The maddening but glorious indecision of NFL eliminator pools

Saturday, 16 October 2021 19:54 EST

The NFL eliminator pool (or, “Survivor Contest,” as MyBookie has it) is both exceptionally easy to understand and deceptively difficult to win – even beyond overcoming the sheer numbers of players competing, typically in tens of thousands. For the uninitiated, here are the simple rules:

  • Pick one team to win straight-up, i.e. no point spreads involved;
  • each team may be used just once per entry;
  • one losing pick eliminates the entry from the game (or, optimistically like MyBookie, a winning pick allows the entry to survive for one more week); and
  • the last player/s remaining, i.e. they who can compile the longest run of winning picks, win/s the entire prize pool.

Those who have never played an eliminator/survivor contest are no doubt reacting in similar fashion to most upon initial contact with the game: That’s easy! Anyone can whip off five or six wins, even if opening week is a complete crapshoot, right?

Put it this way: In NFLbets’ own My Bookie Survivor Contest pool started with just fewer than 70,000 entries. Exactly 2,334 remain after week 5, for a 96.7% elimination/3.3% survival rate – a sliver better than a weekly 50% attrition rate, which would result in 96.875% eliminations.  

Put another way, half of all players allowed to choose from among 28 to 32 teams cannot choose one winner week to week.

Survivor contests are not easy, but really interesting.

Take this week’s ticket, for example. NFLbets has thus far played the following.

  • Denver Broncos (W at New York Giants)
  • Washington FT (eked out W vs Giants)
  • Arizona Cardinals (W at Jacksonville Jaguars)
  • Kansas City Chiefs (W at Philadelphia Eagles)
  • New England Patriots (eked out W at Houston Texans)

NFLbets is pretty happy with these picks: The Broncos, Football Team and Patriots are look distinctly 8-9 or worse. Going with the Cardinals may not necessarily have been the best pick – strategy dictates holding some of better teams as long as possible – but the Chiefs have been crazily unpredictable this season, so NFLbets is relieved to have a KC W to our credit already.

Note that NFLbets’ picks have heretofore depended on the strategy that has become mainstream in the past couple of years, namely it’s not so important to best *for* a team but *against* the opposing side – after all, you can only bet on a single team once per season, but you can bet against a single team for 14 of 18 weeks (accounting for a bye week and second intradivision games).

The five teams NFLbets has picked this season may only be a cumulative 14-11 (and 9-11 not including Arizona) – but our opponents are now 5-21.

Picking a winner in week 6

We’re looking at three possibilities to back on our ticket for week 6, the most intriguing of which would require us to go against most major unwritten strategy for this game:

  • Los Angeles Rams at New York Giants
  • Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts
  • Arizona Cardinals at Cleveland Browns

MyBookie helpfully provides a metric indicating how many entries have backed each team in the given week. This week, NFL bets is informed, 29% are backing the Rams, 37% are backing the Colts and, well, not even 1% of current entries are backing the Browns, so why are we so very very tempted?

The Rams at the Giants is a solid pick, particularly if you’re willing to discount the whole West Coast-team-playing-in-the-early-slot-ET as mostly irrelevant in 2021 (NFLbets sure does) and factor in the absence of franchise RB Saquon Barkley. Next week, however, the Rams get Jared Goff and the Detroit Lions, imminently defeatable in any given week; on top of the immediate mismatch, NFLbets believes Sean McVay (and quite possibly the Rams defense, who carried Goff’s offense to a Super Bowl) will be wanting to spank the Lions. NFLbets knows we should do what Belichick says and “take these one week at a time,” but dude.

At first glance – and if you’re still playing in this thing, you’re taking well more than a single glance – Indianapolis at home against Houston is the best play on the board this week: This pick eliminates another inconsistent team seemingly destined to go 8-9 or so in the Colts, who are playing against a rookie QB and a probably ultimately inferior team. On the other hand, said rookie Davis Mills looked sharp against a Patriots defense which NFLbets dares say is better than the Colts’. Besides, we’ve been conditioned by betting poorly too many times on these AFC South intradivisional games…

Then there’s the Cardinals-Browns game. Cleveland is a 3½-point favorite at the sportsbooks, and NFLbets thinks few NFL bettors would be shocked to see the Cardinals finally drop a game after a 5-0 start – in fact, more surprising would be what sure looks like an all-star team in Cleveland getting off to 3-3 for 2021. NFLbets wants to back the Browns here for the same reason we want no part of the Colts, namely that the former is better than a .500 team and so wins these potential quasi-upsets.

The problems with picking the Browns (aside from hey, you’re picking the Browns, that is) are sufficient to warrant caution. In the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers, Arizona’s already beaten a couple of defenses comparably good or better than Cleveland’s. And if one is confident enough in a pick, the player can put off picking that playoff contender until later in the season, as NFLbets should probably be doing with the Browns, our preseason pick to win the AFC in 2021.

But we’re just not confident enough in the likes of Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh or Buffalo Bills at Tennessee or Cincinnati Bengals at Detroit or anything else, really. So NFLbets is backing Cleveland Browns vs Arizona Cardinals in this week’s eliminator pool.

Though we’ve still got 14 hours until that Miami Dolphins vs Jacksonville Jaguars game in London…

–written by Os Davis

Os Davis has been covering sports for longer than he’d care to admit. For personality, check his Twitter feed; for professional acumen, here’s his Linkedin profile.