NFL Survivor Pool Strategy: Tips & Projections For The 2020 Season

NFL Survivor Pool Strategy: Tips & Projections For The 2020 Season article feature image
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Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images. Pictured: Jimmy Garoppolo #10 speaks with head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers

“Any given Sunday.”

That’s the mantra that tries to capture all the randomness in the NFL — a bad bounce, a missed penalty, a 20-point comeback and a 60-yard field goal are all random factors that can swing games. Add in COVID-19, and 2020 is likely to feature the most random factors yet.

When it comes to your survivor pool strategy, that randomness can be used as a weapon against opponents. Knowing any team can lose while the rest of your league assumes a team has a surefire win can give you a leg up.

But it’s a two-sided coin: All of that randomness can blow up in your face and knock you out early.

There’s a lot of luck involved in winning a survivor pool, which is what makes them so enticing to join. By using some math and basic game theory, you can turn those hopes into a quantifiable edge.

Here are the tips and strategies you need to increase your chances of winning in the strange year of 2020.

Survivor Pool Strategy & Tips


>> Skip ahead to my Survivor Pool projections for all 32 teams


1. Know Your Rules

Every survivor pool is unique and it’s important to know exactly how each works. For the 2020 season, that may include policies on game cancellations and postponements, so be sure to check if your pool has contingencies if the season is shortened or rescheduled.

Here are a few more important rules to know:

How many entries can you put in? If you only want to put down enough cash to enter once but your opponents are putting in 10 lineups each, then you’re surrendering some equity to them. That doesn’t mean you still can’t win, but you should maybe look for another pool.

How many strikes do you get? For most pools, it’s one strike and you’re out, but others give multiple chances. That means you should take on more risk early in the season and hope for more upsets.

When is my pick due? Don’t get eliminated because you forgot to make your pick. Add a weekly reminder on your phone. Also check to see if your pool includes Thursday night games as this will change your options in future weeks.

2. Have A Flexible Plan

You should always be looking ahead to see which teams have the most value to you in future weeks. That means considering the upcoming schedule and saving some teams as options for later — but that plan should very much be written in pencil, not carved in stone.

nfl week 1 odds-sportsbook promotions-chiefs vs. texans-patrick mahomes
Photo credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images. Pictured: Patrick Mahomes

The big key is to not back yourself into a corner, especially early on. A key injury can leave you picking a tossup game or you could end up on a popular favorite, which gives you little chance to gain on your competitors. Which leads me to…

3. Use Game Theory

If you join a pool with nine of your friends, then you have a 10% chance of winning your pool, or 10% equity. Your goal each week is not to win your game, but to increase your equity.

I’ll say it one more time for the people in the back: Your goal each week is not to win your game, but to increase your equity.

If eight of your friends pick the biggest favorite of a week, you take a different team and that week’s biggest favorite loses, you’ve increased your equity to 50% because there are only two of you left.

If you had jumped aboard with your eight friends and that team won but the contrarian in your league lost, then you’ve only increased your equity to 11%. In most cases, you want to take the option with the lower chance to win but that comes with a bigger potential equity jump rather than an option with a higher chance to win but with a smaller potential equity jump.

If you’re worried about the math, have no fear: I’ll release my survivor pool picks each week using equity and future value to explain my choices.

4. Understand You Probably Won’t Win

Yikes. I just gave you all these great tips, then I go and ruin the mood.

Now, if you’re in the pool with 10 people, then you have a good chance to win. But a lot of pools are massive with hundreds or thousands of entries with nice big prizes for the winners, and the amount of variance in the NFL means that you probably won’t end up on top.

If you found a magical path that gave you an 80% chance to win every week, you would still have only a 2.25% chance of finishing the season undefeated. That’s why you should not be afraid to take risks early on.

Losing in the early weeks certifiably sucks, but it pays the same amount as teams that make it to Week 12 before busting out.

2020 NFL Survivor Pool Projections

Every week I’ll publish the projected percentages for every remaining game, starting with the initial version below.

Note: Games with at least a 70% win percentage are highlighted in green. Games with at least a 60% win percentage are highlighted in yellow.

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