NFL Playoff Predictions: Upset Picks for Divisional Round

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 10, 2012

ST. LOUIS, MO - JANUARY 1: Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers looks to pass the ball against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on January 1, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The NFL playoffs are no more predictable than the regular season and upsets are bound to happen. With a major postseason powerhouse—the Pittsburgh Steelers—already out of contention, it's not surprising if another unlikely upset scenario plays out in this week's Divisional games.

Let's examine each game and see if any underdog seems capable of achieving the seemingly impossible this week.

San Francisco 49ers vs. New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints have the highest-scoring offense in the NFL this year while the San Francisco 49er's defense is the best in the NFC.

While it seems a complete mismatch on paper, there are very significant ways the Niners can best the Saints on Saturday and make their way to the NFC championship game for the first time since 1997. 

The key to a San Francisco victory can be found in the Saints' Week 8 loss to the St. Louis Rams. The Rams put nonstop pressure on Saints quarterback Drew Brees, sacking him six times and hitting him an additional nine.

The pressure resulted in two Brees interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. The Saints were held to just two touchdowns on the day (the third resulting from a zero-yard fumble recovery), Brees threw for just 269 yards and the Rams found themselves on the winning end of a major upset.

The Niners have forced more turnovers than any other team this year and are excellent at pressuring opposing quarterbacks. If they follow the Rams' Week 8 blueprint and execute it better than they did—a very real possibility—they can defeat the heavily-favored Saints.

It's easier said than done, of course, and the Saints possess a far better offense than any San Francisco has faced this year. But there is a way to beat New Orleans and the Niners, more than any other team, is capable of pulling it off.

Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens

BALTIMORE - OCTOBER 16:  Ben Tate #44 of the Houston Texans fumbles the ball in the end zone against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on October 16. 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. The ball was recovered by the Texans for a touchdownThe Ravens lead t
Larry French/Getty Images

Last week's Wild Card matchup between the Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals was very much a toss up, so it was no surprise when Houston ended up victorious.

However, no one was prepared for them to win in such a dominant fashion, besting the Bengals 31-10.

The Texans did it with the strength of their defense and the effectiveness of their running game. This strategy is something they have very much in common with the Baltimore Ravens and it should be a fascinating matchup between the two teams on Sunday.

The Texans are very different team from the ones that the Ravens met in Week 6. They've managed to become tougher and more resilient since that time, with a number of significant injuries befalling the team but still not destroying their playoff hopes.

Baltimore has yet to lose at home and have the strongest defense in the NFL. However, if they are unable to stop Texans running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, the team will find itself in serious trouble.

The Ravens are on a tear and have a better chance of reaching the Super Bowl this year than they have in seasons past and won't be taking the Texans lightly as a result. It will be hard for Houston to get much going against a team that has held five of their last six opponents to 16 or fewer points.

To win, the Texans defense has to repeat what they did last week against the Bengals—holding them to just 32 rushing yards and picking off quarterback Andy Dalton three times—against the Ravens and quarterback Joe Flacco this week.

If they can perform just as well or better, then Houston has an excellent chance to pull off the upset victory. There aren't many differences between these two teams and it's certainly not a foregone conclusion that the Texans don't have what it takes to beat the Ravens on Sunday.

New York Giants at Green Bay Packers

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 04:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers slides to the turf as he runs the ball against Jacquian Williams #57 of the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on December 4, 2011 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Packers w
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

When the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers met in Week 13, the two teams combined for nine touchdowns and three field goals.

But if the Giants are to win on Sunday evening, the Packers will have to be held to less than the 38 points they put up in that game.

The Giants kept it close the whole time, boding well for their offense's chances to again put up points in this week's Divisional round playoff matchup.

But, on defense, they'll have to look more like the squad that bested the New England Patriots in Week 9 and the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17.

In those two games, the Giants held the Patriots and Cowboys to 20 and 14 points, respectively, relying on their ability to put serious pressure on the opposing quarterbacks and keeping them off the field.

When it comes to the Packers offense and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, it's a necessity to keep that squad off the field if a team hopes to beat them. The only team that has, the Kansas City Chiefs, employed that strategy and provides a good template for the Giants (a far better team than the Chiefs) to build upon.

In that game, Rodgers completed just 50 percent of his passes for 235 yards, threw a two-yard touchdown pass and ran in for a score.

The Packers couldn't get on the board until the second half, thanks to almost endless pressure from the Chiefs defense, which sacked Rodgers four times and hit him five more.

That pressure resulted in the Packers offense being on the field for just under 24 minutes of the game. The Giants are extremely well-suited to put forth this kind of effort, considering they've been successful in employing it already this season.

New York is in a great position to pull off the upset win over the defending Super Bowl champion Packers.

If they are unrelenting on defense and effective in exploiting the Packers' weak secondary when on offense, it's the Giants', and not the Packers' to lose this week.

Denver Broncos at New England Patriots

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18: Aaron Hernandez #81 of the New England Patriots tries to avoid the tackle of a Denver Broncos player on December 18, 2011 during the second half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. The New England Patriots
Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

Yes, the New England Patriots' secondary is the worst in the NFL, and yes, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow managed to throw for 316 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers in their Wild Card playoff game, despite completing under 50 percent of his passes.

But those two facts in concert don't necessarily equate to a Broncos upset victory over the heavily-favored Patriots on Saturday night.

When the Patriots and the Broncos met in Week 14, it first appeared that New England could be the latest victim of the strange Denver offense and their strengthening defense.

In the first 17 minutes of the game, the Broncos put up 16 points to the Patriots' seven and seemed to run the ball at will.

But in the second quarter, the Patriots top-tier offense took hold, with quarterback Tom Brady throwing for a touchdown and rushing for a second. Add in two field goals and the Patriots found themselves up 27-16 at halftime.

Two Patriots touchdowns to one by Denver sealed New England's convincing victory, as Brady was able to yet again move the ball, targeting nine different receivers and connecting with eight of them. Brady's got some of the most elite receiving weapons in the NFL and it's what has led them to the AFC No. 1 seed in this year's playoffs.

Simply put, the Broncos defense needs to be able to stop Brady for a full four quarters—a feat accomplished by just two teams in the regular season.

If they cannot, then Tebow will have to try to match Brady's prodigious production in a hopes to outscore New England.

Tebow, even if he has another 300-yard performance, won't be able to do this as long as his completion percentage hovers around 50 percent.

Of all upset scenarios this week, the Broncos defeating the Patriots seems the most far-fetched and unlikely.


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