NFL Week 18 underdogs: More trouble for Patriots in Miami? Will 49ers earn final NFC playoff spot?

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 18 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 18: 29-22-1.

The lines below provided by FanDuel are current as of 1 p.m. ET on Friday, Jan. 7 unless otherwise noted below.

Con.
1
Los Angeles Chargers
ML: -164 · 9-7
Las Vegas Raiders
ML: +138 · 9-7


I’m assuming this boils down to a win-and-you’re-in scenario for both teams. The Raiders qualify before kickoff if the Colts are sliced by the eyesore Jaguars and Pittsburgh falls to Baltimore. Barring a stunner in Jacksonville, everyone will suit up in an AFC West clash that features a Raiders team refusing to fade into the night. The Silver and Black have managed nine wins despite churning out a negative turnover margin in 10 outings, second only to the Jags (12). The Vegas offense has scored more than 17 points just once in the past five weeks, yet the gelling defense smothered the COVID-ravaged Browns and Drew Lock-addled Broncos before freaking out the Colts in Week 17. Yannick Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby both rank top five in quarterback pressures and will angle to make life tough for Justin Herbert. The Bolts passer is a fascination, but the Raiders showed spark shoving Indy into a string of nasty third-and-long scenarios a week ago. In a massive development, star tight end Darren Waller is practicing and set to make his long-awaited Raiders return as Derek Carr’s magical security blanket alongside hyper-feisty Hunter Renfrow. The Chargers are the higher-ceiling operation -- nobody wants to draw them come wild-card time -- but there’s just something about these Raiders. 

Con.
2
Pittsburgh Steelers
ML: +152 · 8-7-1
Baltimore Ravens
ML: -180 · 8-8


An array of unlikely results could spring the Steelers or Ravens into postseason play. In the final encounter between Ben Roethlisberger and Baltimore, I’m doing what I did a week ago with Pittsburgh -- banging the points with gusto. John Harbaugh announced on Friday that Tyler Huntley will again start for Baltimore in place of Lamar Jackson (ankle). While the second-year signal-caller has proven to be a highly capable backup, a beleaguered Ravens line is susceptible to vast damage spun by Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt, who needs 1.5 sacks to break Michael Strahan’s single-season NFL record of 22.5. The Steelers' offense is tough on the eyes, but Baltimore’s secondary is in shambles. The Ravens have struggled to author big plays of their own, but Huntley has shown he can handle the job. You worry about a Steelers letdown after Monday night’s emotional Heinz Field farewell to Big Ben -- except, no, you don’t. Throw out tangible numbers and nuggets and ignore the fact that Roethlisberger looks entirely cooked. Dug-in data rarely seems to matter when these two heavies spar in anger. An inviting spread calls out to you. 

Con.
3
New England Patriots
ML: -270 · 10-6
Miami Dolphins
ML: +220 · 8-8


Think-pieces and sea poems around Miami's surging defense ignore one harsh reality: It's New England that's giving up the fewest points league-wide (16.9). Late-season fights in Miami, though, have given Bill Belichick fits. I normally ignore long-range rivalry results because, well, who cares what happened in 2009? That said, Belichick's squad is 9-12 in road games against Miami since 2000. The Pats are a combined 36-8 in that span in roadies against the Bills and Jets. More recently, Brian Flores and friends have taken three of the last four meetings with the Patriots, including keeping New England from nabbing a first-round bye with a 27-24 victory in 2019. Flores understands Belichick’s worldview and has proven masterful at making life tough for quarterbacks. It's not a contest where rookie Mac Jones should be asked to do too much as the Patriots lean on a blistering ground game to eke out just enough points for a peaceful flight back to Foxborough. I don't trust Tua Tagovailoa to thrive against New England, either, but this has a classic 20-17 feel to it. 

Con.
4
New Orleans Saints
ML: -186 · 8-8
Atlanta Falcons
ML: +156 · 7-9


The NFC’s most bizarre offering, the 8-8 Saints have destroyed the Packers and Patriots and swept Tom Brady’s Bucs. They also endured a nasty five-game losing streak earlier in the year that saw them nipped at home by the Falcons. That bout featured Matt Ryan throwing for 340-plus and Cordarrelle Patterson dropping a 6/126/1 receiving line on a caught-off-guard enemy. The New Orleans defense has since matured into a spectacular force, allowing a league-best 9.8 points per outing (tied with the Titans) since Week 14. Still, I like the Falcons to keep it close against a broken-down Saints offense squeezing out 10 points per tilt over the past three weeks. An enjoyable gadget-man, Taysom Hill has all but played himself out of a starting quarterback role in New Orleans. To be fair, he’s saddled with the conference’s most flavorless crop of pass-catchers. Instead, Sean Payton must lean on known quantities. Guys like Cam Jordan, who wrecked the Panthers with 3.5 sacks a week ago and boasts two-plus QB takedowns in three straight games. Faith in the Falcons rises and falls with the availability of explosive tight end Kyle Pitts, currently dealing with a nagging hammy. If he’s limited/out, Patterson -- riding four straight games of sub-60 yards from scrimmage -- becomes key. I trust New Orleans to take care of business -- as they pray for a Niners loss -- but in a low-scoring, white-knuckle tussle that comes down to one final, drifting, long-range field goal of destiny. 

Con.
5
San Francisco 49ers
ML: +172 · 9-7
Los Angeles Rams
ML: -205 · 12-4


Kyle Shanahan is keeping his starting quarterback a game-time secret for Sunday's NFC West clash imbued with postseason stakes. Expect Jimmy Garoppolo to play if his thumb holds up. If not, I don't hate the prospect of Trey Lance forcing the Rams to face a player they know little about. He looked out of place early in last week's start against Houston, throwing a terrible pick on a zeroed-in lob to George Kittle and missing a swath of reads. Lance grew more comfortable with reps, though, displaying flashes of juicy athleticism and firing up the crowd with a 45-yard scoring laser to Deebo Samuel. The Rams have morphed into a Super Bowl-level offering, but San Francisco doubled as poison in a 31-10 romp over L.A. in Week 10, marking Shanahan's fifth straight win over Sean McVay. When Matthew Stafford is dealing, this offense feels unstoppable. The X-factor is takeaways, with the Rams passer tied for the second-most interceptions league-wide (15). That includes a crushing four pick-sixes since Week 9. One of those came via Jimmie Ward of the 49ers, putting Los Angeles into a 14-0 hole they never emerged from as San Francisco authored soul-sucking, clock-chewing drives. I trust the Niners to make this a tricky final regular-season outing for the otherwise showy Rams. 

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

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