallas-4.063%1.8%4
New Englandat Tennessee-6.070%3.5%10best 2012 team
Seattleat Arizona-2.557%1.3%1
NY Jetsvs Buffalo-3.054%0.5%1
Atlantaat Kansas City-3.056%1.3%2
San Diegoat Oakland-1.053%0.5%1
Denvervs Pittsburgh-1.054%0.2%3
Carolinaat Tampa Bay-1.049%1.1%1
Tampa Bayvs Carolina+1.051%0.1%0

Future Val = The number of future games where the team is expected to have win odds of around 75% or greater. This is usually based on our NFL Survivor Tool but early in the season we’ll also supplement it with info from our NFL season projections.

Teams We Already Picked: None. It’s Week 1!

Weighing the Options

Houston Texans (vs. Miami Dolphins) — Houston is pretty clearly the safest choice of the week, with the largest Pinnacle line, and the highest TR win odds. They also don’t have a ton of future value, partly because their schedule is slightly tougher than average. The main negative is that they are fairly popular, but 26% of the public going with them isn’t super high. If you’re confident (or know) that the Texans will be much more popular than that in your pool (say, 35%+), it might be wise to go with a TIER 2 team. Otherwise, it’s too early to get crazy. Just go with the Texans as a safe pick.

Chicago Bears (vs. Indianapolis Colts) — This is one of the easiest games of the year for Chicago, so if you’re going to use them, now’s a good time. However, there’s not much upside to choosing the Bears rather than the Texans. Chicago is only a little less popular, and only has a little less future value. If you’re in a huge pool that will stretch into the playoffs, Chicago may be a smart pick. Otherwise, Houston’s higher win odds trump Chicago’s positive qualities.

Philadelphia Eagles (@ Cleveland Browns) — The Eagles are more valuable going forward than Chicago, but less popular this week. Both teams have similar lines and win odds. At this point in the season, that future value is more important, so we rate the Eagles as less attractive than the Bears.

New Orleans Saints (vs Washington Redskins) — The profile of the Saints looks quite similar to the Eagles, except they are even more valuable going forward, mostly due to their easier schedule. So not really a consideration for us, given the alternatives.

The Rest — The above four teams round out our playable options this week. There’s a steep drop in win odds after New Orleans, and there’s not really any positive benefit to taking on that additional risk, since it’s not like any of the next few almost-as-safe teams have zero future value and zero popularity. There is one game in particular we should mention, though:

Detroit Lions (vs St. Louis Rams) — The Lions are nearly as popular as the Texans, even though their line is only -7, compared to -11.5 for Houston. This is probably because some people made their choices earlier in the week, before the line changed (it opened at Detroit -9). This is a great for you. If your opponents don’t change their picks, you’ll have a quarter of your pool backing a team that’s only a moderate favorite. You should STAY AWAY from Detroit this week, and hope for an upset.

Official Week 1 NFL Survivor Pick: Houston Texans over Miami Dolphins

This was a fairly straightforward week. The Texans are clearly the safest team (relatively, at least, as far as Week 1 point spreads can be trusted), and the only negative to picking them is that they have also been chosen by about 25% of your opponents. That’s not enough to push us off of the pick. The Houston Texans are our choice in both large and small pools.

However, if your pool stretches into the playoffs, you may want to save the Texans, as they are favored to win the AFC South. In that case, the Chicago Bears are probably your best pick. They are slightly less safe, but have significantly lower playoff odds.

*UPDATE* Since we posted this column, Houston’s public pick percentage has shifted higher, to slightly around 33%, while Chicago’s has dipped a couple points. That is enough to make Houston and Chicago virtually tied for the best pick of the week in our eyes. We’ll be keep Houston as our official pick, but thought we should point out that Chicago is now on the same level. *END UPDATE*

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