NFL Playoff Picks: Odds Each Underdog Can Pull off the Upset
With the NFL's conference championship games set for next weekend, the endless predictions and analysis have begun to roll in.
Now that we are down to just four teams, there is no denying we have four very elite teams left. Each team brings its own style of play to the table as well as its own set of flaws.
While we have seen our fair share of upsets thus far this season, many are wondering what the chances are that we could see more this weekend.
What do the underdogs have to do to pull off the upset and move on to the Super Bowl?
Here is my breakdown.
How the Ravens Can Upset the Patriots
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What they are up against
The Baltimore Ravens will travel to New England to take on the top-seeded Patriots Sunday afternoon.
The Patriots boast the best offense remaining in the playoffs and are led by one of the best quarterbacks of all time, Tom Brady. Brady is coming off a divisional round win over the Denver Broncos where he lit them up for six passing touchdowns.
Baltimore is coming off a close victory against a Houston Texans team that was starting its third-string quarterback. The offense was dominated by the Texans defense, but the Ravens were able to capitalize on enough turnovers to win the game.
The Ravens offense will need to play better if they plan on keeping up with Brady and company.
How they can win
This game will come down to the Ravens defense versus Tom Brady and the Patriots offense.
The first step will be generating a pass rush on Brady. It does not matter how good your quarterback is—he cannot complete passes from his back.
The pass rush is even more dangerous to a team like the Patriots. Their offense revolves so much around timing and precision that interrupting that rhythm can immediately slow them down.
The next step is playing their weapons physically at the line of scrimmage.
This strategy will be most important around the wide receivers, especially Wes Welker. Welker can easily take over a game if he and Brady get momentum. Even though every defense in the league knows the Patriots will be looking to throw to Welker, he still manages to get open week in and week out.
Playing the receivers physically is just another step at throwing off the timing of the Patriots offense.
The final step on defense is shutting down Rob Gronkowski. "Gronk" has possibly become New England's most dangerous weapon, as his massive size matched with soft hands makes him a nightmare for defenses. He is too fast for linebackers to cover but far too strong for defensive backs to take down. There is no getting around the fact he needs multiple defenders on him at all times.
On the other side of the ball, the key to the game will be ball control.
The best way to stop any high-powered offense is to keep it off the field. Even if you come into a game with the perfect defensive game plan, some offenses are good enough to still find ways to score.
The Ravens need to practice safe passing routes and utilize Ray Rice. Rice is one of the top backs in the league and has terrorized the Patriots before. The Ravens should go into this game-planning to let him loose and hope to dominate time of possession.
Odds they pull off the upset
Less than 50 percent.
The Ravens defense is good, but not nearly as dominant as it has been in previous years. It is still one of the best teams in the league at rushing the passer, but the defense is going up against a very tough offensive line in New England.
The Patriots are also masters at running those short passing routes and screens to take advantage of overaggressive defenses. If your pass-rushers are not getting to Brady quickly enough, he will simply dump it over their heads into the hands of a waiting receiver or running back, who will turn it upfield for a huge play.
The Ravens also haven't faced a passing attack as good as that of the Patriots.
They had three games against top-10 passing offenses this year. The last was against the sixth-ranked San Diego Chargers, and the Ravens lost that game. The other two were against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the Steelers' passing game is not in the same league as New England's.
The ball-control offense will only work as long as the game is close. If it becomes a two-score (or more) game, the game will be put on the shoulders of Joe Flacco. Flacco has not proved he has what it takes to go score for score with a quarterback the caliber of Brady.
The Ravens certainly aren't long shots in this one, but I don't like their chances to pull off the upset.
How the Giants Can Upset the 49ers
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What they are up against
The Giants will be headed to San Francisco for a rematch of a Week 10 game against the 49ers.
The 49ers are the best turnaround story in the NFL this year and proved last week against the New Orleans Saints that they belong among the league's elite teams. Alex Smith took his game to another level when he out-gunned Drew Brees and put together an epic game-winning drive.
The Giants will also be facing one of the league's toughest defense. The 49ers are littered with young talent on the defensive side of the ball, including Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith. They are just two very dangerous defensive talents that make up San Francisco's great defense.
The 49ers will certainly be much different than any team the Giants have played in the postseason thus far.
How they can win
Offensively, the Giants need to keep doing what they have been doing.
Eli Manning took some serious heat earlier this year when he made a comment that he was among the league's elite quarterbacks. Many critics claimed he did not have the résumé of a Drew Brees or a Tom Brady, but Manning proved them wrong this postseason.
The 49ers have a great defense, but it is built more to stop the rushing attack.
The 49ers showed last week against the Saints that they are susceptible to a strong passing attack and needed to force several turnovers in order to keep the game close. If Manning can protect the ball and get it in to the hands of an on-fire talent like Hakeem Nicks, the 49ers will have a tough time stopping them.
That being said, the rushing attack will still be important.
No matter how strong your passing attack is, you need to use your running backs to control the flow of the game. If Manning can put the defense on its heels early, it will open plenty of room for Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs to do their job.
Defensively, the Giants will need to focus on stopping Frank Gore.
Even though Alex Smith had an incredible performance last week, New York's attention should still be turned toward stopping the running game. The 49ers are a classic hard-nosed, grind-it-out team. They want to control the ball on offense and dominate defensively.
If you can take away the running lanes for Gore, you put the game on Smith's shoulders. He certainly proved he has it in him to win big games, but I would make him do it two weeks in a row.
The Giants have an excellent pass rush built around Jason Pierre-Paul, but he is certainly complemented by Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. They have the ability to rush the quarterback with just their defensive line, which is a huge advantage when trying to limit a team's passing attack.
Odds they pull off the upset
Well above 50 percent.
The New York Giants may be the most complete team remaining in the postseason. They have a very talented defense that can slow both great quarterbacks and running backs, and their offense is led by a top-notch quarterback and has two running backs that can be effective anywhere on the field.
The 49ers still have a lot of questions to answer.
I want to see Alex Smith prove the quarterback he was last week is the quarterback he will be from every week here on out. If he is, so be it. However, one week of greatness isn't enough for me to completely hop on the bandwagon.
That being said, I like the 49ers in this one.
They proved Week 10 of the season that their defense is good enough to stop Eli Manning and company. The Giants are playing their best football of the year, but so is San Francisco. I will take the stronger defense that has enough offense to put up points.
I don't see Smith being the hero, but he certainly won't be the goat either.