Playoff ranks: Divisional Round, beyond

How about that James Starks!

Beginning in Week 5 (when Starks was close to being activated from the physically unable to perform, or PUP, list), I had my eye on the Green Bay Packers running back. It was obvious then that the Packers needed backfield help; reliable Ryan Grant was lost for the season in Week 1, and Brandon Jackson is more of a helpful third-down type. At least Starks, a sixth-round pick in the 2010 draft who didn't even play his senior year at University of Buffalo because of a shoulder injury, was on our radar at that time. All he was missing was opportunities.

And he got them, beginning in Week 13, rushing for 73 yards on 18 carries. Then he torched too many fantasy owners with an eight-yard performance the following week, was deemed inactive for future games, and that seemed to be the end. The obvious reason I didn't covet him, or even rank him well for ESPN's Gridiron Playoff Challenge, was because Starks didn't seem to factor into Green Bay's postseason plans. Who knew he'd play a key role in the team's road conquest of the Philadelphia Eagles? Even Packers players and media members seemed surprised. Starks broke his first touch of the game for 27 yards and the team stuck with him. If his first carry was for two yards, it might have been his lone touch.

Now there will be more, as the Packers travel to play the Atlanta Falcons in what I believe is yet another eminently winnable game. As I wrote last week, the winner of that Packers-Eagles game is capable of running through the NFC. It's hardly a stretch to see - perhaps even expect - Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and even Starks leading Green Bay to the Super Bowl. As a result, Starks becomes a viable choice moving forward. But I'm guessing people are also going to overrate him a tad coming off his 123-yard effort. He ran for 101 yards during the regular season.

For the record, in the ESPN Gridiron Playoff Challenge, entrants can edit lineups not only leading up to this weekend, but into championship weekend as well. So let's re-rank and discuss the options:


1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

3. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

4. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears

5. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

6. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

7. Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle Seahawks

8. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets

Analysis: First of all, I don't think I owe Seattle Seahawks fans an apology -- isn't stunning the New Orleans Saints enough? -- but congrats to them anyway. It's true that I didn't think Hasselbeck would throw four touchdown passes and be fantasy's top player last weekend. Football is better when the unexpected happens. That said, I don't expect a Seahawks repeat on the road, in cold weather, in Chicago. But hey, at least I didn't rank Hasselbeck last, did I?

I still like Brady and Roethlisberger even against difficult but penetrable defenses. The Jets and Ravens can be thrown on. The fact that Peyton Manning and Matt Cassel -- awful, awful performance from the latter -- didn't do so has little bearing to me on how Tom Terrific and Big Ben will perform. Rodgers is arguably as strong a pick, however, with just as good a chance to keep advancing. His market cost in the game is 6.3 (Brady's is 6.4 ), but I think it's worth it. Cutler is probably the best bargain at 5.0, costing less than Hasselbeck. There are marked differences in the Saints' defense and the Bears', though, so don't expect the Seahawks to score 41 points again. And I'm not a big fan of Ryan or Flacco this weekend; for one, I think each will lose, and two, if their teams are to move the ball, I think the running backs will play a much bigger factor.

Running backs

1. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots

2. Michael Turner, Falcons

3. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers

4. Matt Forte, Bears

5. Ray Rice, Ravens

6. LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets

7. James Starks, Packers

8. Danny Woodhead, Patriots

9. Shonn Greene, Jets

10. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks

11. Brandon Jackson, Packers

12. John Kuhn, Packers

13. Willis McGahee, Ravens

14. Jason Snelling, Falcons

15. Chester Taylor, Bears

16. Justin Forsett, Seahawks

Analysis: I wouldn't deviate too much from the original plan, which was to trust Green-Ellis to do good things. No, maybe the Jets weren't supposed to be the opponent, but the Law Firm did exploit the Jets for 19 fantasy points (72 rushing yards, two touchdowns) in Week 13. It can be done. I moved Forte and Tomlinson up a bit from last week. Forte isn't facing the scariest running defense, and Tomlinson, while still sharing touches with Greene, looked somewhat rejuvenated after taking the second half of the season off. (OK, he didn't, but it just looked that way statistically). Tomlinson is clearly the goal-line choice.

For the NFC road teams, I still don't think Starks or Lynch are awesome plays. Show me the consistency, please! Starks has two NFL games with significant carries, and one came last week. We have no idea if he can repeat it. Lynch, meanwhile, turned back the clock to his rookie season, when he made more than half the Saints' defense look silly on his exciting 67-yard touchdown jaunt. Take nothing away from the run, but Lynch's other 18 carries produced 64 yards. And he's still Marshawn Lynch. He didn't have a 100-yard game during the regular season. Relying on him is dangerous.

Wide receivers

1. Greg Jennings, Packers

2. Wes Welker, Patriots

3. Roddy White, Falcons

4. Mike Wallace, Steelers

5. Deion Branch, Patriots

6. Johnny Knox, Bears

7. Hines Ward, Steelers

8. Santonio Holmes, Jets

9. Anquan Boldin, Ravens

10. Donald Driver, Packers

11. James Jones, Packers

12. Braylon Edwards, Jets

13. Mike Williams, Seahawks

14. Derrick Mason, Ravens

15. Devin Hester, Bears

16. Jordy Nelson, Packers

17. Jerricho Cotchery, Jets

18. Earl Bennett, Bears

19. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Ravens

20. Ben Obomanu, Seahawks

21. Michael Jenkins, Falcons

22. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers

Analysis: Not much movement from last week, other than the loss of Eagles, Saints, Colts and Chiefs. That really thins the available pool of wide receivers. I moved Jennings up to the top, Knox gets a boost, and so do the Jets options. Look, the Patriots can be thrown on, too. I don't expect Sanchez to have an error-free game, but Holmes and Edwards are more viable.

Tight ends

1. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots

2. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons

3. Todd Heap, Ravens

4. Aaron Hernandez, Patriots

5. Heath Miller, Steelers

6. Dustin Keller, Jets

7. Greg Olsen, Bears

8. John Carlson, Seahawks

9. Andrew Quarless, Packers

10. Ed Dickson, Ravens

Analysis: Heap and Carlson are the players to watch, and you can see from their rankings I believe in them. And if you need a bargain to save market money, Quarless is the guy.


Shayne Graham, Patriots

Mason Crosby, Packers

Robbie Gould, Bears

Shaun Suisham, Steelers

Matt Bryant, Falcons

Billy Cundiff, Ravens

Nick Folk, Jets

Olindo Mare, Seahawks