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 four us-against-the-world scenarios to track entering Week 9 of the 2021 NFL season. The order below is determined by confidence rankings, from No. 1 (most confident) to No. 4 (least confident).
NOTE: The lines below provided by FanDuel are current as of 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Nov. 3 unless otherwise noted below.
- WHERE: Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati)
- WHEN: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET | CBS
- UNDERDOG: Browns +2.5
The Browns announced to the world on Sunday: Don't trust us. The suddenly sexy Bengals imploded against the Jets. Cleveland's ugly loss to Pittsburgh was the product of ills that have plagued the Browns all season: Too many mistakes and a knack for falling apart late. The Bengals, meanwhile, blew the 11-point lead they held midway through the fourth quarter and allowed newbie starter Mike White to become the first Jets passer to throw for 400-plus yards since Vinny Testaverde in Y2K. Cleveland's 4-4 record paints an accurate portrait, but coach Kevin Stefanski has lost back-to-back games just once since being hired in 2020. Losing right tackle Jack Conklin (dislocated elbow) is no treat against Cincy's seventh-ranked rushing defense, but Nick Chubb zapped the Bengals for 124 yards and two scores a year ago. Joe Burrow operates as a revelation, but his five interceptions in the fourth quarter -- including a killer pick against Gang Green -- are tied for the most in the NFL. I'd expect a bounce-back game from sensational Bengals rookie Ja'Marr Chase and little from Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland's almost invisible "star" wideout. Browns games -- let's be real -- aren't about OBJ. This is a hot-and-cold team looking to pound foes on the ground with just enough from Baker Mayfield. With their season on the line in a fierce AFC North, I expect the Browns to cover -- to win outright -- in an unfriendly back-alley slugfest between two Ohio hopefuls.
- WHERE: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte)
- WHEN: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET | CBS
- UNDERDOG: Panthers +4
The Panthers are a middle-of-the-pack offering with a defense that occasionally vibes as a difference-maker. With rainmaker Shaq Thompson back in the lineup, Phil Snow's charges unplugged the Falcons on Sunday, holding Matt Ryan to a season-low 146 passing yards with two picks. Electric rookie Kyle Pitts was hushed to the tune of 13 yards receiving. As promised by coach Matt Rhule, the offense essentially played around Sam Darnold with a whopping 47 rushing attempts for 200-plus ground yards and 35-plus minutes of possession time. If P.J. Walker replaces a concussed Darnold, his chances are helped by the hopeful return of do-everything Christian McCaffrey. The Patriots aren't so different, leaning on barreling back Damien Harris for 287 yards and four scores at 5.2 yards per pop over the past three weeks. The Patriots show far more trust in rookie Mac Jones to make throws, but his ups and downs against the Chargers remind us he's still new. Here's where I tell you that ex-Patriot Stephon Gilmore -- with a key interception in his Panthers debut -- is undoubtedly sharing every Foxborough-based secret before facing the team that traded him for next to nothing.
- WHERE: Caesars Superdome (New Orleans)
- WHEN: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET | FOX
- UNDERDOG: Falcons +6
Sean Payton is Coach of the Year material for what he's pulled off in New Orleans. Evidence suggests he'll squeeze the most out of Jameis Winston fill-in Trevor Siemian with a potential heavy dosage of toolsy Taysom Hill. The Saints' defense is for real, too, but it's fair to wonder if this enjoyable team is in for ugly fights due to backup play under center and a lack of weaponry on offense. I've described the Falcons' failures above, but Atlanta's Arthur Smith-designed offense posted 29 points per game in the three tilts prior to slumbering against Carolina. That came in conjunction with the Panthers eating up the clock, leaving Falcons centerpiece Grady Jarrett to admit the defense (real talk: a defense that stinks) "might have gotten a little frustrated just staying on the field that long." A creatively used Cordarrelle Patterson can help. Fingers crossed for a Kyle Pitts bounce-back, too (the physically awe-inspiring demigod put up a 16/282/1 line in his prior two starts), inside an offense that averaged 407 yards per game in October before Sunday's tumble.
- WHERE: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
- WHEN: Thursday at 8:20 p.m. ET | FOX, NFL Network, Amazon
- UNDERDOG: Jets +10.5
Swept by the Titans, the 3-5 Colts are struggling for air in the AFC South. Derrick Henry's injury obviously levels the playing field, but Indianapolis remains a team with wins over the 1-7 Dolphins, the eyesore Texans and a Niners team in a monsoon. Carson Wentz mixes solid play with a smattering of jaw-dropping gaffes. T.Y. Hilton (concussion) is a scratch, pulling another Colts target out of the mix. The sizable spread begs this query: Have the Jets turned a corner under Robert Saleh? Are we post-blowouts? I'd point to a defense that pulled off an inspired goal-line stand on Cincy's second drive (an easily forgotten game-changer because it unfolded so early), the 11th-hour pick of Joe Burrow and a scheme that held Ja'Marr Chase to a season-low three grabs for 32 yards. It's no knock on Zach Wilson, either, but Mike LaFleur's offense bloomed with the play-caller up in the booth (he'd been down on the sideline with the rookie) and White overcoming early errors to guide the Jets to 27 points over the five drives prior to their game-icing possession. Asked about White's chances of keeping the job into the future, Saleh's answer describes my feeling about Thursday night: "Anything's possible."