- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
And then there were four.
As in, four football teams left. The presence of three of those teams is no surprise, as the New Orleans Saints, Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts were supposed to be playing football this weekend, deciding who would get to play in the Super Bowl in Miami on Feb. 7. After all, their players have high salaries in ESPN's Gridiron Playoff Challenge.
And then there's the New York Jets. They crashed the party. Their players ... don't.
Good for the Jets, I say! The thing is, as well as the Jets played in knocking off Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati Bengals, and then Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers, now it's time to face Peyton Manning and the Colts. Can the Jets do it again? Well, because the Gridiron roster you set for this week's games must carry you over to the Super Bowl, I'm going to guess individual Jets won't be very popular picks in our game. But that doesn't mean I'll go heavy on the Colts. I'll explain that later.
The key to picking options in this game the past two weeks was to select those players who would score the most points and fit under your salary cap, of course. You couldn't just pick the best options across the board. But now the strategy alters a bit; if you want to thrive in this game, you will need players who will be on the big stage in Miami, and I don't mean in the Pro Bowl. At the same time, you want players who will score. Thus you have a tough decision to make when selecting AFC players, especially with Indy's top wide receiver facing Darrelle Revis and the Jets' vaunted running game on the road at Indy.
Full disclosure: I entered the second weekend of Gridiron Playoff Challenge in the 90th percentile, but now I've slipped to the 84.2 percentile, a pretty steep fall. I'm ranked 52,633rd, probably tied with many others. I won't be winning my group, either. Only four of my choices produced a double-digit performance in the divisional round, as Tony Romo, Miles Austin and Jason Witten provided little in the way of scoring and LaDainian Tomlinson was an awful pick. I didn't think he'd run all over the Jets, but I thought he'd score. He didn't. Meanwhile, Drew Brees, Ray Rice, Marques Colston and that ol' standby, the Jets' defense, did well.
Let's go position by position one final time with rankings for the remainder of the postseason, along with my choices in the Gridiron Playoff Challenge.
1. Drew Brees, Saints
2. Peyton Manning, Colts
3. Brett Favre, Vikings
15. Mark Sanchez, Jets
Notes: OK, so Sanchez is really No. 4 and not No. 15, because there are only four quarterbacks to choose from. But I won't be picking him. His salary is a mere 5.1, while Brees is at 6.6 and Favre and Manning are at 6.3. You might think Sanchez is an absolute bargain. Hey, if you really like the Jets this weekend, go for it. But don't overrate the low price; as you'll see, the salaries are structured such that you don't really need to hunt too much for bargains.
As for Brees against the Vikings' pass rush, I happen to think Brees can overcome about anything at this point, so I took Brees over Favre. Yes, Romo had major problems against the Vikings. But Kurt Warner was battered and had problems against the Saints, too.
Both the Saints and Vikings will score, but one of these guys will play just one game. I think Manning will play two games, so he trumps the NFC quarterback who I think will lose. That was the tiebreaker for me; if I had thought the Vikings would win, I would have ranked Favre first and Brees third.
My picks: I'll keep Brees from last week and enjoy the minor savings because I locked him in at 6.5, and I'll choose Manning for my second spot. I think this is an easy call, actually. Manning shouldn't light up the Jets by any means, but I think he'll play two games. Some might choose instead to take both NFC quarterbacks because you know one of them will play in the Super Bowl, and if they play the Colts, that's not a bad matchup for a quarterback. But I'm aggressive, and I want a chance to have both Super Bowl quarterbacks.
1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings
2. Joseph Addai, Colts
3. Shonn Greene, Jets
4. Pierre Thomas, Saints
5. Thomas Jones, Jets
6. Reggie Bush, Saints
7. Donald Brown, Colts
8. Chester Taylor, Vikings
9. Mike Bell, Saints
10. Lynell Hamilton, Saints
Notes: The only running back I really like here is Peterson. The Jets will shut down Addai, but the trade-off to me is I think he'll play a second game, and if it's against the Saints, he should be productive. Well, I think it'll be against the Saints. If it's against the Vikings, well, that won't be good.
But really, who is a better pick than Addai? I think the Jets will be able to run on the Colts -- quite well, actually -- but which Jets back do you want? Jones is the starter, but Greene scored 18 points to Jones' four against the Chargers. Things are no less problematic with the Saints; I ranked only 10 running backs, and four of them are Saints! Bush was fantasy's top-scoring running back this past weekend, but one has to think the Vikings will fare much better than the Cardinals did defensively. Even Hamilton outscored Thomas and Bell combined! I'm staying with Thomas, but the Vikings will keep New Orleans' running game in check. I've opted to give Greene a pretty favorable rank, meaning I think he'll produce more in his one game than just about everyone else in two.
My picks: I have to get Peterson here. After that, I had planned to save salary, avoiding the higher-priced options such as Addai, Jones and Thomas, but I didn't need to worry. Greene is such a bargain at 5.0 -- even Taylor costs more, oddly enough -- so I choose him rather than Addai and his 6.1 price tag. Picking Peterson -- and Greene, really -- is also my way of hedging my bets at quarterback. Now I've made four picks, one from each team. Hey, I do want to make sure I have someone in the Super Bowl.
1. Sidney Rice, Vikings
2. Marques Colston, Saints
3. Percy Harvin, Vikings
4. Austin Collie, Colts
5. Reggie Wayne, Colts
6. Robert Meachem, Saints
7. Pierre Garcon, Colts
8. Jerricho Cotchery, Jets
9. Devery Henderson, Saints
10. Braylon Edwards, Jets
11. Bernard Berrian, Vikings
12. Lance Moore, Saints
Notes: I'm avoiding Wayne here, even moving him below a pair of rookies, one of whom I don't think will win his game and the other Wayne's teammate. The reality is, however, that Harvin and Collie were pretty good this season; no rookie receivers had more receptions or touchdowns. For Wayne, it's all about the matchup versus Revis. That cornerback just has a crazy impact on opposing wide receivers like nobody we've seen before.
Although I think the Colts will win, I'm basically saying two games for Wayne is not worth more than Harvin and Collie. I didn't rank these players based on value, but if I had, Wayne would be further down because his salary is the highest among wide receivers. Look, I don't expect Collie or Garcon to thrive against the Jets -- the entire defense is tough, Revis and beyond -- but I think they can at least make a few plays this week. All our evidence tells us Wayne probably won't. I like the Saints a bit more than the Vikings, but Rice is just so good, and he's coming off a three-touchdown game. I can't say I'm a big fan of any lesser-priced options other than Collie.
My picks: I have Colston locked in a few notches cheaper than his market price, so I'm sticking with him, and then I wanted to go with Rice but ultimately couldn't afford him. So I chose his teammate Harvin, whom I ranked just one spot worse anyway. I thought the upgrade at tight end made this move worth it.
1. Dallas Clark, Colts
2. Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings
3. Jeremy Shockey, Saints
4. Dustin Keller, Jets
5. David Thomas, Saints
Notes/pick: Ultimately, I decided Clark plus Harvin was a better combo than Rice plus Shiancoe. For one, I think Clark's team will win, and he ranks right up there in value with pretty much any wide receiver anyway. Plus, not that I think the Jets are weak against opposing tight ends, but I don't see Revis matching up with Clark too often.
1. Matt Stover, Colts
2. Garrett Hartley, Saints
3. Ryan Longwell, Vikings
4. Jay Feely, Jets
Notes/pick: Somehow, four kickers are more expensive than Stover, which makes little sense to me. The Colts will score some points on the Jets and probably a few field goals, and then I think Stover will play another game. Don't pick Adam Vinatieri, who is more expensive. Stover is Indy's kicker. Hartley is inconsistent, but because I think the Saints will advance, he gets the nod over Longwell.
1. New York Jets
2. Indianapolis Colts
3. New Orleans Saints
4. Minnesota Vikings
Notes/pick: The Jets are the least expensive option, and I have this defense locked in at 4.7, while the market is 4.9. I realize the Jets might play just one game against the Colts, but then what? Do I like the Colts against Brees or Favre? Not really. One game from the Jets' defense could outscore all these other defenses in two games, even if it is against the great Peyton Manning.
Ultimately, I chose two Saints, two Vikings, three Colts and two Jets, and the only player I couldn't afford was Rice. I like these picks, and I know I'll have options in the Super Bowl. Good luck to all!