In an NFL survivor pool, you need to successfully pick a winning team each week. The big catch is that you can only select each NFL team once. That rule turns what looks like a very simple game into a complex puzzle where you have to decide on a strategy for when to best use teams.
That hidden complexity also creates opportunities for smart pool players. Survivor pools are high-risk ventures, and the most likely outcome is that you don’t win a specific pool. But with good strategy, you can increase your chances of taking down a pot and making great returns over the long run.
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NFL Survivor Pool Strategy: Tips, advice for making the best picks
Early Survival Isn’t the End Goal
Imagine if the rules of NFL survivor pools were as follows:
- You win a prize if you survive through NFL Week 5
- You can pick any team you want, every week
In that case, your optimal pick strategy would be simple. To maximize your odds to win a prize, you’d just pick the biggest favorite of the week in each of the first five weeks. You wouldn’t care about saving teams for future weeks, and it wouldn’t matter which teams your opponents were picking.
That’s not how you win survivor pools, of course, but many players act like it is.
In reality, you don’t just need to survive until some arbitrary week to win — you need to survive as long as it takes to outlast all your opponents. Even in small pools, achieving that goal often requires you to last deep into the season. If you simply take the safest survivor pick each week, you will run out of good options later in the year and be at a disadvantage. In addition, you may miss a prime opportunity to pick against the crowd in the early going.
As a result, smart survivor pool players know that you have to be willing to take some risks earlier in the season in order to set up a strong endgame and have a better chance to eventually win the pool.
Balancing Safety, Popularity, and the Future
The best survivor picks would have the following things going for them:
- They have the highest chance of winning.
- They are not popular choices by other entries.
- They are not valuable to save for future weeks.
Of course, finding all three of those things is hard in the real world because…
- The teams most likely to win each week are usually the best teams, who are also the most likely to be big favorites in the future.
- Teams that are most likely to win are also usually popular picks because everyone wants to pick a winner.
- If a team doesn’t have much value as a future pick but happens to have a pretty good chance of winning in a given week because of a great matchup, they also tend to be a popular pick.
Why Pick Popularity Matters
The number of your opponents’ entries picking a specific team matters a lot to survivor pick strategy.
Take a simple one-game example from Week 1 this year, Bills vs. Jets, where everyone who correctly picks the winning team goes into a blind draw to claim the prize. If the Bills have a 70-percent chance of beating the Jets but 90 percent of your pool is picking them, which option is better to maximize your winnings?
Taking the underdog Jets would be the better pick in that case. Sure, you would only pick the winner correctly 30 percent of the time, but if the Jets did win, you would have a great chance of winning the pool.
Meanwhile, the horde of Bills backers would still lose 30 percent of the time, but even when the Bills win, those entries would still need to get super lucky to win the tiebreaker draw against 90 percent of the entries in the pool.
The wrinkle here is that the answer to which team is a better option changes with expected pick popularity. If only 60 percent of the public was picking the favored Bills (instead of 90 percent) and 40 percent was taking the Jets (instead of 10), then the Bills would provide the higher expected profit in terms of expected pool winnings.
That’s a simplistic example, but this concept is how you determine the “expected value” of making a particular survivor pick. Expected value reflects the benefit of picking a particular team with respect to all the possible outcomes of every game on the weekly schedule.
You Win Pools By Getting Picks Right While Your Opponents Lose
If a large amount of entries are picking the same team as you, that limits your expected value. You will all advance together or be eliminated together.
Some weeks, the most popular options are the best options, but in plenty of other weeks, taking a less-popular-but-nearly-as-safe team can provide more bang for your buck.
Over the past three years, some upsets have resulted in large chunks of survivor pools being wiped out when hugely popular teams lose. Survivor players that have won pools have benefited greatly from these upsets by avoiding those popular choices.
- In 2017, 37 percent of remaining entries were eliminated when Pittsburgh lost to Jacksonville in Week 5
- In 2018, 30 percent of the pubic was knocked out when the Saints lost in Week , and 58 percent of those that were left were eliminated two weeks later when the Vikings were upset by Buffalo
- In 2019, over 80 percent of all remaining entries were eliminated when the Saints and Colts lost in the same week
The best survivor players know when it makes sense to take the top favorites but also when to avoid them if they are too popular relative to their actual odds of winning.
Other Strategy Considerations for Survivor
In addition to staying on top of pick popularity and expected value, there are a whole host of strategy considerations that go into making the best survivor pick each week.
One key thing to remember is that there is no universal best pick for all types of survivor pools because different pool rules impact optimal pick strategy. For example, “strike” pools (that is, survivor pools where your first incorrect pick doesn’t actually eliminate you from the pool) present a whole new set of considerations.
If you are “ahead on strikes,” meaning that you have yet to make an incorrect pick while most of your pool has already used up their strike, then picking the most popular team can make more sense. If that pick loses, a bunch of your opponents who already have a strike will be eliminated, while you will soldier on.
But if you are “behind on strikes,” then the opposite strategy is better. Even more than usual, you need to avoid the popular teams that others will be taking because you cannot make up ground on players with no strikes by following the crowd.
In addition, your survivor pool’s size (i.e. the total number of entries) is another big strategy factor. The more entries you need to beat, the longer the pool is expected to last, and the more risk you will need to take to differentiate your picks from the masses. In bigger pools, saving good teams to use in the best possible spot instead of burning them all early becomes even more important.
Final Thoughts on How to Win Your Survivor Pool
The strategy factors we covered in this post are examples of what it takes to maximize your edge in NFL survivor pools. Most players aren’t thinking about them or don’t appreciate their importance as much as they should. If you can effectively incorporate this level of thinking into your survivor pick decisions, you will win survivor pools more often.
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Whether you go it on your own or put the football pool pros in your corner, good luck this year in your survivor contests, and we hope you learned something from this article. Winning a pool requires both luck and skill, but the more skill you have, the more likely you are to win.