I Will Survive: Managing Survivor Leagues - Footballguys

Survivor Pool Strategy - Outwit, Outplay, Outlast - Planning Out 17 Weeks of Victories

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 23 - 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, let's focus on the simplest version here -- win or go home every week. Also for ease of description, 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:

The 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.

2017 Change: I am going to not just look at who was good last year. If anything rings true in the NFL, it is that the prior season does not always indicate how a team will do next year. Rather, I am going to use Las Vegas against itself (like I always like to do) and just take a hard look at every team that is favored to win at least 8.5 games.

This takes me back to the Prepping for Survivor Leagues article, where I first introduced this Table:

Winning Teams
Expected Wins
Non-Winning Teams
Expected Wins
New England
11.5
Baltimore
8.0
Philadelphia
10.5
Oakland
8.0
Pittsburgh
10.5
Seattle
8.0
Green Bay
10.0
Tennessee
8.0
LA Rams
10.0
Denver
7.5
Minnesota
10.0
Detroit
7.5
LA Chargers
9.5
NY Giants
7.5
New Orleans
9.5
Indianapolis
7.0
Atlanta
9.0
Washington
7.0
Jacksonville
9.0
Chicago
6.5
Carolina
8.5
Cincinnati
6.5
Dallas
8.5
Miami
6.5
Houston
8.5
Tampa Bay
6.5
Kansas City
8.5
Arizona
6.0
San Francisco
8.5
NY Jets
6.0
Buffalo
5.5
Cleveland
5.5

Table 1: Expected Wins for All 32 NFL Franchises in 2018

Fixating on the left side of that table, I have 15 teams that are expected to win at least 8.5 games. That seems like a very good list to target for our first 15 weeks of the season. That is how the Survivor Plan will start for 2018.

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.

This year I am taking the approach of targeting the teams expected to get 6.5 wins or fewer - AND have issues at quarterback. The first group (6.5 wins or fewer) limits me to eight teams, but I can eliminate Cincinnati (Andy Dalton, for better or worse), Tampa Bay (once Jameis Winston is back), Miami (Ryan Tannehill) and Chicago (Mitchell Trubisky). As a result, I am looking hard at games against Buffalo, Cleveland, Arizona, and the New York Jets. That is my primary focus, but the first group (Bengals, Buccaneers, Dolphins, and Bears) are certainly not off limit. The correct mix of games against these 4-8 teams with an emphasis on the Top 15 teams in Table 1 will put you far ahead this year.

Now that I have several bad teams marked on my schedule, matchups will dictate which teams to target, but when in doubt I will look to these teams (and their opponents) for a win. Time to look at our next rule, 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 into 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:

Week 1 Breakdown

Teams to consider: Baltimore, Green Bay, New England, New Orleans and Pittsburgh

Summary: Last year, Week 1 had the longest list of teams to consider with every team in play. This year is trickier, as I am letting other key weeks (Weeks 8, 9, 11 and 13) really help me to shuffle around my choices. At first, I liked the Steelers at Cleveland, but I would rather have a home team if I can, and Pittsburgh does have better matchups later in the season. New England is going to be a possibility almost every week, so I will not bore you with them in every blurb. My focus here is either Green Bay (hosting the Bears) or the Saints (hosting Tampa Bay). Both are divisional matchups, but I like New Orleans at home against the Buccaneers with Ryan Fitzpatrick - not the suspended Jameis Winston - in the Big Easy. Taking the Saints gives me the chance to save the rest of these teams and use them in other key spots. The other added bonus in Week 1 is that Las Vegas is closely watching these lines already, and the Saints are favored by more than 9 points at home against Tampa Bay.

The Pick: New Orleans (home against Tampa Bay)

Week 2 Breakdown

Teams to consider: Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers, New Orleans, Philadelphia

Summary: I really want to use the Rams this season and take advantage of a team while healthy. Jared Goff and Todd Gurley at home against Arizona does break that rule of no divisional games, but I want to beat up on Arizona early and often. I have already used the Saints (hosting Cleveland) and I want the Chargers and Eagles later in the year.

The Pick: Los Angeles Rams (hosting Arizona)

Week 3 Breakdown

Teams to consider: Minnesota, New England, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh

Summary: Once again, planning is key - and sometimes the immediate week's best matchup is not the right choice. I really like the Vikings hosting the Bills in Week 3, but Week 11 looks like a nightmare, and only the Vikings look like a strong choice that week. The Eagles host the Colts, who could be bad - or not, with Andrew Luck back. Pittsburgh is in Tampa Bay and New England visits Detroit. I will take the World Champions at home for their first Sunday afternoon home game of the year against a Colts team that has a lot of holes even if Luck is at full strength.

The Pick: Philadelphia (hosting Indianapolis)

Week 4 Breakdown

Teams to consider: Atlanta, Green Bay, Jacksonville, New England, Oakland and Pittsburgh

Summary: Bye weeks start in Week 4, with Carolina and Washington off. Six teams make our "short list", and the Packers hosting the Bills looks pretty attractive. The theme this year is finding the right spots to use these good teams, and really plan out your season. The Patriots host the always problematic divisional rival Dolphins, while Atlanta hosts the Bengals. Oakland hosts the Browns, and if the Raiders look competent, this is where I am leaning. If not, I may just go after the Jaguars here hosting the Jets (especially if New York is a mess). Taking Oakland lets me hold on to the Jaguars and fits the steal-a-game-early rule I like to target for Survivor.

The Pick: Oakland (hosting Cleveland); Plan B = Jacksonville (hosting the New York Jets)

Week 5 Breakdown

Teams to consider: New England, New Orleans, San Francisco

Summary: Week 5 is another pivotal week, and if things play out right for the 49ers, this is the time to use them. San Francisco hosts Arizona (another divisional game, I know) but finding the sweet spot to take the 49ers is not easy. The only game that pops out of the schedule is this one, and I have other plans for the Patriots and I used the Saints in Week 1.

The Pick: San Francisco (hosting Arizona)

Week 6 Breakdown

Teams to consider: Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles Chargers, Minnesota, New England, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh

Summary: Week 6 is a little tricky, but once you start to identify the right times to use our Top 15 teams, it becomes much easier. Atlanta may host Tampa Bay and the Vikings may be hosting Arizona, but one of the best times to use the Texans is right here and now. Houston hosts the Bills, and the only other game I can see using the Texans is way out in Week 13 (hosting Cleveland). Sometimes you take the easy ones as soon as you can, especially in smaller Survivor pools. Another option is to take the Chargers in Cleveland, but that feels riskier.

The Pick: Houston (hosting Buffalo; Plan B = Chargers (at Cleveland)

Week 7 Breakdown

Teams to consider: Minnesota and New England

Summary: I hinted at saving the Vikings for later, so this is the best time to use the Patriots for me. I fully expect that most will have either used the Patriots by now or will be saving them for later - but Week 7 is the right time. New England will be on the road for the first time in nearly a month, and going to Chicago in mid-October should not be that bad at all. I really like taking strong teams in spots where others will shy away, and using New England here saves Minnesota and frees up a lot of good picks down the road. Do not fear the road game here as New England should be a road favorite by at least a touchdown.

The Pick: New England (at Chicago)

Week 8 Breakdown

Teams to consider: New England, Pittsburgh

Summary: New England is on the road again for a divisional contest in Buffalo, but I already plan on using the Patriots in Week 7. That leaves the Steelers as my top choice, and I saved Pittsburgh for this very spot. Cleveland in Pittsburgh is nearly a homecoming game these days for Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. Take the Steelers in this spot with confidence.

The Pick: Pittsburgh (vs. Cleveland)

HALFTIME

After eight regular-season weeks, this is where I want to take a pause and re-evaluate how things are going on the season. If all goes according to plan, I am 8-0 and have used the following teams:

New Orleans, Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia, Oakland, San Francisco, Houston, New England and Pittsburgh

In summary, I have used the Top 3 teams in the win total projections so far, stolen a week with the Raiders and filled up the other four weeks with Top 15 teams. Every contest was a home game except the Patriots at Chicago in a rough Week 7 week, but I did tempt fate a little with three divisional matchups. Even though I said I was focusing on Buffalo, Cleveland and Arizona, only five of the eight games were against these teams. I was judicious in going against the Winston-less Buccaneers early with Saints in Week 1, using the Eagles in their first Sunday home opener against a questionable Colts team and again used New England against a volatile Bears team. In general, if I am successful at 8-0 at this point, I am quite happy.

Now comes the hard part, with the biggest decision weeks in our face for the next two weeks.

Week 9 Breakdown

Teams to consider: Kansas City and Minnesota primarily - but do not rule out Atlanta or Dallas

Summary: Six teams are off in Week 9, and weaker teams are either playing one another (Bills / Bears) or on a bye (Arizona). That leaves Cleveland (at Kansas City) or possibly Washington (at Atlanta) as choices, with Dallas hosting the Titans on Monday Night Football. Both the Falcons and the Cowboys are coming off of Week 8 byes, so if either team looks solid this might be a good spot to jump on them. I am strongly leaning towards Dallas here as they are projected to win 8.5 games, they are home after a bye, and I do not see a better spot to use them the rest of the way. You could argue home games against Washington or Tampa Bay may qualify, but the Redskins always get up for Dallas, and who knows what shape the Buccaneers could be in by Week 16. I am taking Dallas here in an effort to save the rest of the teams. I will note, however, that if Dallas looks bad at this point, Atlanta (at Washington) could be appealing and that is my "Plan B".

The Pick: Plan A - Dallas (vs. Tennessee); Plan B - Atlanta (at Washington)

Week 10 Breakdown

Teams to consider: Atlanta, Green Bay, Kansas City and New Orleans

Summary: If all goes to plan, New Orleans (Week 1) is out of the picture here. Atlanta is at Cleveland, but I much prefer the Falcons at home. Green Bay looks solid (hosting Miami) but I have plans to use them in Week 13. That leaves a Kansas City team hosting Arizona for an early 1:00 PM start for the Cardinals. I expect the Chiefs to be in solid form against a weaker Arizona team on the road.

The Pick: Plan A - Kansas City (vs. Arizona); Plan B - Atlanta (at Cleveland)

Week 11 Breakdown

Teams to consider: Minnesota

Summary: The schedule makers did us no favors this week, as six teams are off and the matchups are rough. Both Buffalo and Cleveland are on byes, and Arizona is hosting Oakland. This is arguably the toughest week on the schedule, and even though I do not like taking road teams or divisional matchups, the Vikings should be good enough to go into Chicago and get a win. It may not be pretty, but Week 11 will take out a lot of players still alive in Survivor contests if they have not planned to save the Vikings for this week. The good news is that you are reading this and will do just that.

The Pick: Minnesota (at Chicago)

Week 12 Breakdown

Teams to consider: Jacksonville, Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh

Summary: Both the Eagles and the Steelers have been used by now, so it is a case of Jaguars or Chargers. Jacksonville is quite tempting on the road at Buffalo, but the Chargers are tough to use in any other spot (expect possibly Week 14 at home against the Bengals). The Jaguars are not an easy team to rely on, but I hope to use them in December with playoff hopes on the line. Week 12 looks perfect for the Chargers as they host what should be a hapless Cardinals team in Los Angeles.

The Pick: Los Angeles Chargers (vs. Arizona)

Week 13 Breakdown

Teams to consider: Green Bay, Houston, and Philadelphia

Summary: I thought long and hard about holding on for the Texans here as they host the Browns, but hosting the Bills in Week 6 is more attractive and avoids a potential issue if the Browns start to come together as a team towards the second half of the season. The Eagles were used already and Washington on a Monday is never easy, so I am squarely on the Packers hosting Arizona in cold Lambeau the first weekend of December for another 1:00 PM Eastern kickoff.

The Pick: Green Bay (hosting Arizona)

Week 14 Breakdown

Teams to consider: Carolina, Los Angeles Chargers, Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans

Summary: December continues in full force with just four weeks to go in the regular season, and we are down to just a few good teams left from Table 1. The Chargers, Rams, and Saints have all been used according to plan, but here is the chance to use the Carolina Panthers, a team rarely even considered all year long. The Panthers travel to Cleveland before three final divisional games in what could be a crucial spot to get a win, and a solid Carolina team could definitely hold it together on the road.

The Pick: Carolina (at Cleveland)

Week 15 Breakdown

Teams to Consider: Atlanta, Green Bay, Jacksonville

Summary: The season is winding down at this point and so are our options. Only three teams are in play, with Green Bay already likely to be used in Week 13. This gives either the Falcons (home against Arizona) or the Jaguars (hosting Washington) as the Plan A or Plan B decisions. Looking back at the key weeks I mentioned earlier - Weeks 9 and 10 - and the decision in Week 10 directly impacts the plan here. Plan A for Weeks 9 and 10 (Dallas, then Kansas City) leaves Atlanta for Week 15, while Plan B (Kansas City, Atlanta) forces the Jacksonville choice. Either is a solid pick, but Week 16 is not easy, and I want Plan A more than Plan B. The added bonus of taking the Falcons in their final home game of the regular season pushes it even further over the top for me.

The Pick: Plan A - Atlanta (hosting Arizona) or Plan B - Jacksonville (hosting Washington)

Week 16 Breakdown

Teams to Consider: Green Bay, Los Angeles Chargers with Dallas and Jacksonville as options

Summary: Things are winding down quickly here, with just two weeks left on the season. That's good news because we are running out of teams. The Packers, Chargers and probably Dallas have all been used in the Plan A approach, so this is where I want to hop on the Jaguar train. Jacksonville travels to Miami, which should be a pushover with the Dolphins expected to win just 6.5 games this year. Traveling in Florida should be easy for the Jaguars, who have a growing fan base now and should be pushing for another playoff berth. Plan B is much weaker with more questionable options such as Tennessee (hosting Washington) one of a few viable options left.

The Pick: Plan A - Jacksonville (at Miami); Plan B - Tennessee (vs. Washington)

WEEK 17 Breakdown

Teams to Consider: Everyone not used (half-joking), but probably Baltimore, Seattle, and Tennessee

Summary: If you have managed to save any of the teams above, nice job. My plan is to focus on the best team projected to have eight wins or more left to me, which comes down to the Ravens, Seahawks or Titans. Baltimore is home against Cleveland, which feels like a much better choice than Tennessee (hosting the Colts) or Seattle (home against Arizona). A case could be made for any or all of the three, but the Ravens feel like the right choice to end on a high note.

The Pick: Baltimore (vs. Cleveland)

PARTING THOUGHTS

I know that this has been a long article, but I hope that the read was worth it. By focusing on the Top 15 teams (the left side of Table 1), I have 15 teams to target across the first 16 weeks of the regular season. I was able to utilize all 15 plus the Oakland Raiders in a favorable spot in Week 4. Plan A uses the Top 16 teams against predominantly the Browns (four times) and Arizona (six times), with a reverse split for Plan B.

Now, here's the odd parts. First, I only went against the Bills once, in Week 6 as Buffalo heads to Houston. I do not like the Bills this year and I do think that they will not do well, but if I wanted to focus on getting good teams in the right spot, the Buffalo schedule is not an easy one to use. Even if we narrow it down to their five non-divisional road games, can you trust Buffalo not to win at Baltimore or against the Colts? Other matchups in Green Bay (Week 4, Oakland is the pick) and Minnesota (Week 3, Philadelphia the choice) are superseded by better options in the best spot to pick those other teams. Ironic that the Bills do not appear more often on the plan. The same can be said about the Jets, who are just too volatile to even target once. I also wonder about how good or bad the Browns will be this year, but Plan A still has the Browns targeted four times - all road games against good teams or a good spot for the Panthers to visit in December. Chicago is the only other team to appear more than once on the opposition plan as they host New England in Week 7 and also host the Vikings in a critical Week 11 spot. I also do not like the Dolphins, yet only Plan A has them on the list with a home game against the not-too-far-away Jacksonville Jaguars late in the year.

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.

Best of luck this season.

Questions, suggestions, and comments are always welcome to pasquino@footballguys.com.