NFL Survivor Pool Strategy 2023: Make Smart Picks This Season

NFL Survivor Pool Strategy 2023: Make Smart Picks This Season article feature image

A survivor pool seems like a simple game, but having a strong NFL survivor pool strategy (i.e. the process of identifying the picks that give you the best chance to win in 2023) is actually quite complex. The 2023 NFL season, with its somewhat unprecedented schedule dynamics, will be no exception.

The good news is that understanding optimal survivor strategy can double or even triple your odds to win your NFL survivor pool (or eliminator pools, knockout pools, suicide pools, last man standing pools, or whatever you call them). However, you will need to learn how to identify the smartest calculated gambles, and have the courage to make them.

In this article, we first review a few important strategy dynamics that survivor pool players will face in 2023. Then, we take a deep dive into some of the foundational principles of survivor pool strategy—the rules and concepts that will win you more pools in the long run.

Our goal here is to present a high level playbook for how to compete like a pro in NFL survivor pools. Whether you can stick to this playbook and avoid the biases that doom most survivor players is up to you.

2023 NFL Survivor Pool Strategy

Table of Contents
About Pool Genius: Our Survivor Resume
The NFL Survivor Pool Landscape in 2023
How To Think Like a Pro in Survivor Pools
Expected Value: The Key To More Pool Wins
How Pick Popularity Impacts Survivor Strategy
Win Odds: Why Not All Popular Picks Are Bad
Considering Future Value in Survivor Pools
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About PoolGenius: Our Survivor Resumé

First, a quick introduction. At PoolGenius, we've spent nearly 20 years working on tools and technology to help people win more sports pools.

Since 2017, our subscribers have won NFL survivor pools more than three times as often as expected, and reported more than $5.7 million in survivor pool winnings.

The secret sauce? Our NFL Survivor Picks product is the only tool that customizes survivor pick recommendations based on key data factors like the size and rules of each pool you enter, and the teams you have left to pick.

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The NFL Survivor Pool Landscape In 2023

Every NFL season is different, and the implications of season-specific dynamics on survivor pool strategy can be big. So let's start by identifying some important strategy considerations for the 2023 NFL season.

Several Top Contenders Have Easier Early Schedules

Strong teams usually have great future value as NFL survivor picks. In other words, it's often a wise move not to use good teams too early in survivor pools. However, 2023 may be a rare year when a stingy "save the best teams for later" pick strategy may not be the best move.

To quantify the value of every NFL team in survivor pools, we project win odds for all regular season matchups, from Week 1 through Week 18. For the 2023 season, our eight highest value teams in survivor pools (Cincinnati, Kansas City, Buffalo, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Dallas, Baltimore, and Jacksonville) all have schedules front-loaded with easier matchups.

We project that group of eight teams to have win odds of 70% or higher in a total of 20 different matchups by Week 6. In comparison, they will have a combined total of only 18 matchups with similarly high win odds over the final 12 weeks of the season.

The value of saving a great team to use as a survivor pick in a future week often rests on the assumption that the team will have several juicy matchups still to come. That's often a safe assumption, but 2023 is looking like a rare exception for multiple top contenders.

The Midseason Could Require Tough Pick Decisions

Weeks 7 and 9 of the 2023 season are looking like particularly tough weeks in survivor pools, with a very limited number of compelling pick options.

Seattle (vs. Arizona) in Week 7 and Cleveland (vs. Arizona) in Week 9 are our projected biggest favorites in those two weeks, but there’s only one other team (Kansas City in Week 7) that we expect to have at least 65% win odds in either week.

That scenario could make for some some gut-wrenching pick decisions if nothing major changes during the early season in terms of team expectations. The main issue is that "obvious" picks like Seattle and Cleveland in these two weeks tend to draw sky-high pick popularity.

That's not a good thing, because while following the crowd to pick Seattle or Cleveland may help your odds to survive the week, it might not maximize your odds to win your pool. If you avoid hugely popular picks and they get upset, your expected pool winnings skyrocket.

However, going contrarian and fading the public in Week 7 or Week 9 could also involve taking on a scary-sized additional risk of getting eliminated during that week.

Schedule Imbalance Will Make More Teams Potential Survivor Picks

Individual team schedules are fairly imbalanced in 2023. For example, the AFC East, which doesn’t appear to have any weak links, faces both the AFC West and NFC East, which also project as strong divisions.

Meanwhile, the AFC South and NFC South both appear very weak, as six of the bottom eight teams in our 2023 NFL preseason power rankings hail from those two divisions.

The net impact of this scheduling dynamic on survivor strategy is two-fold. First, the teams with the highest future value in survivor pools in 2023 don’t have as many big mismatches as they typically do over the course of an 18-week season.

Second, lots of different teams have the potential to be plausible survivor picks in 2023. We project that 25 different teams will have at least one game with 65% or higher win odds at some point during the season, typically a reasonable bar for survivor pick consideration.

So in some weeks of 2023, the numbers may show that your best pick option is the type of team that you wouldn't even consider picking in most years, such as a team with a losing record that just happens to be playing at home against a terrible opponent.

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How To Think Like A Pro In Survivor Pools

Now that we've pointed out some strategy dynamics facing survivor pool players in 2023, let's review of the more foundational elements of survivor pool strategy.

One constraint changes everything in NFL survivor pools. The fact that you can only pick a team once per season opens a Pandora's box of complexity, because not all NFL teams and schedules are created equally. Make a poor pick decision in an early week, and you'll likely pay for it later.

The silver lining is that over the long term, complicated games disproportionately benefit skilled players. Your opponents who don't understand optimal strategy will still get lucky and win pools while you lose, but if you have the right mindset and the smartest analysis, you will eventually get the best of them.

Have Reasonable Expectations

In terms of mindset, you shouldn't be playing in NFL survivor pools unless you're prepared to lose almost all of them, and to lose individual entries very early (including in Week 1 or Week 2).

Here are the indisputable facts. Over the last decade, over half of survivor pool entries nationwide have been eliminated by the end of NFL Week 4. That's not an average; it's happened in every single season for the past 10 years.

That should not come as a surprise if you sit down and do the math. If you pick a team with a 75-80% chance to win every week (and you don't often get much higher than that in the NFL), you've got about a 50/50 chance to pick three winners in a row.

In short, that scruffy dude at the bar telling you that he usually makes it to at least Week 10 in his survivor pool every year is a stone-faced liar.

Playing like a pro in survivor pools requires you to understand and respect probability, and to recognize that two harsh realities are beyond your control:

1) The odds of winning any given survivor pool, especially bigger pools, are stacked greatly against you. Even highly skilled players may not realize winnings for years, or even decades, so patience is required. The wins come infrequently, but when they do come, they more than make up for many years of not winning.

(Side note: You can shorten the expected wait time between pool wins by playing multiple entries and/or in multiple pools each year, which most serious players do.)

2) No team is ever a lock to win. The NFL is a league of high parity, where top contenders lose to underperforming teams more often than most people would guess. When even the safest pick of the week often has a 1-in-5 (or greater) chance of losing, you must always be mentally prepared for your pick to lose.

The one thing that is in your control is your ability to make the most advantageous pick(s) every single week, and to stick to that process over the long term—even when you're running cold in survivor pools lately and tempted to change it up.

Understand The Strategy Implications Of Your Specific Pool(s)

In terms of analysis, the most important thing to understand is that different types of survivor pools often call for different pick strategies. There is no such thing as a universal "best survivor pick" of a given week; it all depends on your pool's characteristics and the positioning of your remaining entries.

For example, standard survivor pool rules require one pick per week, but some pools (typically larger ones) require double picks in later weeks. That rule twist not only decreases your odds of surviving the season, but also changes your optimal pick strategy in earlier weeks.

Similarly, pools that allow “strikes” or “buy-backs” that let you remain in the contest after a first loss also call for a different approach to pick planning.

Another big pick strategy driver in NFL survivor pools is pool size. The best pick for a survivor pool with thousands of entries still alive often isn't the same team you should pick if your pool only starts with, or is down to, 20 or 30 entries.

One reason why pool size matters is because in smaller pools, it's unlikely that any entry in the pool will survive the entire 18-week season. So the final weeks of the season are unlikely to count at all. If your pool is unlikely to last past Week 12, for instance, then there's no value in saving a team with a great Week 16 matchup.

In pools with thousands of entries, however, you're almost certainly going to need to go 18-0 to win. So you should be planning a full season's worth of picks from the start.

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Expected Value: The Key To More Pool Wins

Now let's get down to the nitty gritty, and explain the most important data and metrics that should drive your survivor pick decisions each week.

You may be familiar with the concept of "Closing Line Value" (CLV) in sports betting. The basic premise of CLV is that if you consistently make bets at better odds than the closing line, your short-term results may fluctuate but you should profit over time.

The survivor pool analog to CLV is Expected Value ("EV"). The EV metric encapsulates the risk vs. reward tradeoff at the heart of all survivor pool pick decisions:

  • From a risk standpoint, you're always better off picking the team with the better chance to win. (These teams are often more popular picks.)
  • From a reward standpoint, you're almost always better off making a less popular pick. (These teams are often riskier picks.)

Unpopular picks have high upside potential because they open up the possibility that your pick wins while more popular picks lose. In that case, you could survive the week while many other entries in your pool get eliminated, and your odds to win the pool will skyrocket.

As with CLV in sports betting, in the long run, you should realize more profits in survivor pools if you consistently make picks with high EV.

The Tension Between Safety and EV In Survivor Pools

The math behind EV considers every possible combination of teams winning and losing in a particular week. In some scenarios, your survivor pick wins but it still doesn't help you that much, because almost all of your opponents' picks that week happen to win too.

In other scenarios, you hit the jackpot when your pick wins and several popular picks you avoid all lose.

Based on all the win probabilities and pick popularities at play, and considering only the current week, picking the team with the highest EV will increase your expected winnings from the pool the most. On balance, the highest EV pick offers the best combination of risk and reward.

As you can imagine, on account of the many possible permutations of individual teams winning and losing in a particular week, survivor pick EV isn't super easy to calculate. That's a big reason why EV-driven picking is a major differentiator between the Pros and the Joes in NFL survivor pools.

(It's also a big reason why we built our NFL Survivor Picks product. It not only calculates current week EV for every team, but also adjusts EV calculations based on factors such as the size and rules of your pool, which influence the math.)

Evaluating Future Survivor Pick Paths

There's more to EV-driven picking than single-week analysis, though. Ideally, what you want to do is maximize the EV of your picks over the remaining number of weeks that your survivor pool is expected to last, which requires both advance planning and weekly recalibration.

For example, the Bengals may end up being the biggest favorite in Week 5 of 2023 against Arizona, and Cincinnati still might have pretty good EV despite having potentially high pick popularity that week. (Arizona has the lowest win total projection in preseason betting markets.)

But what if the EV of picking the Bengals sometime after Week 5 projects to be even higher? Then you should seriously consider saving them, even if it requires taking a bit more risk in Week 5.

You'll never have perfect information, but if you can do better than most of your survivor pool opponents at estimating both current week and future week EVs for every team, then you've successfully established a long-term edge in survivor pools.

To pull this off, three specific data factors require your attention:

  • Pick popularity: How you expect your opponents to pick.
  • Win odds: How likely each team is to win.
  • Future value: An estimate of a team's total EV across all future weeks.

Let’s explain the interplay of these three factors, while providing some examples from last season.

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How Pick Popularity Impacts Survivor Strategy

A survivor pool is a zero-sum game. Your expected winnings from a pool increase when you survive a week and at least one of your opponents loses an entry.

Consequently, identifying the survivor picks that stand to benefit you the most requires accurate estimates of pick popularity, for both the current week and for future weeks.

Several big survivor pool hosting sites publish aggregated pick popularity data, though every site has its quirks. (To mitigate that problem, our product combines data from multiple pool hosting sites into a more refined index of expected pick popularity.)

Opportunities to pick against the crowd without taking on much additional elimination risk can carry tremendous differentiation value, the holy grail of survivor strategy. But it also takes courage to trust the numbers when they say that taking a calculated risk makes sense.

Survivor Strategy Case Study: Buffalo Bills EV Last Year

The table below shows the win odds, pick popularity, and EV for the Buffalo Bills for all games in which they were favored by at least a touchdown last season. Buffalo was a high future value team in survivor pools, as one of the biggest favorites of the week in multiple weeks.

(Note: An EV above 1.00 indicates a pick that will increase your expected pool winnings. So Buffalo had a positive EV in lots of different weeks, but you can also see how their EV went up in later weeks, after many entries had already used them.)

WeekMatchupWin OddsPopularityEVEV Rank
2BUF (-10) vs. TEN77%8%1.084th
5BUF (-14) vs. PIT86%32%1.071st
8BUF (-10.5) vs. GB79%13%1.121st
9BUF (-10.5) at NYJ81%13%1.083rd
11BUF (-7.5) vs. CLE76%15%1.064th
12BUF (-9.5) vs. DET78%6%1.103rd
14BUF (-10) vs. NYJ78%9%1.182nd
15BUF (-7) vs. MIA74%3%1.153rd
16BUF (-8) at CHI75%9%1.172nd

The Week 5 matchup with Pittsburgh was the biggest point spread (i.e. expected easiest win) for Buffalo all season. Still, it wasn’t the best EV week to use the Bills. Buffalo ended up having higher EV in seven other weeks.

The primary driver of those higher-EV weeks was Buffalo's pick popularity, as well as the alternative picks available in each specific week. In Week 5, many survivor players had Buffalo available, and nearly one-third of a typical pool picked the Bills. That made picking another team and saving Buffalo more valuable later in the year.

In the end, some players who saved Buffalo until the final month of the season saw big EV payoffs when they were able to pick the Bills during a week when many of their opponents were forced to take much riskier teams.

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Win Odds: Why Not All Popular Picks Are Bad

While you should often try to avoid highly popular picks, there is no hard and fast rule, and you should also be suspicious of survivor advice that sounds too absolute.

For instance, "never pick the most popular team of the week" is well intentioned guidance, but the devil is in the details. The right answer often depends on multiple other factors, such as every team's win odds.

In survivor pools, it's crucial to evaluate a pick's safety in a relative sense. The most important question is not, "How risky is picking this team?" Rather, it's "How much does my chance of elimination go up if I pick this team, compared to picking the safest team of the week, or another safer alternative if one exists?"

These relative differences in win odds have a big influence on EV calculations.

Survivor Strategy Case Study: Fade Or Follow Popular Picks?

Last season, the four most popular NFL survivor pool picks, in terms of the percentage of entries nationwide picking them, were:

  • Week 4: Green Bay (vs. New England), 46% pick popularity
  • Week 11: Baltimore (vs. Carolina), 45% pick popularity
  • Week 12: Miami (vs. Houston), 60% pick popularity
  • Week 13: Cleveland (vs. Houston), 42% pick popularity

Here is a breakdown of the win odds, popularity, and EV for each of those teams:

WeekMatchupWin OddsPopularityEVEV Rank
4GB (-9.5) vs. NE78%46%0.997th
11BAL (-12.5) vs. CAR84%45%1.063rd
12MIA (-14) vs. HOU86%60%1.016th
13CLE (-7.5) vs. HOU74%42%0.969th

Baltimore was the most frequent survivor pick recommendation we made to our subscribers for Week 11. And while we were significantly lower on Miami than the public was in Week 12, Miami was still our most frequent Week 12 subscriber pick recommendation.

On the other hand, we mostly advised our subscribers to avoid both Green Bay in Week 4 and Cleveland in Week 13, primarily because of their differing risk vs. reward profiles:

  • Baltimore and Miami both had EVs above 1.00 and win odds in the mid-80% range. From an EV perspective, super high win odds and a lack of other compelling options in Weeks 11 and 12 more than counterbalanced very high pick popularity.
  • Green Bay and Cleveland both had EVs under 1.00 and higher elimination risk. Cleveland, for example, was nearly twice as likely to lose in Week 13 (26% chance) than Miami was in Week 12 (14% chance).

As it turns out, all four of these very popular picks won, although Green Bay needed overtime to get past New England. But that's not the point.

The point is that objective data and sophisticated calculations exist to determine whether it's better to fade or follow the crowd with your survivor pick. And you can rest assured that "never" and "always" are not the resulting answers.

Sometimes the boring and obvious pick absolutely makes sense, especially if it’s the best option in a week with no particularly compelling alternatives.

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Considering Future Value In Survivor Pools

Many survivor pool players discount future week pick planning because they believe things in the NFL might look much different later in the season. Indeed, a chance does exist that a great team suffers a devastating QB injury in Week 9, or that a bad team suddenly turns a corner after a coaching change in Week 12.

But winning more survivor pools requires playing the odds as intelligently as possible, not ignoring any potential scenario that's not 100% certain to happen.

The truth is that the future of an NFL season is not "completely unpredictable" as some people say. A team that was expected to be good in the preseason, and has been good in the early weeks, is likely to still be good in a month or two. Basing your future pick strategy on assumptions that end up being mostly right (even with a couple big misses) is still a heck of a lot better than not planning at all, and then finding yourself in a very tough spot down the road.

As we mentioned earlier, planning for the future is especially important in larger survivor pools. In those pools, you're most likely going to have to survive the entire season to win, so you better have a full season of picks planned out and optimized from the start.

The primary challenge with optimal pick planning in survivor pools is that you can't simply base it on identifying easy matchups. Remember, pick popularity and EV matter too. If you save a team for a future easy matchup, only to discover that 45% of your opponents did the same thing, sticking to your plan could actually be a negative-EV move.

In general, teams with the most future EV tend to project as big favorites in multiple games throughout the season, but also have high pick popularity in an early week or two.

Players who overvalue safety, who don't understand EV, or who think the future is totally unpredictable will take the "sure thing" early. When they do, it creates a scarce, high-value resource that you can choose to hoard for use later in the season.

Survivor Strategy Case Study: Top Contenders and Best EV Weeks

Last season featured several teams that were heavy favorites in several different weeks. This group of teams included Kansas City, Buffalo, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Dallas.

Here were the number of games this group of five teams collectively had with EVs in different ranges, during the first, middle, and final third of the season.

WeeksEV 1.00-1.04EV 1.05-1.09EV 1.10-1.19EV 1.20 or higher

The number of massive EV pick opportunities jumped dramatically later in the season, largely because these teams had high survivor pick popularity in earlier weeks. As a result, they were not only larger favorites in late season games, but also unavailable as a pick to many players.

It's also worth noting that the late season juicy matchups these top teams enjoyed were not unpredictable. All of these teams were playoff contenders entering the season, and most of the high-EV late matchups counted in the table above came against teams that were near the bottom of the NFL in terms of preseason expectations.

Survivor pools reward patience, and often, a willingness to embrace some additional risk early to set up a potential future payoff that may or may not happen. If you found a crystal ball that revealed the current week's NFL winners, the ideal strategy would be to pick the team with the lowest future value that would still deliver a win.

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Get 2023 Expert NFL Survivor Picks

Survivor pools are extremely risky games, and strategy is complicated. If you're just playing for fun, go for it; the format of the game means that almost anyone can get lucky and win a pool.

Giving yourself the best chance to win more pools over the long term, however, requires a lot of data and math. And many people who love to play in NFL survivor pools simply don't have the time or analytical skills necessary to maximize their edge.

That's why we built our NFL Survivor Picks product.

It provides all the data (e.g. betting market odds, objective win odds, pick popularity projections) and does all the calculations (e.g. current week EVs, future value for every team) that give you a long-term edge. Among other features, the product:

  • Customizes survivor pick recommendations for your pool's size and rules
  • Takes into account the teams you’ve already picked with each entry
  • Optimizes picks for multiple pools and entries (up to 30 picks/week)
  • Incorporates the latest betting odds and objective predictions
  • Compiles pick popularity data from multiple survivor pool hosting sites
  • Projects current and future week survivor pick popularity for all teams
  • Calculates current week Expected Value (EV) and future value for all teams
  • Offers a Season Planner tool to help you plan future week picks
  • Shows the future pick path that maximizes your odds to go 18-0
  • Updates all data multiple times per day, so you don't miss an opportunity

Thanks to our friends at Action Network, you can also get a free trial offer and exclusive season discounts using the links below.

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