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Friday, December 19, 2008
Gridiron Playoff Challenge: Choose wisely, be bold

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Just because the regular season has ended doesn't mean your fantasy football experience has drawn to a close. There's playoff football to be played!

Our Gridiron Playoff Challenge continues the thrills of the regular season all the way through the NFL playoffs, combining the fun of traditional fantasy football scoring with a salary-cap-style system. Each week, pick two quarterbacks, two running backs, two wide receivers and one apiece at tight end, kicker and defense, aiming for the top overall point total at the conclusion of the NFL's four-week playoff run.

A couple of neat little twists, though: Prices do change each week, as they did in the regular-season Gridiron Challenge, so forecasting early bargains is a key to the game. Also, unlike the regular-season Gridiron Challenge, you'll be able to set a lineup for only three of the four playoff weeks; once the conference championships kick off in Week 3, your lineup will lock permanently.

Just like in the regular season, I'll be here each week of the playoffs to provide you with the best studs, bargains and busts, but for those of you only getting acclimated to our game -- shame on you for waiting! -- here's a quick rundown of some general strategies I suggest.

Don't waste Week 1. Sure, it benefits you to pick players who advance to the Super Bowl, to maximize your number of games in which to accumulate stats, but in the first week of the NFL playoffs, it's not critical to round out your lineup with players you expect to go all the way. As I mentioned before, lineup changes are allowed right up until the conference championships, in Week 3, so even if you pick players in the wild-card round whose teams get eliminated, there's a safety net. Go for big points and best matchups in Week 1, as -- even in the worst-case scenario -- you can flush your entire roster and replace it with a fresh lineup of players left active in the divisional playoff round. It's silly for you to forecast the Steelers' running the table, load up on their players in Week 1 and sit on a roster full of zeros. There's no penalty for picking active players the first week, then replacing them all with a full slate of Steelers for Week 2. Why waste the week?

Of course, there is some advantage to picking your wild-card round players cleverly. As with the regular-season Gridiron Challenge, prices change each week depending on player performance. Pick that hotshot running back who singlehandedly carries his team into the divisional playoff round, and you'll have him at that dirt-cheap Week 1 price tag but benefit from two weeks of production.

My advice: Go for big points first and foremost in the wild-card round (Week 1), with two exceptions. One, when picking players you deem comparable values for the week, go for the one on the team you expect to advance deeper into the playoffs. Two, take a long look at any player with a dirt-cheap price tag whose team you expect to advance at least one week. Those bargains can work wonders filling out a lineup for multiple weeks.

Forecast ahead in Week 2. Really, there are two crucial weeks in the Gridiron Playoff Challenge, the divisional playoff round (Week 2) and the conference championships (Week 3). (We'll get to the conference championships next.) There probably isn't a more important week for forecasting ahead, though, than the divisional playoff round. It's the first week in which we'll see every remaining playoff team in action, and of the eight teams on the gridiron, two are going to the Super Bowl, thus offering you three games' worth of production. Get them in Week 2, and you'll have them at a reasonable price for all three of those weeks. Wait until later, and you might have to settle for cheaper, less-desirable options -- potential "table scraps," if you will -- in Week 3. It's a good time to be bold and brash with your picks.

My advice: If you didn't map out your NFL playoffs grid, forecasting each week's winner, before Week 1, make sure you do it by Week 2. Picking starters on winning playoff teams is almost always more productive than selecting one-and-done standouts. It's better to take the player who will give you 15 points in back-to-back weeks than the one who gives you 25 one week but gets knocked out and leaves you scraping for backups who might be lucky enough to earn you five points the next week.

Pick Super Bowl teams in Week 3. The conference championships (Week 3) represent your final opportunity to change your lineup, so make them count. Obviously, by this point, players on Super Bowl teams are clearly stronger choices than high-upside performers on conference championship losers. For instance, last year, not a single team to finish in the top 10 overall had any player on a team other than the Giants and Patriots the final two weeks. It's simple mathematics; one game's worth of one player's stats is only going to beat two games' worth of another player's if the latter performer is a backup, hurt or terrible. So, for instance, picking the starting running back for each conference's champion in Week 3 probably is going to be more fruitful in the Gridiron Playoff Challenge than picking the starting running back for a losing team, even if that player happens to go off for 25 points in the process. Remember, you can't swap eliminated players out in the Super Bowl week, so that'd mean 25 points plus zero in that example, as opposed to potentially 15 and 15 points those two weeks.

Take chances. Be bold, and put a little heart into your lineup choices. Although playing conservatively -- the old cliché "slow and steady wins the race" -- has its advantages, winners in playoff pools are usually the ones most accurate at forecasting team performance. If you have a particularly gutsy feeling, say, that the Cardinals are going all the way to the Super Bowl, hey, go for it. In the event your hunch is correct, you'll have hopped aboard that productive bandwagon early enough to have capitalized on four games' worth of production at lower prices than your rivals. And if, in Week 1, your hunch turns out to be a complete bust, well, at least you have two more weeks to fix your lineup.

My advice: I've played in countless playoff pools across all sports, and although the "spread your risk" strategy -- loading up on a mix of players from a slew of different teams -- has seemed a popular one, I can attest that it rarely leads a team to a championship. No, the winner is usually the one most right-on at picking players on the two Super Bowl squads from the start, so be brave, and be bold with your predictions.

Good luck, and enjoy the NFL playoffs!

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.