When Colin Cowherd encouraged his listeners to play ESPN’s Eliminator Challenge, I decided to give it a whirl. I started doing because I figured it wouldn’t require much effort and because it sounded fun. Of course with my brain, I ended up taking the simple challenge and search for complexities. And given that I’ve made it four weeks while 90% of the pool has been eliminated, I’ll share the strategy that’s gotten me this far.
The Eliminator Challenge requires participates to pick one winner every week, but individual teams can only be picked once. For example, if one picked Chicago to beat Indianapolis Week 1, you can’t pick Chicago this week against Jacksonville, or any other week for the rest of the season.
In order to finish with a perfect entry, one will have to pick seventeen teams. Even if one were to know team records at the end of the season, the participant would still have to pick five teams that did not make the playoffs. (Personally, I’m figuring that I will end up picking at least seven non-playoff teams.) Last year, there was one 9-7 that didn’t make the playoffs (Tennessee) and seven 8-8, so one will essentially have to rely on a mediocre team winning at some point in the season. This doesn’t have to be restricting: last year, there were multiple spots where one would have been comfortable picking the 6-10 Panthers to win.
All this considered, I figured winning the pool would requiring picking some bad and mediocre teams at the beginning and end of the year. Good teams could be counted on to win at any point in the season; figuring out when inconsistent team could win was the key.
Week 1: For the first two weeks of the season, every team plays its hardest, even the bad ones. The ideal pick would be a team that had an abnormally good year last year; they would play hard early, but fade in the middle of the year (Cincinnati early in 2010 after they made the playoffs in 2009 is a good example). Everyone talked about Houston over Miami, New Orleans over Washington, and Detroit over St. Louis, but I noticed Jacksonville was playing at Minnesota. It wasn’t likely I’d want to pick either team again, so I went with the Vikings since they were at home. When the Jaguars kicked a field goal to take the lead with about a minute, I stop following the game, only to check back ten minutes later and see that the Vikings had won. In retrospect, I would have picked the Lions. At the time, I didn’t think the Lions would fade as quickly as they have. At the same time, I don’t know that there are going to be that many situations where I will want to pick the Vikings, so overall it was a good first pick.
Week 2: In week 2, the best pick would be a desperate but talented 0-1 team playing at home. The Giants, Cowherd’s pick, fit that bill to a T. But I was wary of using the Giants so early. Houston, now at Jacksonville, was another popular pick, as was New England at home against Arizona (the Cardinals’ upset took a large percentage of the pool). I opted with Cincinnati, who was facing Cleveland and rookie Brandon Weedon at home. The Browns played their rivals tough, but the Bengals pulled away with the win. In retrospect, I would have picked either Miami (playing at home against an Oakland team traveling on a short week) or Buffalo, playing at home against Kansas City. I really do regret not picking Buffalo here. While Miami will likely be playing hard later in the year with their rookie, Buffalo plays hard in the first four weeks every year. Cincinnati I could have picked either in Week 4 (where they won in Jacksonville) or this week (at home against Miami).
Week 3: There were not a lot of gimmes on the schedule this week. I didn’t want to pick San Francisco yet, and Cowherd warned against it. I thought some about Carolina because they were hosting the Giants on Thursday. I gave a passing thought to Arizona, because I thought they were better than Philadelphia and would make a statement game at home. I thought some about Atlanta, but I didn’t want to take a team traveling cross-country on a short week. I seriously considered taking Buffalo, for the reasons I mentioned above, but they were playing on the road at Cleveland (if they were playing Cleveland at home I probably would have picked them). Instead, I opted to take the Jets over Miami, mainly because Cowherd said this was the Jets’ last winnable game for a while. Besides, I still needed to take some teams I didn’t think were very good. (If I hadn’t picked the Jets, I would have taken Indianapolis at home over Jacksonville, which would have bounced me.) CBS cut to Dolphins’ kicker Dan Bailey’s missed field goal in overtime right before he attempted it. After the Jets won I was most grateful that I wouldn’t have to rely on them again for the rest of the season. 38% of the pool was knocked out because they picked either San Francisco or New Orleans, another 6% for picking Pittsburgh.
Week 4: I was really tempted to take a good team like Baltimore or Houston this week, given how much of the pool had been “eliminated” and that two of my three picks won on overtime field goals. Looking over the NFL, I still felt that a lot of team would still play hard, given how many teams had a young quarterbacks they believed in (hopefully this means a lot of 5-8 will still be trying late in the season). I didn’t want to take Baltimore because they were playing on a short week and had just played to two very physical opponents. Arizona was coming off a statement win, so I didn’t want to take them either. Even though Green Bay was going to play like a man on fire after getting jobbed on Monday Night Football, I didn’t want to pick against a New Orleans team who was getting one of their last chances in the national spotlight. Nor did I want to take the Patriots over the Bills, because I knew there will be other good places to pick New England down the stretch. I had some reservations about picking Denver at home against Oakland. For one, they’d like improve as Manning got more comfortable with his new team, but the Broncos’ schedule is tough, and I still didn’t want to use San Francisco. So I went with Denver, and for the first time, I enjoyed my eliminator pick winning comfortable.
Even though the teams I’ve used up are a collective 10-6, I feel good with where I’m at. I’d like to have one team besides the Jets that I was glad was off the table, but I haven’t used any of the elite teams (San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, Baltimore, Arizona, New England). This week, there were several teams on the schedule I felt comfortable picking: Green Bay, Baltimore, San Francisco, the Giants, Chicago, San Diego, and Houston. I’m going with the Giants. While I think San Francisco is more of lock, the Giants have only one more potentially lopsided home game, against New Orleans in December. Super Bowl Champs tend to fade late in the year after, so I don’t mind using them now. I’m mindful of the fact Cleveland blew out the Giants at home four years ago and sometimes a win-less rises up, but New York is 2-2 and needs this one. I won’t be beating myself up if the Giants loose this one.
Final piece of advice: in Week 7, the only lock is going to be New England over the Jets, unless you care to pick the Tennessee-Buffalo winner. I just might.