Table of Contents
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by PoolGenius, whose subscribers have reported over $3.7 million in survivor pool winnings. Check out their NFL Survivor Picks and get a free trial at the beginning of the season.
Our friends at RunYourPool like to talk about “Death week” in NFL survivor pools—the point at which at least half your pool has been eliminated.
Death Week arrives a lot sooner than you might imagine. According to historical pick popularity data, at least half of all survivor pool entries have been eliminated by the end of Week 4 in every single season of the last decade.
Some years Death week comes even sooner:
- In 2018, over half of survivor pool entries were eliminated in Week 1, when the Saints lost a shootout at home to the Bucs, the Lions got crushed at home by the Jets (in Sam Darnold’s first career start), and the Steelers tied the hapless Browns.
- In 2015, the four most popular survivor picks all lost in Week 2, and fewer than 10% of entries nationwide made it to Week 3.
There are certainly bragging rights involved with surviving past Death week, and of course, you have to do it in order to win your survivor pool.
At the same time, you need to be careful not to craft your survivor pick strategy with the primary goal of simply making it to October. You need to be more strategic than that to maximize your edge and win more survivor pools in the long run.
In short, simply making it to Week 5 or 7 or 10 isn’t always the crowning achievement people make it out to be.
How Long Is Your NFL Survivor Pool Expected To Last?
Now that you know how quickly Death week arrives, you might think that most survivor pools tend to be over quickly, and that you don’t need to plan for the distant future in order to win.
That’s typically not true, though. Here’s what the pattern of attrition looks like in survivor pools, in terms of the percentage of initial entries left at various times. On average, fewer than:
- 50% of entries are still alive by the end of Week 4
- 10% of entries are still alive by the end of Week 8
- 5% of entries are still alive by the end of Week 10
- 2% of entries are still alive by the end of Week 12
- 1% of entries are still alive by the end of Week 14
While those percentages seem to be getting quite small by midseason, they are still big enough that in most survivor pools, more than one entry will survive deep into the season. For example, although every year is different, in a 50-entry pool you should probably plan on needing to survive until around Week 12 to have a chance to win it all.
Many survivor pools are much larger than 50 starting entries, though. For a pool with 250 or more initial entries (and no special rules like multiple-pick weeks late in the season), you probably need to plan on surviving all 18 weeks.
And if your pool does require multiple picks later in the season, then you really need to plan ahead for those weeks. If you manage to make it that far without a clear plan for those multi-pick weeks, you will be at a huge disadvantage to other players who did.
FREE TRIAL: NFL Survivor Picks from PoolGenius
How Far Will You Survive Making The Safest Picks?
At least half of all survivor entries are eliminated by the end of Week 4, but maybe that’s because a lot of players make picks that are too risky. What if you play the early weeks as safely as possible, simply taking the biggest betting odds favorite still available to you each week?
As it turns out, over the past decade, you still would have been eliminated by Week 4 half the time, and you would have never made it past Week 10.
Here’s a summary of when you would have lost:
2021: Week 9, Dallas loss to Denver
2020: Week 5, San Francisco loss to Miami
2019: Week 5, Kansas City loss to Indianapolis
2018: Week 1, New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay
2017: Week 4, Atlanta loss to Buffalo
2016: Week 4, Arizona loss to LA Rams
2015: Week 2, New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay
2014: Week 6, Seattle loss to Dallas
2013: Week 10, Tennessee loss to Jacksonville
2012: Week 2, New England loss to Arizona
(Note: The yearly examples above assume you can only pick each team once per season. That’s not the same as picking the biggest favorite every week, since some great teams end up being the biggest favorite in multiple weeks over the course of the season.)
Therein lies the rub. There’s no such thing as a truly “safe” pick in today’s NFL, and even the most risk-averse early pick strategy is rarely ever going to be good enough to win a survivor pool. Quite simply, the good teams run out before you need them to.
Beating The Odds In NFL Survivor Pools
So you need to survive deep in the season to win, but you’re expected to lose early, and picking the safest teams early isn’t going to get you to the finish line. What in the world are you supposed to do?
Maximizing your chance to win a survivor pool comes down to three things:
1. Take Calculated Risks for Big Payoffs
First, you need to take some calculated gambles to avoid the “obvious” picks, and sometimes very early in the season. When you avoid a very popular pick, it opens up the chance for a large chunk of your pool to get eliminated while you survive.
When we say calculated gamble, we don’t mean getting wacky and picking outright underdogs to win. Rather, it may entail something like picking a team with a 75% chance to win, when a large chunk of your pool is picking a team with an 80% to win.
In 2021, for example, survivor entries that ultimately won pools avoided popular picks that repeatedly lost in the middle of the season. When over 30% of a typical pool was picking Dallas (-10 point spread) in Week 9, more contrarian thinkers were taking Pittsburgh (-7) or Baltimore (-7), two somewhat riskier teams that had low pick popularity.
The next week, when a lot of entries were taking Baltimore and Pittsburgh (46% combined pick popularity), sharper players then turned back and took Dallas, which had just gotten upset the week before. In fact, of the five entries that ultimately won the $6 million Circa Survivor contest in 2021, three entries used either Baltimore or Pittsburgh in Week 9, and all five entries used Dallas in Week 10.
Similarly, winning survivor pool entries in 2018 avoided taking the biggest favorite, New Orleans, in Week 1. Then, they also stayed away from a Minnesota team that was being picked by nearly 60% of all entries in Week 3 as a huge 16.5-point favorite (an “obvious” pick if there ever was one).
2. Be Realistic About Your Odds To Win
Every year’s survivor pool outcomes are highly variable, and luck plays a significant role in determining them. A lot of NFL games come down to the final few minutes or one or two key plays during the game, and the best team certainly doesn’t always win.
You can research your weekly survivor picks until the cows come home, but you can never escape the whims of variance. Even for the sharpest players, the most likely outcome, by far, is not winning your pool this year. Understanding and accepting that reality is a key step in your maturity as a player.
As some people like to say, scared money don’t make money. Mentally, you need to be ready to embrace uncertainty and take risks when opportunity arises, knowing that the best strategies to win survivor pools often increase your odds of losing early.
As the data shows, just setting a goal to just make it to mid-season and figure it out from there is not nearly as successful an approach as most people think it is.
3. Use Data to Your Maximum Advantage
A lot of people play in survivor pools for fun, which is great. They are wildly fun games and add a whole new emotional rollercoaster to the experience of being an NFL fan.
But if you’re serious about winning, you need to recognize that maximizing your long-term edge requires a lot of objective data and a lot of math. To play like a pro, you need to:
- Project the win odds and pick popularity of every team in every future week, so you know which teams are more valuable in the future than they are now.
- Quantify the trade-offs between safety and pick popularity, so you know when it’s worth taking a risk to avoid the most popular team. (It’s not always worth it.)
- Adapt your pick strategy to the characteristics of your specific pool, including its size and rules. For example, saving a great team to use in a prime spot in Week 15 is likely a foolish move in a 25-entry pool, but a smart play in a 250-entry pool.
Gathering and processing all this information in the appropriate ways isn’t quick or easy, and it’s way above the heads of most players.
That’s why we started PoolGenius, and why we built our NFL Survivor Picks product. After studying sports pool strategy for nearly two decades, we built the only product that customizes survivor pick advice based on your pool’s size, rules, and the teams you have left to pick.
The product calculates the Expected Value (or EV) of every team, which factors in both the risks and rewards of picking them. It also assesses the future value of every team, so you know which teams are definitely worth saving.
It even optimizes a portfolio of up to 30 different survivor picks per week, whether those picks are in the same pool or across multiple pools. So if you’re playing multiple entries this season, it will recommend the smartest way to split them up.
And thanks to our friends at RunYourPool, you can get a free trial at the start of the season:
FREE TRIAL: NFL Survivor Picks from PoolGenius
Good luck in your survivor pools this year!