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NFL Week 16 underdogs: Ravens ready to reclaim AFC North pole position

Itching to watch an underdog try to overcome the odds or triumph against adversity? Simply looking to pass the time reading another article while stuck in your cube? Marc Sessler offers a bead on four us-against-the-world scenarios to track entering Week 16 of the 2021 NFL season. The order below is determined by confidence rankings, from No. 1 (most confident) to No. 4 (least confident). Sessler's record against the spread entering Week 16: 25-19-1.

The lines below provided by FanDuel are current as of 10:30 a.m. ET on Friday, Dec. 24 unless otherwise noted below.

Tucked inside a bizarro NFL season, the Colts remain something we can count on. Sturdily built along both lines, Indy exudes a white-knuckle persona and hasn't lost a game by more than one score since falling to the Titans in Week 3. The Colts tell you what they're going to do and challenge you to stop it. The Bills couldn't stop it. The Patriots couldn't stop it. What about the Cardinals, riding an ugly two-game, question-raising losing skid?

Arizona's defense spent much of this season deserving more acclaim. Today, though, the unit is coming off back-to-back tumbles that saw the Rams and Detroit drop 30 apiece. It was disturbing to see from-the-wilderness Lions runner Craig Reynolds slice through a confused Cardinals front in Sunday's stunning upset. Something vicious comes next in the form of Jonathan Taylor, an MVP-worthy rumbler on pace for 1,843 ground yards and a whopping 21 rushing scores. Attempts to describe his power become verbally cliché. What opponents know is this: He cracks defenses like an egg and masks the limitations of Carson Wentz. Taylor's the thumping engine behind the NFL's second-ranked ground attack and accounts for a league-leading 36.6 percent of Indy's scrimmage yards. Only five defenses allow more real estate per carry than the Cardinals, who appeared gassed by the end of their fall to Detroit. 

Kyler Murray's MVP campaign is all but over after his pick-plagued loss to the Rams and discombobulated meltdown in Detroit. Christmas Day won't present an easy get-right spot against a Darius Leonard-led Colts defense tied with Dallas for the most takeaways (31) on the year. The Lions kept Murray in the pocket and wreaked a fair bit of havoc against a line that lost center Rodney Hudson to COVID-19. If the stalwart pivot remains unavailable Saturday, Leonard and DeForest Buckner are set up to drop hammers. The loss of DeAndre Hopkins left Arizona's passing attack in a place of confusion in Week 15, lowering the club's juice in the red zone and rendering Murray out of sorts with A.J. Green on a bad interception. The Cardinals remain a talented club with a high ceiling, but the Colts hit town as a whirlwind determined to wipe out anything in their way.

The Ravens have stumbled in three straight losses to the Steelers, Browns and Packers by a combined 4 points. They were demolished by the Bengals 41-17 back in Week 7. I'm not sure any of that matters within football's weirdest division. I'm pitching Baltimore to save its season with a healthy Lamar Jackson under center, but another start from Tyler Huntley isn't the end of the world. Assuming Lamar suits up, Cincy will lean on a familiar script: disturbing his rhythm with a rash of blitzes and pocket havoc. The Bengals logged a season-high 23 pressures on Lamar in that late-October beatdown. Still, the Ravens go beyond all facts and figures, finding themselves alive at the end of games despite dealing with 1,000 players on injured reserve, spotty tackle play and a depleted secondary. This is less about logic and more about a tingling Spidey sense that Baltimore will emerge Sunday as the AFC North frontrunner.

UPDATE: The Ravens are placing QB Tyler Huntley on the reserve/COVID-19 list, ruling him out for Sunday's game.

New Orleans turning Tampa's offense into a copycat version of the Jets' is another reminder that most of the words in this column will be reduced to dust by Monday night. That result was equally emblematic of how resilient these Saints remain.

On paper, we can trust a surging Dolphins defense to neutralize a New Orleans attack that no-showed against the Bucs and is now set to start fourth-round rookie passer Ian Book after Taysom Hill landed on the league's increasingly ponderous reserve/COVID list. Book is a mystery novel as a pro, but the Saints have been forced to mask shaky quarterback play all season. Hill struggled over his past three starts for an offense squeezing out the lowest points (22.4) and yardage (311.7) per game of the Sean Payton era. Now New Orleans must outwit a Miami gang allowing a slim 13.2 points per outing during its six-game win streak. The Fins are getting just enough from Tua Tagovailoa inside Miami's low-wattage offense. The second-year passer might not pop off the screen, but Tua's league-leading completion percentage (69.9) is a testament to his growth. He's at his best when heating up alongside Jaylen Waddle, who leads all rookies with 86 grabs and looms as Miami's largest X-factor against a nasty New Orleans secondary. I'm calling for Payton (or his staff, for however much longer Payton is on his own COVID-mandated exile) to coach up Book and keep the Saints humming at home in a tight defensive bloodbath set to resemble something out of 1972.

Eking out a 20-19 win over Baltimore and nipping the Titans 19-13 have kept Pittsburgh's boat afloat. T.J. Watt makes anything possible, especially against a Chiefs attack waiting to see if Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill make it off the reserve/COVID list in time for Sunday. Expect the spread to fluctuate as we learn more, but it's a depressing turn for a back-from-the-dead Chiefs offense that posted 82 points over the past two weeks. Kansas City's no-fluke defense is allowing 13.3 points per outing during the club's seven-game win streak. Late-period Ben Roethlisberger doesn't scare anyone, but he's played his best football of the year in recent weeks and leads the league with six game-winning drives. This play comes down to COVID-spun chaos for K.C. and a personal belief that pesky Pittsburgh will still be alive and kicking come Week 18. 

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