NFL Week 14 underdogs: Ravens to outduel Browns? Will Rams upend Cardinals?

Itching to watch an underdog try to overcome the odds or triumph against adversity? Simply looking to pass the time reading another NFL.com article while stuck in your cube? Marc Sessler offers a bead on five us-against-the-world scenarios to track entering Week 14 of the 2021 NFL season. The order below is determined by confidence rankings, from No. 1 (most confident) to No. 5 (least confident). Sessler's record against the spread entering Week 14: 21-14-1.

The lines below provided by FanDuel are current as of 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Dec. 8 unless otherwise noted below.


Full disclosure: This typist is also a Browns fan. More specifically, an agitated Browns fan who is unsure if Cleveland is the watchable bully who put up 41 points on the Bengals or the inept attack that turned four Lamar Jackson picks (lavish gifts from the Football Gods!) into three measly points in a depressing 16-10 loss to Baltimore in Week 12. The Browns came into that bout healthy, too, something the Ravens can't say after losing valuable corner Marlon Humphrey to a shoulder injury. Baltimore has already stashed away nearly 20 key players on injured reserve, but that also speaks to the team's makeup: Where other rosters melt from within, John Harbaugh's bunch keep unfurling jabs. The coach showed mega-onions going for a two-point conversion over a chance at overtime against Pittsburgh. The play fizzled, but it's another example of a resilient franchise buying into the mission at hand. Lamar has struggled against the blitz, but escapes criticism for his turnovers because of the magic he spins. The defense casts spells, too, holding a mighty Browns ground game to 40 yards at 2.4 yards per try two weeks ago. When Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt fail to author explosive plays, Cleveland's identity vanishes. Trust in Baker Mayfield has withered up, too, over the past month. The Browns look better on paper; the Ravens win fights in real life.


Wrapped inside an NFL season ripe with weirdness, the Vikings are one thing we can count on. No matter the opponent, Minnesota's games boil down to feverish final seconds that morph this badgered fan base into a hyperventilating mess. The nice version of the Vikings gave off postseason vibes in knocking off the Packers 34-31 in Week 11. The naughty version appeared lost at sea in Sunday's 29-27 tumble against the previously winless Lions. We can depend on the heroics of Vikings superhuman wideout Justin Jefferson against Pittsburgh's shakier-than-perceived defense (still 27th in DVOA despite hassling the Ravens). Expect the Steelers to double up Jefferson with Adam Thielen out of commission due to a high-ankle sprain. We can also count on DPOY candidate T.J. Watt to make life tough for Kirk Cousins. This feels strange, but I’ll point also to a Pittsburgh offense that came to life down the stretch against Baltimore, leaning on a mix of no-huddle and hurry-up calls with successful play-action strikes from Ben Roethlisberger. This might be Pittsburgh’s meal ticket going forward. I've gone from counting out the Steelers entirely to seeing visions of a swan-songing Big Ben icing opponents in January. I predict a tight tussle, but crystal-balling these two clubs is akin to deciphering snail-mail missives from the Zodiac. 


Kansas City's five-game win streak feels a tad funky. Trust blooms over a revived defense allowing a stingy 11.2 points per game -- second-best league-wide -- since Week 8. The offense, though, bears no resemblance to the impossible-to-stop attack of yesteryear. They've scored fewer than 25 points in six straight home games. An uncharacteristic 12 picks by Patrick Mahomes have included an NFL-leading five interceptions triggered by drops. Out of sync for quarters at a time, the Chiefs can take hope from their last bona fide fireworks show, a 41-14 crushing of the Raiders in Week 10. Dreamers eyeing the spread must believe in a Vegas team that put up 509 yards and 36 points against a stout Dallas defense on Thanksgiving. Belief must extend to Derek Carr and an offense wishing to push the ball deep. That was an uphill climb against Washington in Week 13, but Carr entered the game with a league-best 808 yards on deep shots in 2021. The tragedy surrounding Henry Ruggs III has stripped the team of a key component. That was masked when DeSean Jackson piled up 100-plus against Dallas, yet made overt when the aging deep-threat squeezed out a 1/14/0 line against Washington. The hope is that star tight end Darren Waller returns against a Chiefs operation scratching out ugly wins. If the spread stays this vast, the Raiders -- fighting for their playoff lives -- remain inviting.

Con.
4
Detroit Lions
1-10-1


Over the past month, the hot/cold Broncos stunned the Cowboys, were blown to pieces by the Eagles, waxed the Chargers and flatlined against the Chiefs. Inconsistency is rooted in an offense that rides the waves with Teddy Bridgewater under center. For every efficient outing, you can count on tilts where he simply doesn't do enough. Two killer picks against Kansas City unspooled a solid outing by Vic Fangio's defense. Signing up for Detroit means holding hands with a Lions team that nipped the Vikings, tied the Steelers and fell to the Browns and Bears by a combined five points. Jared Goff is coming off his best performance while sporting a 5:1 touchdown-to-pick ratio since Week 12. Detroit's desire to pound the ball dims if D'Andre Swift can’t suit up, but Jamaal Williams and friends will find life against a Denver unit ranking 25th in DVOA against the run. The 1-10-1 mark fails to tell the story of a Lions team still grinding for coach Dan Campbell. I don't trust the Broncos to stage a blowout against anyone. 

Con.
5


Sunday's smothering of the sleepy Bears magnified the depth and power of Arizona's roster. The offense barely needed to flex its muscles thanks to a quartet of interceptions that kick-started drives deep in Chicago territory. Next Gen Stats notes that seven separate Cardinals were credited with two-plus pressures, which signals issues for Matthew Stafford, who's been sacked 10 times over the past four games and took a string of titanic hits on Sunday against the Jaguars. MVP candidate Kyler Murray is coming off his finest day on the ground after frying the Bears for 59 yards and two scores off 10 totes. The Rams (sixth in team DVOA) understand the NFC West boils down to this Monday night meeting after Arizona -- fifth in team DVOA and riding a two-game division lead -- zapped them 37-20 in Week 4. Since then, Cooper Kupp has grown only more powerful, recording 90-plus receiving yards in an outrageous 11 of 12 outings. The ground game saw a boost from Sony Michel (24/121/1) in Week 13 and should have a healthier version of Darrell Henderson by sundown Monday. The Cardinals are football's finest offering, a development that certainly agitates Sean McVay. He knows what we all know: This game will reveal who the Rams really are. 

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

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