There are four NFL playoff games on the divisional round slate, and three of them feature a big favorite, per ESPN BET. Two teams are actually favored by 9-plus points, and the closest matchup of the weekend still has the Bills installed as 3-point favorites over the Chiefs.
But it’s the playoffs, and anything can happen. Just ask the Packers, who are moving on after dropping 48 points on the Cowboys despite being a 7.5-point underdog in the wild-card round. Executing the game plan will be crucial for the four underdogs this weekend if they want to pull off upsets and advance to their respective conference title games.
Let’s take a closer look at the four road underdogs this weekend — Houston, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Kansas City — and map out how each can get it done. For each of the four teams, we pointed out a game-plan key, focusing on personnel matchups, scheme advantages, coaching tendencies and what we see on the game tape. Then we picked out one X factor player who could make a big upset impact, along with one offensive playmaker from the favorite who must be shut down. Additionally, we included game projections from ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI). Here’s how every underdog can win.
How the Houston Texans can upset the Baltimore Ravens
When: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET (ESPN/ABC/ESPN+)
ESPN BET: BAL -9 (43.5)
FPI prediction: BAL, 81.7%
Game-plan key to an upset win: The Ravens’ defense is a tough matchup, and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s pressure schemes can manipulate Houston’s protection counts. The Texans will see five-man schemes and simulated pressures that add a fourth pass-rusher from the second or third level. Baltimore was eighth in pressure this season (32.8% of opponent dropbacks), and beating that pressure will be huge in this game for the Texans.
But I also want to look at C.J. Stroud and the Houston pass game in the low red zone (inside the 10-yard line), where the rookie quarterback has thrown 10 touchdown passes this season. This is a critical area of the field, and Baltimore will be heavy in man coverage. What answers will Houston offensive coordinator Bobbly Slowik have here? I like empty sets to define the matchups for Stroud and getting receiver Nico Collins in reduced alignments as the backside X. The Texans can throw the glance and slant routes off flash play-action there.
Finally, let’s not forget about getting Stroud out on the edges in boot concepts, with tight end Dalton Schultz as the primary read underneath. Those will grab the eyes of defenders and help Houston move the chains and find the end zone.
Impact Texans X factor: Safety Jalen Pitre has the traits to play top-down on the ball from Houston’s split-field alignments. He can drive on the in-breakers to limit Lamar Jackson‘s production on middle-of-the-field throws. Plus, Pitre is a key part of the Texans’ run defense, as he can patrol the alley and insert into the front as an overhang defender. He had 84 total tackles and six tackles for loss this season.
The Ravens player whom the Texans have to stop: Tight end Isaiah Likely was an option here, but I’m going with receiver Zay Flowers due to his versatility in Todd Monken’s offense. The Ravens can set Flowers up on motion/movement touches (screens, jet sweeps), create open voids for him to attack the boundary against Cover 2 and get him catch-and-run opportunities underneath to beat second-level zone defenders.
In Baltimore’s opening game of the season, Flowers caught 9 of 10 targets for 78 yards — including four catches of at least 17 yards — against the Texans. Houston has to slow him down this time around.
How the Green Bay Packers can upset the San Francisco 49ers
When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET (Fox)
ESPN BET: SF -9.5 (50.5)
FPI prediction: SF, 78.6%
Game-plan key to an upset win: The Packers can set quarterback Jordan Love up to target the third level of the 49ers’ defense, a unit that played zone coverage on 66.4% of opponent dropbacks this season. Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur can scheme concepts to lift the safeties, forcing them to extend their depth, while also adding underneath bait to influence the linebackers. That creates the middle-of-the-field reads for Love to hammer the ball to the now-vacated voids. When throwing 15 or more yards downfield and between the numbers this season, Love registered a 94.4 QBR.
While the 49ers gave up only 44 throws of 20 or more yards this season (tied for eighth fewest in the NFL), the tape tells us that you can use clear-and-replace concepts to get those open windows. The Packers will have to hit the in-breakers and create some big passing plays to beat San Francisco on Saturday night.
Impact Packers X factor: I see matchup advantages for defensive tackle Kenny Clark against the 49ers’ interior offensive front. Clark logged 7.5 sacks and 27 pressures this season, and he has the ability to win one-on-one matchups or find open paths to quarterback Brock Purdy off inside stunts. And with his disruptive traits, he can create conflict for the 49ers’ run game.
The 49ers player whom the Packers have to stop: Receiver Deebo Samuel averaged 8.8 yards after the catch per reception this season, which led all wideouts. He’s a rapid accelerator with ball-carrier vision, and we know 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan will scheme throws to create open-field opportunities for him. That includes screens, crossers and slants. Simply put, tackling will be key for Green Bay. But Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry can also deploy his safeties as top-down defenders from Quarters and “robber” alignments to limit Samuel’s numbers after the catch.
How the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can upset the Detroit Lions
When: Sunday, 3 p.m. ET (NBC)
ESPN BET: DET -6.5 (48.5)
FPI prediction: DET, 62.5%
Game-plan key to an upset win: In Week 6, Lions quarterback Jared Goff completed 20 of 27 passes against the Buccaneers’ zone coverage for 248 yards and two touchdowns. If you give Goff time to throw and clean platforms, he will find the zone windows. It’s almost like he’s playing 7-on-7 out there in those situations. So we should expect Bucs coach Todd Bowles to bring more pressure against Goff this time and mix both man and zone schemes.
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Tampa Bay registered a blitz rate of 59% in the wild-card win over Philadelphia and has some of the best pressure concepts in the league, with schemed pass-rushers from the second and third levels to create overload looks. You’ll see linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and slot corners all get in on the pass rush. Bowles can attack the Lions’ protection fronts and create open pass-rush lanes. The Bucs must force Goff — who had a 23rd-ranked 10.0 QBR against pressure this season — to move in the pocket and speed up his clock.
Impact Buccaneers X factor: Mike Evans and Chris Godwin will see target volume from quarterback Baker Mayfield, but don’t forget about wideout Trey Palmer as a vertical threat who can create a game-changing play. Palmer caught two passes for 47 yards in the Week 6 matchup, and he had an opportunity on a deep ball that Mayfield missed. That was a schemed throw to beat split-field coverage, with Palmer isolated on a safety.
Let’s see if Bucs offensive coordinator Dave Canales can get Palmer matched up vertically again versus the Lions’ safeties in Quarters or Cover 2. Tampa Bay has to use his 4.33 speed.
The Lions player whom the Buccaneers have to stop: It has to be receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who caught 12 of 15 targets for 124 yards against this Tampa Bay defense in Week 6. Eight of those receptions came on throws inside the numbers, where Goff wants to deliver the ball. And again, getting pressure is an answer. But I would also like to see cornerback Carlton Davis III matched in man coverage against St. Brown, with the Bucs also spinning their weakside safety down late from two-deep shells to cut the crossers. Davis had two picks this season.
How the Kansas City Chiefs can upset the Buffalo Bills
When: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
ESPN BET: BUF -3 (45.5)
FPI prediction: BUF, 56.6%
Game-plan key to an upset win: The run game with Isiah Pacheco will play a major role for the Chiefs’ offense on Sunday night, but I’m more interested in quarterback Patrick Mahomes‘ ability to win the post-snap battle. If we go back to the Week 14 head-to-head matchup between these teams — when Mahomes completed 58.1% of his throws and had a season-low 29.4 QBR — the Bills’ defense really mixed its coverages. Buffalo played Cover 1 and Cover 2 at a rate of 28.9%, with Cover 3 not far behind at 26.7%. And the Bills even sprinkled in some 2-Man. The key, though, was late movement and disguise from the Bills’ secondary, which can cloud the looks for the quarterback.
Mahomes will have to read it out post-snap to attack the zone voids and find the man coverage matchups. I’m looking for him to hit the multilevel crossers to receiver Rashee Rice and find tight end Travis Kelce on schemed concepts that attack the outside third of the field.
The ‘NFL Countdown’ crew analyzes the Chiefs’ success against the Dolphins and what it could mean for their playoff run.
Impact Chiefs X factor: I expect cornerback L’Jarius Sneed to draw the man coverage matchups against Buffalo receiver Stefon Diggs, especially in the red zone, but let’s also keep an eye on him as a rolled-up flat defender in the Chiefs’ staple Cover 2 scheme. He has the ability to disrupt perimeter receivers on their release and play to depth, while also setting an edge to the defense in the run game. Sneed broke up nine passes and had two interceptions this season, while also adding five tackles for loss.
The Bills player whom the Chiefs have to stop: Running back James Cook‘s deployment as a receiver was big for the Bills in Week 14. He caught all five of his targets for 83 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown catch. We saw schemed concepts to get Cook loose vertically off backfield releases, screen receptions and some underneath targets. Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton will have to limit Cook in the pass game.