NFL survivor pools provide the opportunity to win big prizes if you can outwit and outlast your fellow pool opponents. They have a simple appeal: Just a pick a team that wins! However, the scarcity introduced by only being able to pick each team once means that complex analysis is necessary for when to best use specific teams. The most likely outcome is that you don’t win because survivor pools are high-risk ventures, but if you have a sound strategy, you can greatly improve your chances compared to the typical contestant. In this post, we’ll explain some of the basics and offer up tips and advice for how to win your pool in 2021 (or at least have better odds!).
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NFL Survivor Pool Strategy: Tips, advice for making the best picks
Early Survival Isn’t the End Goal
As strange as it sounds, giving yourself the best chance to survive a week can sometimes be a terrible decision. In fact, that strategy often prevents you from winning your pool because it usually entails picking a team that many of your opponents also pick.
To understand optimal strategy, you must recognize that a survivor pool is a zero-sum game. You can only beat an opponent if your pick wins and their pick loses. That obviously can’t happen if you pick the same team.
Remember, you don’t just need to survive until some arbitrary week to win a survivor pool. 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.
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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 that 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 opponent entries picking a specific team matters a lot in survivor pick strategy. When beating an opponent requires picking a different team than they do, you can’t maximize your edge without successfully anticipating how your opponents are likely to act.
Take a simple one-game example, 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 team is the better pick?
If you care about maximizing your long-term profits from survivor pools, taking the underdog Jets would probably be better. The bad news is you would only pick the winner correctly 30 percent of the time, but when the Jets did win, you would have a great chance of winning the pool.
Meanwhile, even when the Bills win, entries picking them would still need to get super lucky to win the tiebreaker draw against 90 percent of the entries in the pool that made the same pick.
The wrinkle here is that the answer to which team is a better pick changes based on pick popularity expectations. If just 60 percent of the pool picked the Bills instead of 90 percent and 40 percent picked Jets instead of 10 percent, then the Bills would provide more expected profit.
That’s a simplified example, but what we are doing here is determining the “Expected Value” of making a particular survivor pick. Expected Value (or “EV” for short) reflects the benefit of picking a particular team considering all the possible outcomes of the week as well as the expected pick popularity of every team.
We use EV calculations extensively in our NFL Survivor Picks product, and it even includes a customizable Expected Value calculator.
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Making Contrarian Survivor Pool Picks
If a large number of entries are picking the same team as you, it limits your Expected Value. You will either all survive together, in which case you haven’t gained any sort of relative advantage, or be eliminated together.
In some weeks, the most popular survivor picks are the best options, but in plenty of other weeks, taking a less popular but nearly as safe team compared to a popular favorite can provide a much better risk-vs-reward proposition.
In recent years, some major upsets have resulted in large chunks of survivor pools being wiped out when very popular picks lose. Many players who have won pools have benefited greatly from these results when they avoid the most popular picks.
- 2017: 37 percent of remaining entries were eliminated when Pittsburgh lost to Jacksonville in Week 5.
- 2018: 30 percent of the pubic was knocked out when the Saints lost in Week 1, and 58 percent of remaining entries were eliminated two weeks later when the Vikings were upset by Buffalo.
- 2019: Over 80 percent of all remaining entries were eliminated when the Saints and Colts lost in the same week.
- 2020: 29 percent of the public was eliminated by Minnesota’s loss to Dallas in Week 11, and 24 percent were eliminated by the Rams’ loss to the Jets in Week 15.
The sharpest survivor pool players know when it makes more sense to take the top favorites and when it’s better to avoid them. Our customized, pool-specific survivor pick rankings take all of the necessary factors into account and guide you the right way.
Other Strategy Considerations for Survivor
In addition to staying on top of pick popularity and expected value data, a host of other strategy considerations go into making the best survivor pick each week.
The most important thing to recognize is that there is no universal “best pick” for all types of survivor pools because optimal pick strategy depends on your pool’s size, rules, and other considerations. For instance, how does your entry’s positioning in terms of picks still available compare to your opponents’? Are you playing multiple entries? And so on…
As an example of pool rules impacting strategy, consider “strike” pools (survivor pools in which your first incorrect pick doesn’t actually eliminate you from the pool), which present a whole new set of considerations.
If you are “ahead on strikes” in a strike pool (meaning that you have yet to make an incorrect pick while most of your opponents have), then picking a more popular team can make more sense. If your pick loses, a bunch of your opponents who already have a strike will be eliminated while you simply take a strike and soldier on. If you are “behind on strikes,” then the opposite strategy applies. Even more so than usual, you need to avoid the popular teams that your opponents will be picking because you cannot make up ground on players who haven’t used a strike by following their lead.
Finally, the bigger your pool, the more entries you need to beat — and, thus, the longer the pool is expected to last. In larger pools, you need to both (a) take more calculated gambles to differentiate your picks from the masses, and (b) save more good teams to use in the future rather than burning all of them early.
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 or don’t understand how to apply them to weekly pick making. If you can effectively incorporate this level of thinking into your survivor pick decisions, you will win survivor pools much more often in the long run.
If you’d prefer to outsource all the necessary data gathering and math to the experts, you can subscribe to TeamRankings and we’ll apply all of these advanced strategies to customized picks for your NFL survivor pools — and you can try them out for free at the beginning of the season.
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.