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? Nick Shook offers a bead on four us-against-the-world scenarios to track entering Week 17 of the 2022 NFL season. The order below is determined by confidence rankings, from No. 1 (most confident) to No. 4 (least confident).
Just two weeks remain in the 2022 NFL regular season, and plenty is still on the line.
This week's underdogs include a couple of teams with playoff berths already locked up. But five postseason tickets remain unpunched, with seeding unsettled across the board.
Carolina can move one step closer to one of the most unlikely playoff bids in recent memory with a win in hostile Tampa this weekend. Meanwhile, Seattle has a crucial game for its own playoff hopes in front of the 12s, with the Seahawks hosting the struggling Jets. I have faith in both, to varying degrees.
Here are the four underdogs I believe in most to pull off an upset in Week 17.
The lines below provided by DraftKings were current as of 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Dec. 28 unless otherwise noted below.
- WHERE: Paycor Stadium (Cincinnati)
- WHEN: 8:30 p.m. ET on Monday | ESPN, ABC, ESPN Deportes
- MONEYLINE: Bills: -115 | Bengals: -105
- SPREAD: Bengals +1
This matchup feels like a potential preview of an electric playoff showdown.
Two of the AFC's top three contenders will square off on the prime-time stage Monday night along the banks of the Ohio River, where the Bengals have caught fire down the stretch. Cincinnati has won seven straight and nine of its last 10, heading into the new year on an ideal trajectory. Though each team has already clinched a playoff berth, there's plenty on the line in this one. If Buffalo wins out, it is guaranteed the coveted No. 1 seed in the AFC. If Cincinnati wins out and Kansas City loses one of its final two games, the Bengals will own home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
We haven't even talked about bragging rights yet. The Bengals and Bills find themselves in a battle for AFC supremacy thanks in large part to each franchise's success in hand-picking its quarterback of the future, then watching him blossom into a superstar. On Buffalo's side, the central figure is Josh Allen, who is responsible for 68 passing touchdowns since the start of 2021. For the Bengals, it's Joe Burrow, who boasts 68 scoring strikes of his own over the past two seasons. These two rising superstars have yet to face off in the NFL, making Monday night a first for both squads with a chance to make a statement -- and gain an upper hand in the endless discussion regarding top quarterbacks -- in the final stages of the regular season.
This matchup isn't an easy one to sort out. Cincinnati's offense has taken flight in recent months, averaging 29.3 points per contest since Week 9. Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase and Co. have rediscovered the firepower that led them to an AFC title a season ago. On the other side stands Buffalo, owner of the league's second-ranked scoring defense, which is also tied for fourth in takeaways. The only real weakness between either club comes on the ground, as the Bengals rank 26th in rushing through 16 weeks. Whether these rankings matter much remains to be seen.
Burrow owns a 2-0 record against top-five scoring defenses in his career, putting up 34 points against Kansas City in Week 17 of 2021, his last such matchup. That game made the rest of the NFL realize those Bengals were for real. A similar performance would undoubtedly move Cincinnati up in most power rankings heading into the postseason. Based on recent performances, one of two outcomes will prove true: The Bengals are either due for a loss just before the end of the regular season, or they will keep riding their wave of momentum to another significant victory. I've seen enough good from Cincy in the last two months to believe it will be the latter. We'll see if the Bills can prove me wrong and score a major win.
- WHERE: Lambeau Field (Green Bay, Wis.)
- WHEN: 4:25 p.m. ET on Sunday | CBS
- MONEYLINE: Vikings: +155 | Packers: -180
- SPREAD: Vikings +3.5
Winners of three straight, the Packers have a lot of good mojo on their side right now. Those "run the table" whispers have turned into more of a widespread roar. Aaron Rodgers sure seems confident in his team's chances, especially with his young cast of pass catchers starting to really get their feet under them in 2022. But let's be honest, folks: Minnesota owns this division this season and didn't get to 12-3 by accident.
I understand why the Vikings, despite their superior record and possession of the NFC North title, are underdogs: Their point differential (+5 on the year) is not indicative of a juggernaut. But the Vikes have had the Packers' number as of late, winning three of their last four meetings. They handily defeated the Packers way back in Week 1, thanks to an offensive outburst from Justin Jefferson (184 receiving yards, two touchdowns). And despite the fact many of their victories haven't exactly been dominant, they've proven to be a team capable of winning the close games. Just look at their last two contests, which required game-winning Greg Joseph field goals on the final snap. In fact, Minnesota is 11-0 in games decided by one possession, the most such wins in one season in the history of the NFL. These types of nail-biters are nothing new to the Vikings, who have played in 35 one-score games since 2020, the most in a three-year span in league history. The only difference now is that they're always ending up on the winning side.
Minnesota doesn't win in spectacular, awe-inspiring fashion. The Packers certainly haven't been that type of outfit in 2022. One of these two teams is more desperate than the other, sure, but based on track record in 2022, I have to side with the Vikings. Add in the rivalry element and you might have a close finish for which Minnesota's perfectly suited.
- WHERE: Lumen Field (Seattle)
- WHEN: 4:05 p.m. ET on Sunday | FOX
- MONEYLINE: Jets: -125 | Seahawks: +105
- SPREAD: Seahawks +1.5
It's desperation time for both of these teams. If the Jets lose, their playoff hopes -- once so promising -- are finished. If the Seahawks lose, a Washington victory OR Detroit and Green Bay wins will eliminate them.
After five losses in New York's last six games, it's tough to see the Jets turning it around with just two weeks remaining. Gang Green began 2022 on a tear, winning six of its first nine games before the Week 10 bye. Since then, it has been nothing but frustration, thanks in large part to a revolving door under center. Mike White joined the starting lineup as a beacon of hope, a source of much-needed invigoration for the upstart Jets, but he won just one of his three starts before injuries complicated matters. Zach Wilson's return to the field didn't help the Jets, either, leading to his benching last Thursday night in what sure felt like a turning point toward the worst in his young career.
White will be back in the starting lineup on Sunday, but will his return be enough to get the Jets back in the win column before it's too late? In my opinion, it won't be, because even when they had their opportunities to win close games, White and Co. couldn't get the job done (SEE: Week 13 at Minnesota and Week 14 in Buffalo). We can expect a ton of offense from the Jets, who have put up 450-plus yards in four of White's six starts since Week 8 of 2021 and are facing a Seahawks defense that ranks 29th in total yards allowed per game. The issue isn't moving the ball for these White-led Jets -- it's finishing drives.
On Seattle's side, the 'Hawks played well enough to remain competitive, but not to win. Two of their last three games have finished in one-score differences, but none of those three contests have produced a W for the Seahawks.
Both of these teams feel like they've run out of steam. One is coached by a veteran who is capable of getting the most out of his team in key moments, while the other is led by a man who has yet to reach the postseason in his young head-coaching career.
There's also the element of revenge: Geno Smith gets an opportunity to face the team that once drafted him 39th overall, then discarded him after four seasons. Although he's cooled off recently, Smith is playing the best football of his career in 2022, and has an extra reason to put on a show Sunday.
Desperation plus revenge equals a win for the Seahawks. Better luck next year, Jets. Despite the question mark at the QB position, your future remains bright.
- WHERE: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Fla.)
- WHEN: 1 p.m. ET on Sunday | FOX
- MONEYLINE: Panthers: +145 | Buccaneers: -170
- SPREAD: Panthers +3
A subpar season from the entire NFC South has led us to this pivotal meeting in Tampa.
If the Panthers win out, they'll take home the NFC title at 8-9. The Buccaneers can stop them in their tracks and take the division title with a win on Sunday, but anyone who has watched Tampa Bay play for most of 2022 will agree that's far from certain.
The Buccaneers' talent-laden offense has, to put it nicely, underwhelmed in 2022. Tampa Bay ranks 15th in total offense, 28th in scoring and dead last in rushing. The Bucs would be in an even worse position now, too, if Tom Brady hadn't led them to multiple last-second victories this season.
The numbers do not favor the Panthers. Carolina is 1-5 in road games this season with a -45 point differential. Brady has never failed to win his division twice in a three-year span in his legendary career, and he's 39-13 in division games in December and January. When the games get important, Brady tends to deliver.
I'm not just here to lean on numbers, though. Interim coach Steve Wilks has helped this team turn things around in a season that once seemed destined for darkness. The Panthers have won five of their 10 games played under Wilks, are 3-1 since Week 12 with a plus-four turnover differential and just scored a statement win last weekend over the red-hot Lions.
If it's a close game in the final two minutes, expect the Buccaneers to win. They've done it often enough to believe it will happen again, especially with Brady at the controls. That reality should impact how the Panthers approach this game: Take command early and make sure this one isn't in doubt late. A couple of early takeaways might help get the job done -- and with Brady's eight giveaways since Week 14 in mind, we know the Bucs aren't exactly a clean team before the game's final moments.
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