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NFL Week 13 underdogs: Can Steelers break out of funk against Ravens? Patriots to top Bills?

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 five us-against-the-world scenarios to track entering Week 13 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 13: 17-13-1.

The lines below provided by Caesars are current as of 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Dec. 1 unless otherwise noted below.

The Steelers were an embarrassment in Week 12, bullied and scattered by a Bengals team showing zero fear of Pittsburgh's once-dreaded defense. The Steelers can't run the ball, but you can run on them at will. Just ask the Lions (229 ground yards in Week 10), the Chargers (159 yards in Week 11) or mighty Joe Mixon, who helped Cincy set a butt-kicking tone early with a 20/117/1 line before halftime as the Bengals raced through T.J. Watt and friends for 198 yards on the day. Joe Burrow carved them up through the skies, too, while late-period Ben Roethlisberger creaked around the gridiron. The Steelers appear cooked, but they're also a desperate operation clinging to life under an agitated coach in Mike Tomlin. They know the Ravens better than anyone. Baltimore is no gem, either, handing the ball away nine times over the past four games. Lamar Jackson is capable of high wizardry, but his last two outings against the Browns and Dolphins (with five picks, six sacks and just two scores) raise a flock of questions about this club's final destination. Baltimore's ranking in defensive DVOA (18th) is almost as surprising as Pittsburgh's (27th) for those waking up from a trance and assuming these two teams are unchanged from yesteryear. They aren't. Both are vulnerable and imperfect, but also resilient and capable of rattling the other. The Steelers won't appreciate being labeled as 'dogs at home against a hated foe. Expect them to come out with a fevered look in the eye. 

Which Raiders team shows up? The frolicking force filled with daring-do that compiled a season-high in points (36), total yards (509), ground yards (143) and first downs (28) against Dallas in Week 12? Or the one that sputtered to 14.3 points per tilt in three straight losses to the Giants, Chiefs and Bengals from Weeks 9-11? Knocking off Dallas grabs our attention, but it doesn't happen without a string of defensive pass interference calls that set the Raiders up to fly. Vegas was flagged for plenty of questionable calls, too. Derek Carr is a valiant leader compiling some of his finest tape in 2021. Washington arrives as an evolving, watchable opponent with an offense picking up steam. Taylor Heinicke makes a handful of glorious throws a week. Terry McLaurin is a legitimate star. Surrounding pieces -- Antonio Gibson, J.D. McKissic and Logan Thomas -- allow play-caller Scott Turner to dial up aggressive, creative game designs. The defense is allowing 18.3 points per tilt since Week 10, helping to spark a three-game win streak highlighted by a dismantling of Tom Brady's Bucs and the final pounding of a nail into Seattle's coffin on Monday night. Operating as a thorny headache, Washington specializes in taking contests down to the bitter end. 

On a good day, these Bengals can beat anyone. Their titanic nature is far from fluky. The offense overwhelmed the Steelers while Cincy's defense broke Big Ben and Co. early in Week 12. They're the better team in this showdown, but the Chargers represent a sometimes-dangerous enigma rolling into town. You can gallop on them (they sit dead last in run-defense DVOA), but the presence of Justin Herbert makes this an alluring play. To the eyes, he's a glowing orb under center in terms of his natural gifts: huge arm, tough as iron and underrated on the ground. It's been a roller coaster this season, though, with new play-caller Joe Lombardi driving Bolts fans mad with a conservative air attack that's been outsmarted by defensive heavies such as Vic Fangio, Bill Belichick and Mike Zimmer. The Athletic's Daniel Popper noted how hot and cold the offense has been since Week 6 in terms of EPA (expected points added) per drive: 

  • Week 6 at Ravens: -1.85
  • Week 8 vs. Patriots: -0.27
  • Week 9 at Eagles: 1.55
  • Week 10 vs. Vikings: -0.18
  • Week 11 vs. Steelers: 1.70
  • Week 12 at Broncos: -0.92

The Chargers represent much of what we're seeing league-wide: Team X looks like a conference contender one week and drifting flotsam the next. The Bengals also allowed 75 points in back-to-back losses to the troubled Jets and Browns not so long ago. Cincy's arrow points up today, but Herbert and the Chargers -- on the right afternoon -- are dangerous dance partners. 

Those same Chargers were stymied by the Broncos in Week 12. Fangio's defense took away big plays and challenged Herbert to engage with brilliant rookie cover man Pat Surtain II, who won the bout with two interceptions, including a 70-yard pick-six midway through the fourth quarter. Denver is getting to quarterbacks in a post-Von Miller world thanks to dudes named Malik Reed, Stephen Weatherly and McTelvin Agim. Only two teams allow fewer points per game than Denver (17.8), a figure backed up by real-life events as we saw this unit neutralize Dallas in a stunner a few weeks ago. The Chiefs are coming off a bye and playing sensational defense of their own. Chris Jones and the pass rush are the real story of Kansas City's revival. The offense has put up more than 20 points only once since Week 7. The Chiefs are superior, but this spread is another example of how overvalued they are by our dear friends in the desert. 

A subset of fans isn't ready for the Patriots to ride high above the landscape all over again. Those same Patriots care not about subsets or talking heads or anything else standing in their way. I don't love this matchup for Buffalo mainly because of New England's style of play. It's a white-knuckle fireball that wants to attack Buffalo on the ground as the Colts did two weeks ago. The defense arrives as a ball-hawking, seek-and-destroy unit that frustrated Justin Herbert, sent Sam Darnold to injured reserve, blew up Baker Mayfield, flattened Matt Ryan and spun nightmares for Ryan Tannehill. New England has outscored enemies by 148 points (24.7 points per game) during its NFL-best six-game win streak. Rookie passer Mac Jones is evolving before our eyes with a 70-plus completion percentage in a league-leading eight games this season. Buffalo's reign over the AFC East will feel shorter than Bill Belichick's stint as Jets head coach if the Patriots unleash this brand of thunder come Monday night.

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