Survive and advance! Though that phrase was created to convey the mindset of college hoops teams trying to navigate the unpredictability of March Madness, it applies just as fittingly to September.
Survivor pools are a fall tradition as good as any. They offer a low-risk/ high-reward way to getting action on the games. Pick a team, any team, to just win the game. No point spread. If you win, you survive to play another week.
The beauty of this contest lies in its simplicity. It expands the pool of people who can participate in a format that’s welcoming to the person in the office who doesn’t even watch football, yet challenging to even the sharpest of NFL bettors. Let’s discuss some basic strategy:
Have a plan. This contest will not be won by just making it into the first week of October without a loss. It’s a long game. You are better off mapping out a strategy, week by week, and having an idea of who you are taking down the road.
The novice approach is to simply take the week’s biggest favorite. Why take a 4-point favorite when there’s double-digit chalk available? The lone wrinkle of this contest is you can’t choose the same team more than once. Picking the Chiefs and Ravens right away is tempting, and will give you a good chance of avoiding an early exit, but hinders your chances at taking home the prize.
The best way to win is to roll the dice early with some unconventional choices and saving your heavy hitters for later in the season. Think of it this way: The Yankees never brought in Mariano Rivera in the third inning. Let’s look at the options for Week 1 and make a pick:
Chiefs/Texans (Thursday): This was a “pass” from the start. In addition to the strategy of saving the best teams for later, this scared me because the Texans won in the 2019 regular season at Arrowhead and had a 24-0 lead in the playoffs before the Chiefs came back.
Patriots over Dolphins: Easy money, right? The Dolphins haven’t won a playoff game in 20 years. In that time, the Patriots (-6¹/₂) have been to nine Super Bowls, winning six. If you’re thinking “yes, but the Patriots always seem to struggle against the Fish,” your instincts are on point, as six of the past seven years, the Dolphins have won a game against the Patriots. The victory by the Dolphins last December stunned everyone — as the 17-point underdogs shocked the world, killed parlays, and canceled the Patriots’ bye-week plans, forcing them to play Wild Card Saturday, and gave the Chiefs the first week off. Bill Belichick’s teams, by design, usually peak late but struggle early. With a new quarterback, no offseason and a handful of opt-outs, let’s avoid this one.
Chargers over Bengals: I’m tempted by this one, and I think the Chargers (-3) are a good pick to win outright. The last quarterback to be picked first overall and win his debut in the opening week was David Carr in 2001. Joe Burrow will try to buck that trend, but he’ll be doing it against a couple of vicious pass rushers in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, and will not have the elite line he enjoyed at LSU. Simply put, there’s a reason this team had the chance to take Burrow first overall last April.
Lions over Bears: If there’s anyone you can trust with your money, it’s the ever-dependable Detroit Lions. Sarcasm aside, though they have one playoff victory since the ’50s and have never won the NFC North, this is a team that pro bettors are all over. They opened nearly 10/1 to win the division. They’re mostly at 5/1 now. They were a 1-point ’dog versus the Bears when the schedule was released in May, they are now favored by a field goal.
Matthew Stafford quietly put up his highest career passer rating in limited action last year, and his value may have never been more evident than during his absence. His team went winless without him. Despite that, the Lions played the Bears to two one-score games, with Jeff Driskel and David Blough at the helm in each contest, respectively. Both are huge underdogs to ever start again in the NFL, but both kept the Lions within striking distance vs. the Bears.
Using the Lions early saves the heavy hitters for later in the season and gives you a leg up on the competition. The Lions are the pick for Week 1.
William Hill (not to be confused with the sportsbook of the same name) is a contributor to VSiN’s Point Spread Weekly.