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 six us-against-the-world scenarios to track entering Week 8 of the 2021 NFL season. The order below is determined by confidence rankings, from No. 1 (most confident) to No. 6 (least confident).
NOTE: The lines below provided by FanDuel are current as of 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Oct. 27 unless otherwise noted below.
- WHERE: FirstEnergy Stadium (Cleveland)
- WHEN: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET | CBS
- UNDERDOG: Steelers +3.5
The Browns took care of business against Denver minus their starting signal-caller in Baker Mayfield, the league's top ground duo in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, All-Pro tackle Jack Conklin and a host of other humans. Chubb and Conklin are back in practice, but Case Keenum might have to make another start in place of the ailing Mayfield, this time against Pittsburgh's dark-magic defensive front led by game-wrecking nightmares T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward. (UPDATE: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Friday that Mayfield has been cleared to play and is expected to start.) The Steelers are coming off a bye and hungry to erase memories of January's hyper-ugly wild-card melt at the hands of a Browns team that's currently in a vicious battle with the injury bug. The underrated absence of rookie defender Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (ankle) strips Cleveland of a laser-quick X-factor who doubles as Pro Football Focus' third-ranked linebacker. Yes, Pittsburgh's offense is tough on the eyes with Stone Age pony Ben Roethlisberger chucking quick-release lobs, but the weaponry -- Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool -- is proven, while rookie runner Najee Harris is a willing, do-everything workhorse out of the backfield. Superstitious types will note that Cleveland is roughly 0-26 when Jim Nantz and Tony Romo call the action. ("Uh-oh, Jim! I think Big Ben's still got it!" -- Romo, definitely at some point on Sunday.) Prepare for a Halloween nail-biter in which Pittsburgh attempts to fill Cleveland's bag with candy apples doused in kerosene.
- WHERE: Ford Field (Detroit)
- WHEN: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET | FOX
- UNDERDOG: Lions +3.5
Our friends in the desert won't paint winless Detroit as a favorite, but my eyes tell a different story: The Lions are due. They've scratched and clawed for a win and fallen heartbreakingly short. In a dramatic loss to the Rams, lovable first-year coach Dan Campbell dialed up a successful onside kick and converted two fake punts. Detroit has a limited offense with Jared Goff at the helm, but I adore this game as a coming-out party at home against a frustrated Eagles outfit that leads the league in penalties and flatlined (after nine days rest) vs. a Raiders team stripped of its head coach and playing without star tight end Darren Waller. "Time's running out," said Eagles captain Rodney McLeod after a stinging defeat in which Philly fell into a 30-7 hole and allowed Derek Carr to complete 91 percent of his throws. Defensive centerpiece Fletcher Cox openly questioned new coordinator Jonathan Gannon's lack of aggressiveness. It's a fair complaint, as Gannon himself admitted. In its past four losses, Philly trailed the Raiders by 23, Tampa by 21, Kansas City by 19 and Dallas by 27. The final scores in these tilts look better due to a late-to-rise Eagles offense angling for the title of Garbage Time King behind auditioning passer Jalen Hurts. The look on Nick Sirianni's face tells you which first-year head coach is having more fun.
- WHERE: Empower Field at Mile High (Denver)
- WHEN: Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET | FOX
- UNDERDOG: Washington +3
Two crummy teams going punch for punch! Von Miller spent last week trash-talking Cleveland's O-line before vanishing with an injury inside a game that saw first-time starter D'Ernest Johnson blast through Denver for 146 yards at 6.6 yards per tote. That game ended with the Browns bleeding out the final five-plus minutes of regulation against the highest-paid defense in the NFL. Washington's disappointing D is a talking point, but the Vic Fangio-led Broncos are a mess. Their 3-0 start (featuring wins over the Giants, Jags and Jets) feels seven light-years away. The offense is a bottom-six unit on third down, visually vanilla under play-caller Pat Shurmur and poorly built to overcome Teddy Bridgewater's five picks in three weeks when his calling card is Middle Of The Road Guy Who Won't Make Killer Mistakes. The Broncos aren't the sum of their parts, which can be said about Washington, too. I like the Football Team to cover, though, after putting up 430 yards against the Packers (their third 400-yard output of the year) with a dual-threat field general in Taylor Heinicke. Washington's much-criticized defense, meanwhile, allowed season lows in ground (57) and passing yards (247) to the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers.
- WHERE: Soldier Field (Chicago)
- WHEN: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET | FOX
- UNDERDOG: Bears +3.5
San Francisco was my Super Bowl pick. You don't care a lick about that doomed projection, but it suggests how far this team has tumbled: A fun development in August, the 49ers are something worse than bad -- they're boring. I've long-crushed on Kyle Shanahan's encyclopedic football mind, but the Niners coach appeared out of answers after Sunday's loss to the Colts. A terrible night rain didn't help Jimmy Garoppolo in defeat, but Mother Nature can't be blamed for San Francisco squeezing out 21-or-fewer points in four of its last five games. Gone are the overpowering ground performances and poetic in-game play-calling. A wanting 49ers secondary specializing in killer pass-interference calls doesn't help. It's less about trusting Chicago rookie passer Justin Fields, coming off a Tampa-triggered disaster that overshadows the positive tape he produced prior. More faith can be put into a sixth-ranked Bears run game with rookie Khalil Herbert (90.7 yards per tilt since Week 5) filling in admirably for David Montgomery. Chicago's defense -- the best unit in this showdown, even without Khalil Mack -- played better than the score versus the Bucs and should rebound against a Niners attack in search of itself. Especially if the Bears get surging pocket-wrecker Robert Quinn back from the COVID list. (UPDATE: Chicago activated Quinn on Friday.)
- WHERE: U.S. Bank Stadium (Minneapolis)
- WHEN: Sunday at 8:20 p.m. ET | NBC
- UNDERDOG: Vikings +2.5
One for the dreamers. The Cowboys have morphed into a bona fide NFC heavy thanks to an offense currently posting the most per-outing points (34.2) and yards (460.8) in team history. Dak Prescott is operating at an MVP level. The ground game (164.3) is the club's best since 1981, while the defense's takeaways (2.3 per tilt) haven't been topped in-house since 1987. Before I talk you out of touching Minnesota, consider edge wonder Danielle Hunter and a Vikings defense tied for an NFL-best 21 sacks after allowing 17 or fewer points in three of its past four games. Kirk Cousins is playing top-shelf football beside a now-healthy Dalvin Cook and a trio of wideouts to match Dallas in the form of Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and exciting upstart K.J. Osborn. Minnesota also goes to sleep for drives at a time, but this is a balanced roster that fell to the Bengals, Cardinals and Browns by a combined 11 points. The Vikes don't blow people out; they don't get blown out. Close fights and heartbreakers are Minnesota's specialty. These home 'dogs were custom-made to drag Al, Cris, Michele and the 'Boys into a cauldron of late-game madness.
- WHERE: State Farm Stadium (Glendale, Ariz.)
- WHEN: Thursday at 8:20 p.m. ET | FOX, NFL NETWORK, AMAZON
- UNDERDOG: Packers +6.5
The unblemished Cardinals are more than just an overwhelming air attack led by Kyler Murray, Arizona's largely uncontainable force of nature who trails only Mister Perfect Pants, Tom Brady (22), with 20 total touchdowns on the year. The Cardinals also roll into Week 8 with the league's second-nastiest defense, per Football Outsiders, one that's allowed 14 or fewer points in three straight outings for the first time since 2002. Have I lost touch with my five senses to suggest a Packers team likely down Davante Adams (COVID) could hang? Maybe so, but not my sixth sense. The club will also be without defensive coordinator Joe Barry due to a positive COVID test, but Green Bay's improved unit is allowing the seventh-fewest points league-wide and overcame its red-zone woes by permitting Washington just three points on four trips inside the 20-yard line on Sunday. Continued glory must come from thriving edge man Rashan Gary and De'Vondre Campbell, PFF's top linebacker. Losing Adams lowers the ceiling, but this Green Bay offense boasts balance, with Pro Bowler Aaron Jones and house of bricks A.J. Dillon smashing foes on the ground when Aaron Rodgers isn't doing Aa-Rod things. Green Bay can cover a 6.5-point spread with anyone league-wide.