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 26 seasons, 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.
So now that we have the concept understood, let's start talking some strategy. That's why we are playing these contests, right? We play to win the game, the pool, and hopefully the big prize. I completely understand that, and I wanted to write this article for everyone interested in not just playing in these contests but for those of you who want to be alive and kicking as we start the Christmas season. With many years under my belt playing these types of contests, it is time to share what I have learned and hopefully help you on the way to the winner's circle. This article will go over general strategy, and later on this summer I will be writing my preliminary plan and roadmap to winning a Survivor pool contest for 2013. In addition, Footballguys will also be holding a staff Survivor pool contest this year, complete with some commentary from yours truly amongst other contributors and you can follow our progress.
Enough is enough -- time to get down to business. Let's talk about how to win a Survivor pool.
THE RULES of Engagement
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. Let's dig in to my strategy rules:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Rivalries are bad -- avoid them at all costs. This rule goes in lockstep with Rule 3 when it comes to planning out the entire season. I mentioned above to avoid divisional games as there are natural rivalries here, but do not overlook ANY kind of potential revenge factor for a game. When you consider picking a game, think about the last time that these two teams met. Any bad blood left? How long ago was it? Did they face one another in the postseason? Also consider both player and coaching moves that could spark a revenge factor. If you don't think that Wes Welker will want to play extra hard this year against Denver or if Andy Reid will be coaching more against Philadelphia, think again.
- Home vs. Away -- If at all possible, try and stick with a home team. They are usually the favorite for a reason, and the home cooking usually helps. A great team on the road against a bad team may look like an easy pick, but you just never know when that bad team will get up for a given game and a good team will have a letdown. If you get tripped up by taking a team away from home, don't say I never warned you.
- Steal a game early. This is an interesting rule, and one I try and follow in big contests (where I think the contest may go well into December) or if I have a buy-back option. Over the course of 17 weeks, at some point you are going to have to take an average NFL team for your pick, so why not get it out of the way early? If you foresee a team getting off to a quick start, by all means grab that win in September and burn a team you would not ever think of picking later in the year. Philadelphia is a great example from 2012. They started the year 3-1 but faded rapidly after their defense and Michael Vick fell apart. Using the Eagles in September would have earned you another week where you could use a better squad later in the year.
- At some point, you have to use an average team -- plan accordingly. While everyone hopes that the contests will not run all 17 weeks, odds are that it will take at least 12-14 weeks to run a given Survivor pool. That means you will be picking some teams that may not be a dominant club or even a solid playoff contender. Finding the right matchups on the schedule -- and possibly stealing a game early -- will help you save those better teams later.
- Save a good team for later. This one goes along with Rules 6 and 7 about stealing a win and using an average team, and of course it makes good sense to save those better franchises with a great chance to win in a given week for as long as possible. The benefit here is that if you can wait to use those strong teams, odds are that the rest of the teams alive in the pool will have already used them by the time you pick them. That's a second bonus as you can root against the other picks in your pool that week.
- Bye Weeks are big. Teams tend to play better coming off of a bye week, especially if they are a home favorite against a team that is not well rested. Looking at the schedule for these kinds of inequalities in rest for one team over another can give you a solid edge.
- Short Weeks are almost as big as Bye Weeks. Similar to the Bye Week rule, a team playing on the road on Thursday night after a Sunday game, especially on the road, has a big hill to climb. On the flip side, a team playing after a Thursday night game has extra rest heading into that week and has an advantage. Plan accordingly.
- Find the tough weeks on the schedule. This may sound easy, but quite often there is a week or two on the NFL schedule that will be a really tough one to pick. I am not just talking about a week where there are six or more teams on a bye week here -- I mean there are going to be weeks where bad teams square off against each other, and good teams do the same. You want to find those contests where it is David vs. Goliath, and you always want to be on the side of Goliath. Look hard at every week at that schedule.
- Momentum is your friend. This is where re-planning throughout the year can make an impact. If a team is on a roll, good or bad, take advantage of it -- especially if the team may not feel like a top notch club. A team that has won 2-3 games in a row and then heads home for their next game against a weak opponent is often a great option to select for a given week. Conversely, a team that has fallen on hard times can stay on that downward spiral trend -- so picking against that team can also pay off big.
- Las Vegas can be your friend. Remember having that urge in grade school to copy off of someone else? When in doubt as to which team to pick in a given week, sometimes taking a look over someone's shoulder means using the Las Vegas point spread and picking the biggest favorite you can find. There's nothing wrong with that when you have a tough choice to make.
- Chopping isn't so bad. "Chopping" is a term for splitting the winnings / prizes for a game when it gets down to the last 2-3 players. If you think that this is in your best interests and are fearful of losing at the very end of the pool, go ahead and take the split. Something is better than nothing.
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 will get you a long way towards winning that pool.
Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org.