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NFL Week 14 underdogs: Will Cardinals surprise Patriots? Browns to upset Bengals?

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 14 of the 2022 NFL season. The order below is determined by confidence rankings, from No. 1 (most confident) to No. 4 (least confident).

Allow me a moment to wave my Honolulu Blue flag.

Last week at publishing time, Detroit was a home underdog vs. Jacksonville, but I picked the Lions to win the game in this space. They had won three out of four, with the lone loss a three-point defeat against the Bills, so it was no surprise they steamrolled the Jaguars, 40-14.

This week, however, I’m going against Dan Campbell’s bunch.

I know — it hurts me, too. But logic is logic, and my brain says even with a recent run of success, Detroit is due for a defeat with the 10-2 Vikings coming to town.

Sorry, Lions fans — being the favorite doesn’t play well in this space. Here are the four underdogs I believe have the best chance to pull off the upset in Week 14.

The lines below provided by DraftKings are current as of 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Dec. 7 unless otherwise noted below.

Detroit Lions
  • WHERE: Ford Field (Detroit)
  • WHEN: 1 p.m. ET on Sunday | FOX
  • SPREAD: Vikings +2.5

This selection pains me because of how much I’ve pounded the table for the Lions in recent weeks. This week, I’m not so confident in them.

Minnesota is coming off a win that required a full four-quarter effort at home to take down the upstart New York Jets. The Vikings once again proved they’re capable of taking the close ones, winning by a one-score margin for the ninth time in 2022, marking an incredible reversal of fortune after going 6-8 in such games last season. 

The Vikings are good, and unless an opposing team catches them slipping — Minnesota’s two losses this season came in blowout fashion — they’re probably going to win. That doesn’t bode well for the Lions, whose performances have been difficult to predict in 2022, even with their recent run of quality showings.

If we need a measuring stick for this matchup, we can simply look back to when these two teams last met in Week 3. The Lions were in the middle of an opening month in which they proved to be a scrappy, never-say-die squad that took Philadelphia, Minnesota and Seattle to the wire. They kept things close against the Vikings by getting stops on defense. Minnesota and Detroit combined to convert just 5-of-25 third-down attempts in the game, and Detroit won the time of possession battle by roughly eight minutes.

In the end, it produced a one-score loss for the Lions. And that rate of third-down stops might not be repeatable for Detroit, which ranks 31st in third-down defense this season.

This leaves a slim margin for error. There are some factors that might balance things out, though, like Minnesota’s 32nd-ranked pass defense, which is preparing to face the NFL’s No. 8 passing offense. It’s not unrealistic to expect the Lions to rack up big gains. But they’ll need to convert on third down at a better rate than they did in their first meeting to split this season series and keep their postseason hopes alive.

Because I’m tasked with choosing a victor, I’m siding with the team that thrives when the margins are slim.

Pittsburgh Steelers
  • WHERE: Acrisure Stadium (Pittsburgh)
  • WHEN: 1 p.m. ET on Sunday | CBS
  • SPREAD: Ravens +2.5

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh did not sound optimistic about Lamar Jackson’s chances of playing this weekend as the quarterback deals with a knee injury, which would lead one to believe the Steelers have more than a puncher’s chance against their rivals. 

Don’t be so quick to discount Jackson’s backup, Tyler Huntley. Sure, he threw an interception against Denver last week and gave the Broncos ample opportunities to put away the Ravens before they unsurprisingly failed to close the deal, but if we’ve learned anything about Huntley’s play in relief of Jackson in the last year or so, it’s this: He typically performs better than you might expect when given a full week to prepare.

Baltimore’s offense is struggling, and the loss of Jackson won’t help. Neither will Pittsburgh’s defense, which has proven to be a remarkably opportunistic unit this season, especially after T.J. Watt returned from injury. But this is still a Steelers team that has yet to truly dominate a game this season and has been forced to grind out all five of its wins by 10 points or fewer.

Baltimore, meanwhile, is entering a pivotal final stretch. The Ravens’ last five regular-season games include four contests against division opponents (two versus the Steelers), games they must win if they want to keep pace with Cincinnati in the race for the AFC North title. The sense of urgency must remain high through the conclusion of the regular season, and there’s little reason to believe they won’t be amped up for their first meeting with Pittsburgh.

The Steelers’ most likely path to victory exists in a close contest. Forcing a couple of Huntley turnovers should keep things within reach, but if that doesn’t materialize, Pittsburgh might be staring at an uphill climb against a team that remains among the NFL’s best at running the ball.

I expect Baltimore to stay slightly conservative, trust the run and wait for a handful of explosive plays to create separation on the scoreboard. Then it’ll be up to Kenny Pickett and Co. to respond, and against the Ravens, that’s no easy task.

Arizona Cardinals
  • WHERE: State Farm Stadium (Glendale, Arizona)
  • WHEN: 8:15 p.m. ET on Monday | ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes
  • SPREAD: Cardinals +2

The Cardinals don’t inspire a ton of confidence right now. 

Arizona has won only once in the last five games, a triumph over a fading Rams team. That win is bookended by two-game losing streaks, and as we learned in the Cardinals’ Week 12 loss to the Chargers, even when things look like they’re going Arizona’s way, they can fall apart in the end.

This doesn’t exactly indicate Arizona has more than a fighter’s chance against New England. But I’m choosing the Cardinals as an underdog with the potential to pull off an upset because I think they’re getting close — and they have to be desperate for a victory.

Kliff Kingsbury has spent weeks telling his players everything remains in front of them. But with five weeks left to play and just four wins to their name, the Cardinals have run out of breathing room. They have to start winning immediately before it becomes time to chalk up 2022 as a disappointment. 

As for the Patriots, their defense has struggled of late. They have allowed 24 or more points in consecutive games, losing both, and they didn’t look anywhere near competitive against Buffalo. Most of New England’s problems this season have been on the offensive side, where Mac Jones became visibly frustrated during the loss to the Bills.

So, perhaps the Patriots are the perfect opponent for Arizona to face with its back against the wall coming out of the bye week.

The Cardinals have their own offensive issues, but they still possess the talent to hang with most teams, provided they establish a semblance of a rhythm before it’s too late. New England won’t make the going easy, but I can see this being a game that produces fewer points than one might expect, which creates a scenario for Kyler Murray to work his magic for a game-winning score.

If I have to choose between two quarterbacks, it’s clearly Murray. If it’s between coaches, it’s Bill Belichick, but, as I mentioned, his defensive genius hasn’t shined bright the last couple weeks.

If the Cardinals can create some turnovers — they’re tied for 15th in this category — and keep things close, Murray will have a chance to make a game-changing play or two. They just can’t afford to let this game get away from them too quickly.

Luckily, New England hasn’t shown it has the offense capable of pulling away. I’m taking the magician Murray — who is capable of evading the pursuit of Matthew Judon and New England’s defense — to make a crucial play to win the game.

Cincinnati Bengals
  • WHERE: Paycor Stadium (Cincinnati)
  • WHEN: 1 p.m. ET on Sunday | CBS
  • SPREAD: Browns +6

Nothing the Browns did in Week 13 inspires confidence in their offense.

Deshaun Watson’s first game in nearly two years was very underwhelming, with Watson showing a ton of rust and Cleveland failing to score an offensive touchdown in a win over the Texans. It’s unrealistic, if not downright foolish, to expect the Browns’ defense to play like it did in Week 13. Cincinnati is much, much better than Houston in every category, and Cleveland’s defense hasn’t been consistent in 2022.

So why am I choosing the Browns? Well, they’re a bit of a bogeyman for Joe Burrow.

The Bengals’ star quarterback has never defeated Cleveland in his career, with his most recent loss coming in shocking fashion on Monday Night Football in Week 8. The Browns’ maligned defense dominated against Burrow, forcing two turnovers and limiting him to a passing line of 25 of 35 for 232 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. The last of those two touchdowns didn’t matter much, either, as the Browns already had the game in hand. 

For whatever reason, Cleveland seems to have Burrow’s number. The Browns have consistently played some of their best football against the Bengals the last few years, winning each of their last five matchups. One might believe Cincinnati is due for a win in this series, and when considering the tale of the tape, it’s not an unrealistic belief. It just hasn’t happened yet on Burrow’s watch.

Watson, who needs as many live reps as possible to get acclimated to the game, has had another week to shake off the rust. More importantly, the Browns are expected to have running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt — who combined for 143 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries in their first meeting with Cincinnati — available this weekend.

Cleveland has only one formula to win this game: Control it on the ground, force turnovers and capitalize on them. It worked out the last time the Browns met the Bengals, and if it’s successful again, perhaps Watson will become comfortable enough to make a difference — and produce yet another season sweep of Cleveland’s in-state rival.

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