NFL Week 17 underdogs: Bengals end Chiefs' streak; Cardinals get right vs. Cowboys

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 17 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 17: 26-22-1.

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

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  • WHERE: Heinz Field (Pittsburgh)
  • WHEN: 8:15 p.m. ET on Monday, Jan. 3 | ESPN, ESPN 2
  • SPREAD: Steelers +3.5

One bubbling mess encounters another come Monday night. The Steelers appeared as a wandering ship in an embarrassing 36-10 full-squad meltdown in Kansas City last Sunday. The Browns were reduced to salt by COVID in a soul-crushing loss to the Raiders in Week 15. What came next was pulled from a pulp-horror rag: Baker Mayfield’s four-pick, Xmas Day implosion against the Packers, a tumble-job that left Cleveland in a must-win scenario against the Steelers. I’m not convinced they pull it out, despite one inviting doorway: Pittsburgh ranks 30th in DVOA against the run, allowing an outrageous 174.9 yards per game on the ground since tying the Lions in Week 8. That bodes well for mighty Nick Chubb, assuming the Browns don’t abandon his magic in key moments as they did in the team’s star-crossed final drive in Green Bay. Cleveland’s air attack is a mess, though, with a banged-up Mayfield absorbing weekly punishment, missing reads, unfurling picks and regressing before our eyes. The Steelers are a hot-and-cold dish, but T.J. Watt has Baker’s number. In Ben Roethlisberger’s presumed final home tilt at Heinz Field, expect the best version of the Black and Gold to battle with pure fire. 

  • WHERE: Lumen Field (Seattle)
  • WHEN: 4:25 p.m. ET on Sunday, Jan. 2 | FOX
  • SPREAD: Lions +7

How dare you suggest the edgy, devil-may-care Lions are seven-point ‘dogs to a troubled and fading Seattle squad? You sign up for this action if you believe in what Detroit’s been selling: A frisky club improving weekly with quality December wins over the Vikings and Cardinals. Those outings were highlighted by two of Jared Goff’s finest performances, made possible in part by a white-hot month from rookie wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown, who’s carved out a 35/340/3 line over his last four games. Fresh off the COVID list, Goff is dealing with a knee issue, but my assumption is that he plays. Detroit sports a frustrating 1-6-1 mark in one-score games, which also paints the picture of a feisty, young team keeping contests tight. Not an impossible task against a Seahawks gang sporting the league’s 31st-ranked passing defense and worst third-down offense. Today’s version of Russell Wilson is not the player we’ve come to know – and his team is more vulnerable than ever. 

  • WHERE: Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati)
  • WHEN: 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, Jan. 2 | CBS
  • SPREAD: Bengals +5.5

I’ve been saying this for weeks: Cincinnati can beat anyone in the league on a good day. That left me looking like a fool on a handful of Sundays when they flatlined against the Chargers, stumbled against San Francisco and zombied through a dull win over the Broncos. The flipside, though — sweeping the Steelers and Ravens — hints at the juicy upside of a Joe Burrow-led offense that can crush on the ground or leave an enemy dizzied through high-octane aerial acrobatics. Burrow’s play has been top-five worthy and his collection of weapons make life a dark dream for the enemy. Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase have both topped 1,000 yards through the air, with Tyler Boyd not far behind. Cincy’s pick-your-poison lineup prevents defenses from stacking the box against Joe Mixon, allowing the Bengals to roll as one of the AFC’s most versatile attacks. The formula will be tested against a smothering Chiefs defense allowing a league-best 12.9 points per game since Week 8. Burrow, though, hits the scene as a top-two passer against pressure in terms of completion percentage and yards per attempt. His star has risen, burning bright in the Ohio evening. Our friends in the desert adore the Chiefs (-210), but I flat-out expect the Bengals (+176) to win.

  • WHERE: Lambeau Field (Green Bay, Wis.)
  • WHEN: 8:20 p.m. ET on Sunday, Jan. 2 | NBC
  • SPREAD: Vikings +6.5

The Packers loom as the class of the NFC. They aren’t exactly detonating opponents, though, nipping the Browns a week ago after barely surviving a COVID/injury-wrecked Ravens squad. The Vikings rattled Green Bay in Week 11, with Kirk Cousins piling up 341 yards and two scores in a 34-31 edging that marked Minnesota’s season high point. That clash saw Justin Jefferson compile a 8/169/2 line against Green Bay’s secondary. That won’t be easy to duplicate with fellow Vikings pass-catcher Adam Thielen undergoing season-ending ankle surgery – or with Jaire Alexander in line to rejoin Green Bay’s back half. The Packers have scored 100 points over their past three games with zero giveaways. I expect them to level Minnesota’s playoff hopes, but not without a typically heart-wrenching, down-to-the-wire finish that leaves Vikings fans in a puddle — unless they bet the spread. 

  • WHERE: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
  • WHEN: 4:25 p.m. ET on Sunday, Jan. 2 | FOX
  • SPREAD: Cardinals +5

The crumbling Cardinals, my darling pet team, have been extremely naughty of late. Once a dazzling visual feast, Arizona’s offense has roamed the land as an oft-confused entity during a concerning three-game skid. The loss of Deandre Hopkins (knee) has stripped the air game of a tough-as-nails, elite red-zone threat. The absence of stalwart center Rodney Hudson has triggered protection issues up front, a rash of doomed snaps and moments of madness that shouldn’t plague a quality team in December. Kliff Kingsbury says if all goes well “there’s a good chance” the pivot returns against Dallas. Maybe I’m overrating his impact, but the club is 8-2 with Hudson and 2-3 without him this year, leading Kingsbury to note the lineman brings “a comfort level for the whole offense … he calms it all down.” It’s been a rough three weeks for Kyler Murray – his MVP dreams have evaporated – but he still spins spells on the field. The Dallas defense is a raging headache; the offense appears back to its titanic self. This paragraph will appear as the words of a lunatic if Arizona’s truly lost its way. I expect them to put up a powerful fight. 

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