Analysis

NFL Week 12 underdogs: Will Steelers beat the Bengals? Can Colts knock off the Bucs?

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 12 of the 2021 NFL season. The order below is determined by confidence rankings, from No. 1 (most confident) to No. 5 (least confident).

The lines below provided by Fan Duel are current as of noon ET on Wednesday, Nov. 24 unless otherwise noted below.


The Around the NFL Podcast was on-hand to witness Pittsburgh's wacky loss to the Chargers on Sunday night. A typically rowdy Steelers defense sorely missed T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden. Their absence allowed Los Angeles to double up on Cam Heyward when he wasn't batting a Justin Herbert pass into the hands of teammate Cam Sutton -- or appearing to punch said quarterback in the stomach before the game morphed into a fourth-quarter LSD voyage. The Steelers expect to have all those missing defenders back against the Bengals. Watt wasn't in the lineup when Joe Burrow guided Cincy to a 24-10 win back in Week 3. Besides, Pittsburgh's offense has evolved since then. To the eyes, Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday looked better than he has all season. The run game is still challenged, but this group scored five straight times in the final quarter against L.A. before a desperate final possession fell short. The Bengals put a pair of terrible losses in the rearview with Sunday's topping of the Raiders. Opposing coordinators have successfully suppressed rookie sensation Ja'Marr Chase, though, holding the wideout to less than 50 yards in three straight games. Burrow is the future; Ben sits in the final stages of a Canton-bound career. These Steelers are imperfect, but getting swept by Cincy isn't how Pittsburgh rolls. Bang the points all day long.


San Francisco's rebirth into the NFC playoff picture runs into an acid test Sunday against a surging Vikings squad led by superhero-wideout Justin Jefferson. Minnesota was fairly lashed by critics for getting away from the pass catcher in back-to-back losses to Dallas and Baltimore. He's been their polestar ever since, piling up a monstrous 17/312/2 line in wins over the Bolts and Packers. Kirk Cousins is up to the task, too, compiling an NFL-best 21:2 touchdown-to-pick ratio and thriving under pressure. One aggressive dart after the next undid Green Bay's stout defense in Week 11. These Vikings can beat anyone league-wide. They can tumble to lesser foes, too, but the past two weeks suggest a team rounding into form. I harbor concerns over Minnesota's run defense (ranked 28th in DVOA) banging up against a reignited Niners ground assault. Kyle Shanahan is tiring out opponents with drives that last a month as San Francisco has averaged roughly 39 minutes of possession over the past two weeks. Deebo Samuel has emerged as a versatile star and led the team on the ground against the Jaguars on Sunday after dominating the Rams through the air one week prior. In a massive NFC showdown, let's not forget the Vikings haven't lost a game by more than seven points all season. One can already visualize Minnesota booter Greg Joseph lining up for a scenery-altering, 49-yard field goal with 0:01 left on the clock. What could possibly go wrong?

Con.
3


Lost in the Titans' ugly loss to Houston was the reality that injury-ravaged Tennessee outgained the Texans by 230 yards. Five giveaways and two turnovers on downs did the Titans in, which is both a credit to the Texans and a reality check: Houston is allowing the fourth-most points per game and third-most yardage. The offense is spicier with Tyrod Taylor under center -- he gashed Tennessee with his legs -- but this remains the worst roster in football. I'm not here to craft sea poems about the Jets, a lost vessel of a squad that annoyed America by starting Joe Flacco in last Sunday's loss to Miami. With Flacco and Mike White on the reserve/COVID-19 list, rookie Zach Wilson has been thrust into this eye-bleeder. He's been a mixed bag on the field without much help around him. That said, the Jets do possess a handful of newbies showing growth. First-round guard Alijah Vera-Tucker looks the part while second-round wideout Elijah Moore is coming off an 8/141/1 breakout against the Dolphins. First-year coach Robert Saleh has endured a humbling campaign, but weirdly knocked off the Titans and Bengals, too. Are the Texans too much to ask?


How do the white-hot Colts feel about emerging as 'dogs at home after carving up the Bills in leafy Western New York? Tom Brady and the Bucs have earned the role of favorite, but they're catching Indy in a rugged window. Buffalo strolled into Week 10 with the league's top defensive DVOA. They understood the Colts would ride their burning-hot hand, Jonathan Taylor, yet found no way to dim the glow of football's gnarliest runner en route to 204 total scrimmage yards, five touchdowns and a fully paid flight into the MVP conversation. Buffalo's Josh Allen stumbled hard in that race after slamming into a Colts defense that generated four takeaways. Normally reserved head coach Frank Reich gushed after the blowout, telling his charges: "It was complete domination in all three phases." Wideout T.Y. Hilton agreed, saying of Reich: "He got us prepared to kick that ass." Maybe it's the in-season Hard Knocks bump, but Indy's star turn is no fluke for a balanced, punishing outfit that sits eighth overall in total team DVOA. The Bucs rank first on that list but looked human in falling to New Orleans and Washington in recent weeks. Their banged-up secondary has Sean Murphy-Bunting back in the fold, while Rob Gronkowski returned Monday night to flame the Giants. Next Gen Stats notes the Bucs have allowed -0.36 rushing yards over expected per attempt since 2020, tops in the NFL, but a week ago, we were telling you about Buffalo's stout wall. Tampa's dealt with a massive variance in home-and-away splits, too, scoring 15 fewer points per game on the road and allowing nearly 11 more points per tilt beyond balmy Raymond James Stadium. 

ALREADY COMPLETED

Con.
5


I'm with my colleague Dan Hanzus, who argues Thanksgiving football should no longer be the assumed privilege of a Lions team rarely up to the task. We're left praying the opponent is watchable, but the absence of Chicago rookie passer Justin Fields saps the Bears -- riding a five-game losing streak -- of any remaining nectar. After embattled coach Matt Nagy spent Tuesday fielding questions about his job security, it's fair to wonder how Chicago's locker room responds. Across the way, Detroit's 0-9-1 mark doesn't entirely tell the story of an ugly/weird outfit that forged a tie with the Steelers and was barely nipped by the Browns (13-10), Vikings (19-17) and Ravens (19-17). Coach Dan Campbell is "leaning toward" starting Jared Goff after Tim Boyle squeezed out a mere 77 yards with two picks in Cleveland. That would look worse if the Lions hadn't managed just 77 net passing yards a week earlier with a banged-up Goff against Pittsburgh. Detroit is determined to pound the ball with D'Andre Swift and friends, a no-nonsense strategy that helped them pile up 229 ground yards against the Steelers and 168 against the Browns. Chicago's Robert Quinn is coming off a 3.5-sack performance against Baltimore, while Roquan Smith doubled as a "monster" with a career-high 17 tackles in Week 11. They'll make life tough for Detroit's Penei Sewell-led offensive line, but I like the Lions to craft a tight defeat in their low-wattage version of Homecoming Week.


UPDATE: The Lions lost to the Bears, 16-14, on a last-second field goal.

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