There are all kinds of games that you can play with football as the backdrop. Fantasy football is the King of the Hill, but it is not the only game in town. Office pools are all over the place with varying formats -- picking every game winner either against the spread or by ranking each game on a point scale (also known as a confidence pool). Another favorite game that is not quite as common but that has been around for quite a while is the Eliminator or Survivor pool.
The reality television show "Survivor" has been on 30+ seasons (believe it or not, the anniversary of the first Survivor season finale just passed, on August 23rd - way back in 2000), and the premise has been the same since the beginning -- Outwit, Outplay, Outlast. The concept is pretty simple, and has been around for ages -- last man (or woman) standing wins. That is the idea behind Eliminator or Survivor pools -- everyone is on the same footing when the season starts, and all you have to do is to pick one team to win their game that given week. If you are right, you move on to the next week, but if they lose -- you are eliminated from the pool. The other trick is that once you pick a given team, you cannot use them again the rest of the way, making it progressively harder to find that winning team each week.
Variations on this theme do exist, including pools where you can "buy back in" after one misstep and also the inverted method where you have to pick a team that will lose that week instead of win. All of them are valid ways to play, but for simplicity I am going to focus on the simplest version here -- win or go home every week. Also for ease of description, I will simply call this contest a Survivor pool.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article on these types of leagues (Survivor Pool Strategy), and back then I promised readers that I would follow up that article with a “Master Plan” prior to Week 1 for this coming NFL regular season. This is that article. It would be a good idea to refresh your minds as to the “Rules of Engagement” I have learned over the years when it comes to playing in these types of contests, and I will refer back to those rules when I outline this plan. In addition, I also produced a handy dandy chart to refer to that can be found in my other survivor article from the preseason (Prepping for Survivor Leagues), which took two years to finally get to a chart that I was happy with and ready to share. All of this information, along with the latest news, is what led to this plan. So here we go.
THE PRESEASON MASTER PLAN
As I mentioned earlier, I have learned a lot of lessons on what to do (and what not to do) when it comes to being competitive in Survivor pools. Having played in these types of contests for nearly two decades, I have come up with a number of rules that I try to adhere to when it comes to developing my plan to be both competitive and keep my entry alive in these contests, year after year. That was the main subject for the first part of this series, but now it is time to apply some of those rules to develop my first take at a Master Plan. Keep in mind, all good plans have some wiggle room and ability to change, so nothing is set in stone – but if I was forced to pick 17 winners in a row before the league kicks off after Labor Day, this would be my best attempt. Here we go:
Applying the first rule:
First rule of Survivor pools -- pick good teams. Yes, this is the kind of deep analysis you can expect from this article. Seriously though, this sounds simple, but it is important to start with your list of teams that you want to use this season. I tend to start by looking at the teams that made it to the playoffs from the year before and also any team that had at least nine wins a year ago.
OK – Starting with good teams, I picked out the teams with at least eight wins last year. That led me to the following teams:
AFC – New England (14), Kansas City (12), Oakland (12), Pittsburgh (11), Miami (10), Denver (9), Houston (9), Tennessee (9), Baltimore (8) and Indianapolis (8)
NFC – Dallas (13), Atlanta (11), New York Giants (11), Seattle (10-5-1), Green Bay (10), Detroit (9), Tampa Bay (9), Washington (8-7-1) and Minnesota (8)
That list gives me ten AFC teams and nine NFC teams – 19 in all – which is a pretty solid start to figuring out my Survivor Plan.
Now let’s look at Rule #2:
Find bad teams -- Similar concept to the first rule, but this is actually a bit harder. Teams that are terrible last year often make major changes because they have to and possibly because they changed over coaches, personnel or both. If you can predict the 3-5 worst teams for the coming year, though, you will be well on your way to winning your Survivor pool.
Well, I believe that the three worst teams for 2017 will be the Jets, Bills and 49ers - with Cleveland as a close fourth. Now last year I labeled the 49ers, Browns and Titans as the three worst teams, and that was spot on for the worst two clubs (Cleveland, San Francisco) but way off for the Titans. That just goes to show how hard it is to figure out the truly bad teams. That said, I feel good about my bad picks (that sounds weird, but it works for me). I like to target teams with weakness at quarterback, defense or both. The league is a pass-happy, quarterback driven league, so you better either have a good QB or a defense to stop one to compete.
Let's start the discussion with the Jets. They look terrible, from top to bottom. Brandon Marshall left town (sort of, signed with the Giants) and the Jets were relying on Quincy Enunwa as their top receiver (yikes), but he's now out for the season, leaving Robby Anderson and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins as the top options in the passing game. Odds are that they will try and run with Matt Forte and Bilal Powell, but when you fall behind by double digits, are they really going to stick to that plan? Then again, the quarterback options are also nightmarish, so expect this team to be a train wreck. So now you can see why I will love picking against them, especially when they are on the road.
Cleveland might be better than last year, but I have trouble thinking that they will win more than six games at most, especially in the AFC North. ONce again, I am looking at teams with bad quarterback situations, and the Browns are going to go to battle this year with Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler and rookie DeShone Kizer. With Terrelle Pryor gone to Washington and no stud tight end after releasing Gary Barnidge, I see another long year for Cleveland. Picking against the Browns is going to be another strong choice this year.
The quarterback mess them continues with San Francisco, with two underwhelming "veterans" in Brian Hoyer (probable Week 1 starter), Matt Barkley and rookie C.J. Beathard. Pierre Garcon and Jeremy Kerley are the top receivers, so opposing defenses should not be too intimidated by that duo (and the quarterback as well). Carlos Hyde has even been rumored to be on the outs with yet another coaching staff, so expect another tough year for the 49ers - and another good year to pick against them for Survivor.
The last two teams I will mention (as I expand this list) are the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars. The Bills have traded away their top cornerback and their top receiver (when healthy) in Sammy Watkins. Tyrod Taylor is left with unknowns at wide receiver, LeSean McCoy (also rumored to be on the trading block) and tight end Charles Clay. Jacksonville joins my "Bottom 5" with their woes at quarterback, switching between Blake Bortles and now Chad Henne all preseason. Bortles remains the Week 1 starter, but if he cannot hold down that job ahead of Henne, all hope for a good 2017 is lost. While I may not go out of my way to target these two teams in Survivor, I will certainly look for favorable spots to choose against them.
Now I have three bad teams marked on my schedule, along with two extra teams to consider. Matchups will dictate which teams to target, but when in doubt I will look to these teams (and their opponents) for a win.
And then, Rule #3:
Start planning the entire season, almost. I like to look at the season in six stages, breaking up the NFL regular season into 3-game groups from Week 1 onward. That makes for five groups (Weeks 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, 10-12 and 13-15) plus the last two weeks of the year. I leave Weeks 16 and 17 in isolation for two reasons. First, I hope that the contest I am playing is over by then, and I don't have to worry about those weeks. Second, those two weeks are now riddled with divisional matchups, which make them very hard to pick. I know going in to that phase of the regular season that I will have to be making difficult selections, and I will leave those for the end game of the contest. If I think that the contest will last to Week 16 or 17, I will start planning for that eventuality around Week 13 or 14.
My plan here is to script out the first 15 games, and then play it by ear for the last two weeks when the NFL Schedule is riddled with divisional games. By then I hope that (A) the contest might be over, (B) the good teams (and bad teams) will present themselves quickly, and (C) I will still be alive and kicking with just two games to go.
Rather than breaking this down team by team, let's go week by week, which is what we really want to know about anyway:
Teams to consider: New England, Carolina, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Atlanta, Houston
Summary: Last year, Week 1 had the longest list of teams to consider with every team in play. This year is really a completely different story, and one that could make or break many Survivor players right out of the gate. The seven teams listed above are the only teams that Las Vegas currently has favored by four or more points for the first week of the season, and even then I am scratching off the Bills hosting the divisional rival Jets at home in a game where pretty much anything could happen. Houston (hosting Jacksonville) is in a similar boat, although I like the Texans to do much better than Buffalo this year. I am going to use the Texans later, so we will pass on them for now. Same for New England, as they host a dangerous Kansas City team on Thursday to kick off the regular season, but could be without Julian Edelman (likely ACL tear). So you can see, even though we have the Vegas lines for Week 1, the choices are dwindling. Dallas is hosting the Giants, another divisional matchup, and will be without Ezekiel Elliott. Atlanta is on the road at what should be a bad Bears team, but outdoors on grass are iffy propositions for the Falcons. Carolina gets a date with the 49ers, but that is also on the road.
So what am I left with? Pittsburgh at Cleveland.
I hear all of you screaming "What!!??" at me for this pick, but here me out. I know I am breaking two rules by taking a road team in a divisional game, but the Steelers simply own the Browns. Since Mike Tomlin took over the team back in 2007, he is 17-3 against Cleveland and one of those losses was a game where Charlie Batch was the starting quarterback. While I am not thrilled with violating two of my Survivor rules, I am taking the Steelers because this is the best mix of taking a big favorite and timing the rest of the schedule for the year. That's why I do this article in the first place.
The Pick: Pittsburgh (at Cleveland)
Teams to consider: Baltimore, Carolina, Oakland and Detroit
Summary: Baltimore hosts Cleveland (good) but this is a divisional game (bad) and I am rather unsure about the Ravens this year. Seattle hosts the 49ers, and while I like Seattle way more than Baltimore, I want to use the Seahawks again later. That leaves Oakland (hosting the Jets) and Carolina (hosting the Bills). Both are viable options, but I see an opportunity to use the Raiders in a few weeks and Carolina is not easy to get in the mix again very soon. So I am taking the Panthers over Buffalo in Carolina's home opener.
The Pick: Carolina (hosting Buffalo)
Teams to consider: Indianpolis, New England, Miami and Baltimore
Summary: This week also looks like a tricky one. Baltimore is hosting Jacksonville, so that is why they are again in consideration here (special note - they are "hosting" the Jaguars in London, which Jacksonville visits seemingly every year, so the home field advantage goes away in this instance). New England (a team that could really be put on this weekly list almost every time) hosts Houston, so I am not a fan of that matchup. Miami visits the Jets, so two strikes (road, divisional game) makes me want to skip this one. Now, if the Colts have Andrew Luck for the Week 3 home game against Cleveland, sign me up. Otherwise I might hold my nose, cross my fingers and take Baltimore, even in London.
The Pick: Indianpolis (hosting Cleveland - hopefully with Andrew Luck), or Baltimore (hosting Jacksonville)
Teams to consider: New England, Arizona, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas and Green Bay
Note - I am going to stop listing New England - they will always be a weekly consideration.
Summary: Dallas hosts the Rams in Week 4, making them a prime target if it were not for a later game in October I want to use them. Arizona hosts the 49ers and Green Bay hosts the Bears, but I want to avoid divisional games. That also takes the Bengals (at Cleveland) out of consideration. My favorite of the Week 4 options are the Falcons hosting the Bills, a contest that has two extra pluses towards a likely favorite in Atlanta. First, Denver travels to Buffalo in Week 3, which could leave the Bills a bit banged up for Week 4. Atlanta heads into their bye after Week 4, so expect them to step up and get a home win in this spot.
The Pick: Atlanta (vs. Buffalo)
Teams to consider: Indianapolis, Pittsburgh (likely used already), Oakland
Summary: Week 5 marks the start of the seven week stretch of bye weeks, so the level of difficulty certainly increases. Combining teams taking the week off with fewer teams to choose from with each passing week, and getting to Week 12 can be a big challenge. That's part of the reason this planning is so important.
Week 5 is not an easy choice, as our five favorite teams to pick on are either playing each other (Jets at Cleveland) or playing some tougher choices. Jacksonville visits Pittsburgh, but I chose to use them in Week 1. The Colts host the 49ers, but again I went with them (I hope) in Week 5 - else they are definitely in play for Week 5. This is the first week where I am going outside of my "bottom five" plan and going with a team I chose to save from earlier, the Oakland Raiders. Baltimore heads out to northern California after hosting the Steelers, their biggest rivalry game every year. Baltimore plays three divisional games in their first four weeks and Jacksonville at home, so the Week 5 contest at Oakland is a prime spot for a letdown. Take the Raiders in Week 5.
The Pick: Oakland (vs. Baltimore)
Teams to consider: Houston, New England (yes, again), Washington, Baltimore
Summary: New England visits the Jets, so again - two strikes (road game, divisional game). Washington hosts the 49ers, making them a great selection, especially with San Francisco in their third consecutive road game and second in a row to the East Coast. Houston hosts the Browns, and I am tempted by that choice, but I do not see a better opportunity to use Washington on the schedule - and I see a good spot later to use the Texans. Lock in Washington here.
The Pick: Washington (vs. San Francisco)
Teams to consider: Dallas, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Arizona, Carolina
Summary: Arizona will be favored against the Rams but that divisional matchup is in London, so that is an easy fade for me. Carolina visits the Bears, but I used them already. So let us check on our bottom five yet again - only two teams are on the road (Jets at Miami, Jacksonville at Indianapolis) and I want no part of those two matchups. Tampa Bay visits Buffalo, but that is a trap game in my book. The Buccaneers host New England in Week 5, visit Arizona in Week 6 and then have to host the Panthers in Week 8. That screams "trap game" for Week 7 against Buffalo, so steer clear of that one. Football players are human too, and they cannot realistically get up for all 17 weeks in a season, so do not be surprised if Tampa Bay plays down to their competition in Week 7. Tennessee visits Cleveland, so they are in play and are probably my second choice for Week 7, but I like Dallas in this spot as we pick on the 49ers for the second week in a row. Even with Elliott probably still suspended, Dallas will be getting ready for his return and should be well rested in this spot after their Week 6 bye. I will take the Cowboys even on the road against the 49ers in Week 7.
The Pick: Dallas (at San Francisco)
Teams to consider: Minnesota, New England, Philadelphia, Oakland, Atlanta, New Orleans
Summary: New England hosts the Chargers for a 1PM East Coast kickoff, and I really like them in this spot - but I need to steal a few victories here and there to pull off the perfect season, and I think this is a week I might have a great option. First, the other choices, and why I am skipping over them. Atlanta should also be used already, but they host the Jets in a good spot if you saved them until now. Oakland should be used by now, and on the road in Buffalo is not a fantastic spot with the weather starting to turn. I am not a fan of using Drew Brees' Saints outdoors in Chicago either. Minnesota visits Cleveland, and they are my third option - after the Eagles. Philadelphia gets to play host to the 49ers for an early Sunday game in a week where San Francisco will be playing their third road game in the past four contests and the second time on the East Coast at 1PM local time in three weeks. This is a perfect spot to try and steal a win here, so I am going for it with the Eagles in Week 8.
The Pick: Philadelphia (vs. San Francisco)
Teams to consider: Arizona Green Bay, Seattle and the New York Giants
Summary: Welcome to another tough week in Week 9, where six teams are on a bye. You can gamble on the Giants at home against the Rams or consider sweating through Monday Night Football with Green Bay hosting Detroit, but I prefer either Arizona (at San Francisco) or Seattle (vs. Washington). My choice is to avoid the divisional game and go with the Seahawks hosting Washington after what should be a huge game for the D.C. franchise against their main rival in Dallas in Week 8. A long road trip with a probable letdown is the perfect recipe to use Seattle, even against a decent opponent. This is why I have been saving Seattle.
The Pick: Seattle (vs. Washington)
Teams to consider: New England, Houston, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Detroit and the New York Giants
Summary: Six teams are in play, but then again - not really. New England (at Denver) always makes the list, so scratch them off. Houston visits the Rams, so no thanks. Green Bay is at Chicago, so again - pass. Now we have just three with Detroit hosting Cleveland, the Giants in San Francisco and Tampa Bay hosting the Jets. Three viable options, but lets go with the best team not used so far hosting the worst. I rank them Buccaneers, Detroit then New York, and I am taking Tampa Bay.
The Pick: Tampa Bay (vs. New York Jets) (Detroit and the Giants are "Plan B")
Teams to consider: New England and Minnesota
Summary: The pickings got slim again here with the final week of byes and six teams with the weekend off. That makes it much harder - and requires good planning. That's why you are here, and why I write this article. Minnesota hosts the Rams and New England plays Oakland in Mexico City, so all bets off for that contest. So the bad news is that all we have to use as a really good option are the Vikings, but I have some good news. First, Minnesota is better than the Rams (yes, solid analysis right there). The better reason for being excited for Minnesota here is that this is their only home game for more than a month (Week 9 to Week 14). When teams rarely get a home game they should be extra motivated to get a win, and I am reasonably confident and comfortable with picking the Vikings in Week 11.
The Pick: Minnesota (vs. Los Angeles Rams)
Teams to consider: Carolina, Cincinnati, Kansas City, New England, New Orleans, Arizona, Philadelphia and Seattle
Summary: Seven teams make the short list, but several are probably off the table already. The best options are Seattle (at San Francisco), Cincinnati (at Cleveland), Carolina (at the Jets), Kansas City (hosting the Bills) and Arizona (hosting Jacksonville). Scratching off road games and division games and we finally have a chance to use Arizona at home against one of our projected bottom five teams. Sold.
The Pick: Arizona (vs. Jacksonville)
Teams to consider: Arizona, Kansas City, Los Angeles Chargers and New England
Summary: Arizona hosts the Rams, a divisional game - and we probably just used them. The Chargers host Cleveland, so that's an option if the Chargers look to be in good form, but I am not counting on that. Kansas City is on the road, but it is against the New York Jets, so that should be a favorable spot. That is likely my choice with New England on the road in the division with a trip to Buffalo. Not the easiest of decisions, but this might be the best spot to use Kansas City against a team that should be looking towards 2018.
The Pick: Kansas City (at New York Jets), else New England (at Buffalo)
Teams to consider: Cincinnati, Green Bay, Houston, New England, Philadelphia, Seattle and Denver
Summary: December rolls out in full force with just four games left in the regular season, and with it Week 14 looks like the last chance to choose between several realistic options. If the Bengals look good at this point of the season, it might be a good time to use them as they host the Bears. Denver also hosts the Jets, and if the Broncos look solid at this point, they are a very good choice. For now, I am putting both Denver and Cincinnati in the "Plan B" category as I just do not know what to expect from them this year, especially late in the season. Green Bay is in Cleveland, Seattle visits Jacksonville, New England travels to Miami (always a battle) and the Eagles visit the Rams, but I am looking squarely at the last option as the best choice. Houston is hosting the 49ers in their second road game in a row, and the Texans only have San Francisco (Week 14) and the Steelers (Week 16) as their final home games. Houston could be in a playoff push and the 49ers are likely looking at next season by this point, so I am taking Houston - but Green Bay, Denver and Cincinnati will be ones to watch.
The Pick: Houston (vs. San Francisco) as "Plan A", but Green Bay, Cincinnati and Denver all reasonable "Plan B" options
Teams to Consider: Detroit, Seattle, Baltimore, New Orleans and Tennessee
Summary: The season is winding down at this point and so are our options. Five teams are in play, with three against the bottom five. Seattle hosts the Rams and Detroit hosts the Bears, but I do not like divisional options, especially in December. Baltimore visits Cleveland, so scratch them off as well. Tennessee visits the team I seem to love to pick against, San Francisco - but they come in as my second choice. Instead I am going to select New Orleans, at home in the dome against the Jets. Drew Brees should be able to easily blow out the Jets in Week 15 as we get to use New Orleans in a very favorable spot.
The Pick: New Orleans (vs. New York Jets)
Teams to Consider: Los Angeles Chargers, New England and Tennessee
Summary: Thnigs are wrapping up down quickly here, with just two weeks left on the season. That's good news, because we are running out of teams. The Chargers (at the Jets) and New England (hosting Buffalo) are tough choices, but Tennessee is hosting the Los Angeles Rams in an early game at home. The Titans could be pushing for the playoffs, and after a tune-up in San Francisco in Week 15 I like the Titans to end the year with a win here and next week at home against Jacksonville.
The Pick: Tennessee (vs. the Rams)
Teams to Consider: Everyone not used (half-joking), but probably Minnesota, New England, Pittsburgh, Miami and Tennessee
Summary: If you have managed to save any of the teams above, nice job. My plan only has Miami left (and possibly New England) - and the Dolphins are hosting the Bills in the season finale. The Steelers and the Browns are a big rivalry, but a one-sided one. Remember my rule of not picking rivalries? Well, good luck in Week 17 with every contest lined up to be a divisional game. Looking at the likely situation, Miami could be pushing for a wild card (I still have New England winning the division, and probably resting this week) so a win over the Bills - another team looking towards next year - could be what they need the most. Take that motivation to complete your perfect season.
The Pick: Miami (vs. Buffalo)
I know that this has been a long article, but I hope that the read was worth it. Here's a quick summary of how well I did using my "winning teams" list:
AFC – New England (Week 13-Option 2), Kansas City (13-Option 1), Oakland (5), Pittsburgh (1), Miami (17), Denver (14-Plan B), Houston (14-Plan A), Tennessee (16), Baltimore (3-Plan B) and Indianapolis (3-Plan A)
NFC – Dallas (7), Atlanta (4), New York Giants (10-Plan B), Seattle (9), Green Bay (14-Plan B), Detroit (10-Plan B), Tampa Bay (10-Plan A), Washington (6) and Minnesota (8)
Teams used not with 8+ wins last year - Carolina (2), Minnesota (11),Cincinnati (14-Plan B), Philadelphia (8), Arizona (12)
As you can see, I used all 19 teams on the list as either a primary pick (13 of the 17 weeks) or as a possible secondary choice. Only four times did I go off the list, and three of the four primary selections are facing a Bottom 5 team that week. Minnesota is the lone case of here, with the toughest week of the schedule (Week 11) having the Rams visit the Vikings in what should be a very favorable matchup. Overall I am quite satisfied with these results, and I think this is a great start.
Also as a summary, here is how often I used each of my bottom five teams for my primary choice:
Cleveland (twice - Weeks 1 and 3), San Francisco (4 - Weeks 6, 7, 8 and 14), Buffalo (3 - Weeks 2, 4 and 17), Jacksonville (once - Week 12) and the Jets (three times - Weeks 10, 13 and 15).
Only three times did our primary choice NOT come against the Bottom 5. I like those odds.
Bonus - New England, the team that should be favored nearly every week (based on this article, I see them as strong favorites every week but Week 15 at Pittsburgh), is NOT USED throughout this plan. That means when the plan starts to look off for any reason, dropping the Patriots into the plan at any point is a viable option to get back on track.
Survivor pools are a lot of fun, and it makes for a great contest to keep you interested in the NFL for most - if not all - of the regular season. Finding a contest like this and potentially winning the prize is a great way to enjoy the sport we all love in yet another way, so go ahead and play in one this year. With any luck, proper planning and the advice you read here (along with our weekly staff Survivor contest) will get you a long way towards winning that pool.
Lastly - I get this question most every season. I have had very little success finding a national Survivor pool contest, and if you know of some, please let me know. For now, I have learned of only one for 2017 which is run by Yahoo!. The link is provided below.
Best of luck this season.
Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org.