Eliminator Challenge is one of the simplest and fun games during the NFL season. Pick one team to win each week. If that team wins, you advance to the next week. Lose once, and you're out. The only caveat is you cannot pick the same team twice.
While it sounds simple, getting a perfect season is always more difficult than it looks, especially with an 18th game added this year. The key is to find a good balance of picking winners while also not mortgaging future weeks by burning up all your good teams for later. Injuries and teams either overachieving or underachieving will always open up more opportunities later, so early in the season, there is less incentive to worry about saving teams.
To make these recommendations, I look at a combination of ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI), point spreads from Caesars Sportsbook, injury reports, upcoming schedules and any other stats that can potentially provide an edge.
Week 1 always has the most uncertainty and is one of the hardest weeks to pick. In the past five seasons, underdogs getting at least seven points in Week 1 win 30% of the time (6-14) compared to 18% the rest of the season (62-286). Last year, two teams won outright as touchdown underdogs, including Jacksonville getting its only win all season.
This week, the Buccaneers and Rams look like the two best options among the big favorites. But if you're looking to save those two teams for later in the season, Carolina is the best alternative option. FPI makes the 49ers only the eighth-biggest favorites this week, so with San Francisco appearing as the chalkiest option so far, saving them for later seems optimal.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs Dallas Cowboys: On paper, the Buccaneers might be the safest pick in Week 1. Tom Brady's squad is one of three teams favored by at least a touchdown, and the Bucs are the second-biggest FPI favorites this week. And while they will be bigger FPI favorites four more times this year, one comes in Week 18, and the other three weeks, there are better options on paper. Reigning Super Bowl champions have gone 18-3 outright in Week 1 over the past 21 years. Last year, Tampa Bay was 6-0 outright as at least a 7-point favorite, and Brady is 16-1 in his past 17 games in that spot. The Cowboys have a top-10 offense on paper, but they've barely been able to practice together with Dak Prescott's shoulder injury, and Zack Martin has already been ruled out for Week 1. With all the uncertainty at the start of a football season, sometimes it's smart to take a team you know is good, and a Super Bowl champion returning all 22 starters is a rare team that fits that mold.
Line: Buccaneers -7.5
FPI chance to win: 70%
Eliminator Challenge: 17% selected
Los Angeles Rams vs Chicago Bears: The Rams are the biggest FPI favorites this week and tied for the biggest favorites outright. While the Bears made the playoffs last season, they ranked 18th in FPI in 2020 and are 22nd entering this season. Outside of last year's shocking loss to the Jets, Sean McVay has typically been trustworthy in spots like this, going 20-3 outright as a favorite of at least six points. He has also been phenomenal with extra time to prepare. He is 4-0 outright and ATS in Week 1, and he is 3-1 outright and ATS in his career off a bye week. Plus, Matt Nagy's Bears teams have yet to score more than 15 points in three meetings against the Rams. The Rams' upcoming schedule makes them slightly more appealing to save for later than the Buccaneers, but both teams are strong picks for Week 1.
Line: Rams -7.5
FPI chance to win: 71%
Eliminator Challenge: 11% selected
Carolina Panthers vs New York Jets: If you're looking to get cute and try to save one of the elite teams, the Panthers are the best alternative. This is the most Carolina is favored all season by FPI, as the Jets are projected as the third-worst team in the NFL. The Jets made a ton of changes this offseason, so they might not be as bad as the 2-14 squad was last year under Adam Gase, but they still have a 22-year-old rookie playing quarterback, and a defense with major question marks at both edge rusher and cornerback. New York is expected to start three Day 3 rookies on defense. That could be a problem against a Panthers offense featuring Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall. If the Panthers' offensive line can hold up, and Sam Darnold takes a step forward away from Gase, Carolina should take care of the Jets in Week 1 and allow you to save the Buccaneers and Rams for later.
Line: Panthers -4.5
FPI chance to win: 66%
Eliminator Challenge: 9% selected