Welcome to Upset Watch, the column that assesses every game for the most likely NFL upsets. We use a combination of proprietary data and trend analysis to find the teams that everyone is sleeping on.
Last week, only one underdog won - and of course, we had the 49ers among our picks. This week, our picks may surprise you, but in a tight Divisional round, anything is possible...
Regular Season Results
Season singles Profit: +$3,240 ($100 on each money line pick)
Season doubles profit: ($10 on every parlay of 2 from our money line picks): +$1,547.38
Season trebles profit: ($10 on every parlay of 3 from our money line picks): +$1,845.80
Total profit of all 2x and 3x parlays: +$3,393.18
This week we will be looking at the number of divisional round games that have ended in underdog wins in recent years, and where those upsets have occurred.
Over the last 6 years, there have been a total of 7 divisional round upsets, so an average of just 1 per season. That doesn't quite tell the whole story, however. In one year there were 3, and in two years, there were 0. To put it bluntly, there is an element of a crap shoot about picking games.
That means that we have to be careful in making assumptions. The 'average' would tell us that only one team will beat the odds this week, yet clearly we need to do more than this to find out if there could be more. We need to identify which games are more likely to end in an upset.
The one very obvious correlation is in the spread. Games where the underdog won have been against an average spread of +4.8, while favorite wins have been with an average spread of -7.
And there's more to that. Underdogs facing a spread of +3 or less are 3-2 in that span, and teams facing a spread greater than that are 4-15.
There is a gray area, however, and it's very annoying. There have been no games at +3 or +3.5, and that applies to two of our games this week, with the Bengals +3.5 and the Rams +3.
That means we're going to need to evaluate every matchup on merit. As always at this time of year, it's important that we think logically. Ultimately, all of these games could be upsets, or none of them may be. But we'll definitely be keeping those numbers in mind.
Free Analysis (games already played)
Date: 22nd Jan - 4:30pm ET
Weather: 36F Sunny
Spread: TEN -3.5
Is the first game of the week an opportunity for a big upset win? or are the favorite Titans deserving of their spot at the top of the AFC?
Last week, the Bengals triumphed against the Raiders in Las Vegas by a touchdown. There was plenty of controversy, as the Bengals scored what turned out to be a decisive TD in the second quarter a fraction after a ref blew his whistle.
My take on it? I get the letter of the law argument, and if they'd had a do-over, I wouldn't have hated it, but there was no impact on how the play unfolded. The ref blew his whistle a fraction of a second before the ball was caught, with no Raider able to make a play on Tyler Boyd, so I don't think anyone can hate that call.
Now, one definite problem in the game was the refereeing generally. I'm hoping for better this time out, because calls like this helped the Raiders almost win:
But the Bengals prevailed, and as the lowest ranked AFC team left in the playoffs, they earned a trip to Nashville, where they'll take on the Titans fresh off their bye week for being no.1 seed in the AFC.
Cincinnati performed pretty much as expected against the Raiders. In a slightly odd game, they were outgained both through the air and on the ground by Las Vegas, predominantly because the Raiders committed the two turnovers in the game. Derek Carr's strip sack by Trey Hendrickson and his interception by Germaine Pratt.
In some ways, this is exactly what we thought would happen. The Raiders had the big offensive weapon of Carr and his legitimate top-10 passing game, but the Bengals had a defensive line capable of ruffling him. Joe Burrow led the Bengals to points on 7 of their 9 possessions, while Carr managed just 5 of 9.
It wasn't a convincing performance, but strangely, it was good to see the Bengals win a scrappy game after the slightly misleading perception that they're going to rain hellfire on every opponent seemed to take root in their last three weeks of the season. Sure Burrow and Jamarr Chase are absolutely capable of ripping any team apart, but they have been more balanced than that, and my instinct is that they are going to have targeted bursts of passing action, rather than becoming the new Chiefs or Bucs, who pass almost exclusively.
The Titans face our scrutiny for the first time this post-season, and they're just as interesting as the Bengals.
They went 4-3 against fellow playoff teams in 2021, picking up the high-profile scalps of the Bills and Titans in consecutive weeks (6 and 7) and also beating the Colts and Rams for a 4 game streak against winning teams. To put it bluntly, there were times when they looked nearly unstoppable, and even when they lost Derrick Henry to injury, they continued to win.
There was a major change though, because when they had Henry, they averaged 7 points more per game on offense, and could rely on the run game to dominate against opponents, even in a shootout. Losing Henry forced coach Mike Vrabel to lean muchmore heavily on his defense, and they responded well.
Between weeks 9 (their first without Henry) and 18, the Titans gave up more than 30 points just once, in a 36-13 road loss in New England. They averaged just 17.4 points allowed in those games, and reduced both passing and rushing yards by over 30 yards each.
What is slightly concerning is that the Titans also scored 30 points just once in that stretch, and the Bengals did that 4 times, all in meaningful games either against playoff opponents, or winning teams. In fact, the Bengals are an anomaly in that they are one of the few teams to average more points per game against playoff opponents than against non-playoff opponents.
Here's what is tipping the balance for me: The run of games after Henry got injured.
- Week 9 - a win against the Rams that is decided more on Matthew Stafford throwing multiple interceptions within 10 yards of his own end zone.
- Week 10 - a 23-21 win against the Saints that included a bad roughing call on New Orleans in the red zone that extended a drive for the Titans and ultimately led to a Touchdown rather than a Field Goal in a tight game.
- Week 11 - a 22-13 loss to the Texans (our best upset pick of the season!)
- Week 12 - a 36-13 blowout loss against the Patriots
- Week 14 - after their bye, a non-event 20-0 win against the hapless Jags
- Week 15 - a 13-19 loss against the Steelers
- Week 16 - a 20-17 Thursday night win against the 49ers in which Jimmy Garoppolo incurred a serious hand injury in the first half (and is still bothering him)
- Week 17 - a 34-3 blowout win against the Dolphins
- Week 18 - a narrow 28-25 victory against the Texans in a meaningless game for Houston, but which very much mattered to Tennessee.
My takeaway? This was a bad run that looks like 6-3 on paper, but where most of their wins look a little less impressive in the cold light of day. Tennessee averaged 21 points per game in that stretch, and the loss of A.J. Brown was big.
Brown is back, and that is a cause for optimism, as is Henry's potential return, albeit the Titans have run fine without him and had a season high in their loss to the Patriots, and had 201 yards on the ground in defeat to Pittsburgh. Their major worry? That Burrow and the Bengals can hit big plays to Chase, C.J. Uzomah and Boyd all game long against a 25th ranked pass defense, while the stouter 7th ranked run defense of the Bengals is exactly where the Titans would prefer a weaker opponent.
If Henry suits up, this line may drift away from the Bengals even further, so I see no reason not to hold on and see what his status is, but unless Trey Hendrickson is ruled out, I think the Bengals will be the pick here.
Pick: Bengals (Money Line +160)
Date: 22nd Jan - 8:15pm ET
Weather: 21F Cloudy
Spread: GB -6
This is the biggest spread of the week, which means if we deem it an upset, it'll also be the biggest call of the playoffs so far. We backed the 49ers against the Cowboys and they narrowly won, but the Packers, fresh off a bye week? That doesn't sound so appetizing...
The 49ers squeaked the win last week in Dallas, in a game that they were in control of until the last 5 minutes. Those who read last week's column will know that I rate the 49ers as one of the best teams left in the playoffs.
The metrics are there to back this up too. Against the 49ers, Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a minor injury to his shoulder that hindered them passing the ball, but the rest of the team played perfectly. They held the Cowboys to 45 fewer rushing yards, 50 fewer passing yards, and 13.4 fewer points than the Cowboys managed on offense against other opponents.
On offense, the 49ers made a cardinal error of shifting slightly too much towards the run, but they finished with 2 more points than the Cowboys normally gave up, and 47 more rushing yards. Only through the air did they struggle, primarily because of a 23-7 lead that required more running, and Garoppolo's injured shoulder and thumb.
Those two minor injuries, and the one to Nick Bosa (concussion) are really the only pause I have with San Francisco. All indications are that Garoppolo, Bosa and Fred Warner - who left late and returned before the end of the game for the 49ers - will be good to go, but of course, you'd prefer that entire cohort of critical players to be healthy if possible.
When they are, this game suits the 49ers, and I'd point to the game they played in week 3 and remind people that a 28-30 loss indicates how close these two teams are. The 49ers will run the ball, that much we know, but they can win through the air when they need to, and the Packers defense has looked fallible down the stretch.
Green Bay enter their first playoff game with a relatively clean bill of health. They went 5-1 against fellow playoff teams, and at least offensively, played incredible football in the second half of the season.
The Packers had an extraordinary final 7 weeks, averaging 33.4 points per game, and Aaron Rodgers overcoming his definitely injured toe to post gaudy passing numbers.
And it's a good job he did, because the Packers defense collapsed in the late season period.
Green Bay allowed just 18 points per game up until the Minnesota game they lost in week 11. They'd held 6 of their 10 opponents under 20 points, and generally looked among the best defensive teams in the league.
From week 11 onwards, however, things changed dramatically. The Packers gave up 27.3 points per game - over 9 points more than the first half of the season - and held just one opponent below 20 points - the hapless Vikings in week 17.
I'm not reading a ton into the loss to the Lions in week 18, but their defense didn't handle Jared Goff and the Lions well. Are the 49ers similar to the Lions? Not really, at least not at this stage of the season, but if Jimmy G can throw the ball as well as he did in week 18 (300+ yards against the Rams) then that is a warning that this could be an interesting game for the Packers D.
One helping hand is the likely return of OLB Za'Darius Smith, and CB Jaire Alexander. Neither will likely play all game, but their spot-duty could help in key spots. That said, it can also be a hindrance if players are not totally healthy, or up to speed with scheme. My instinct is they'll play, but not to a point where I'm willing to make their presence a factor.
So this may come down to two matchups: Aaron Rodgers against the 49ers pass defense, and the 49ers run offense against the Packers run defense.
The 49ers have the best passing defense bar Buffalo left in the playoffs, and have proven their mettle against the Rams (twice) the Cowboys and Cardinals. In their last 3 outings, they've held opponents to 60 fewer yards than they averaged against other opponents, including in crucial games against the Rams and Cowboys.
Will the weather help them? Short answer: Yes, probably. Although we know Rodgers will still throw, he's only played 3 games in the last 3 seasons in seriously cold weather. One of those was in week 17 of this year, where he obliterated the terrible Vikings defense, but the other two games against more sturdy defenses are probably quite useful to note. Against the Seahawks and Bears in 2019, he completed just 16 passes in each game, and while the Packers won both games, Rodgers was far less accurate than normal.
What does this mean? Well, that the 49ers may hold a slight edge over Rodgers on passing downs. This is all... I mean you have to be really aware that Aaron Rodgers absolutely is the best QB in the league this season, and that even on a bad day against good opposition, he's a pretty good bet for 2 TD's, but the issue is whether he can carry the team from a yardage perspective in this particular scenario. Perhaps we take away only 10-20% of his effectiveness, but in a game that the 49ers lost by 2 points in September, is that enough to swing us to the 49ers?
And that leads us back to the Green Bay defense against Elijah Mitchell, Deebo Samuel, and the 49ers offense, both running and passing. The Packers gave up the third most rushing yards per attempt in 2021, behind only the Steelers and Chiefs. There is a huge hole in this defense, and when they get to the red zone, they don't tighten up.
The Packers allow the 3rd most passing TD's in the league, and are 28th in red zone defense. Jimmy Garoppolo has 15 TD's and only 1 interception in the Red Zone this season, so if you were designing a team who could win against the Packers, it would be one that could
- Run the ball
- Throw for passing TD's in the Red Zone
- Stop the pass
The simple logic here, as tough as it may be to get on board with, is that the 49ers are one of the best teams in the league playing in a game that suits them perfectly, whereas the Packers will win or lose by Aaron Rodgers's performance against a team that is a tough matchup.
As tough as it is to go against Rodgers, and as much as I feel the gnawing 'but it's Aaron Rodgers' doubt too, I'm going to brave it out and take the heat if we lose.
Pick: 49ers (Money Line +205)
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