NFL Week 12 underdogs: Will Titans avenge playoff loss to Bengals? Patriots to top Vikings?

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

The lines below provided by DraftKings are current as of 1 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Nov. 23 unless otherwise noted below.

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I’ll be honest: It’s a bad week to be picking underdogs.

The favored teams seem to be favored for good reason. But as the individual tasked with hyping up the unlikely heroes each week, I’ll gladly step in and make the case for four teams the oddsmakers might be sleeping on.

Thanksgiving brings us the traditional tripleheader, which includes one of my underdog selections for the week. But first, we head to Nashville, where Tennessee meets a familiar foe. Payback is on the menu.

  • WHERE: Nissan Stadium (Nashville, Tenn.)
  • WHEN: 1 p.m. ET on Sunday | CBS
  • SPREAD: Titans +1.5

The rematch of the AFC Divisional Round stunner from a season ago deserves a bigger stage, but we’ll settle for the 1 p.m. ET slot. Like they did in their playoff meeting versus Cincinnati, the Titans enter with the better record. But there’s only one way Tennessee wins this game: by controlling the time of possession and riding Derrick Henry to victory.

Working against the Titans is the fact that they rank 30th against the pass and are meeting a team that is among the best through the air. Tennessee did a surprisingly great job of limiting the high-flying Chiefs in their prime-time meeting a few weeks ago, but that game stands as an outlier when viewing the season as a whole. 

There is another path to salvation for the Titans, however, and it requires harassing Joe Burrow. Cleveland did so in its Monday night game against Cincinnati and reaped the benefits. But the margin for error is slim in this meeting.

So, why am I placing this atop my Week 12 confidence meter? Well, the Bengals rank 17th against the run, and the last time they faced a premier running game, they allowed Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to rack up 143 yards on 34 carries.

The blueprint is there to beat the Bengals. The Titans just need their defense to put together another quality performance and limit the opponent’s total possessions. They can’t afford to get into a shootout with the Bengals. Thankfully, they have Henry to take the air out of the football. Cut the laces off while you’re at it, Titans. It’s time to seek revenge (despite what Ryan Tannehill says).

  • WHERE: U.S. Bank Stadium (Minneapolis)
  • WHEN: 8:20 p.m. ET on Thursday | NBC/Telemundo
  • SPREAD: Patriots +2.5

Here’s a matchup that could produce an upset, provided the Vikings don’t unleash all of their frustration from their Week 11 drubbing.

New England lacks the offensive punch that the Cowboys showed against Minnesota, but it brings a quality defense that could level the playing field. The unit has powered a 5-1 run through the last six games and ranks fourth or better in most significant defensive categories.

It’s precisely the type of defense the Vikings won’t want to face after mustering a mere three points in their blowout loss to the Cowboys.

History is on Kirk Cousins’ side, though. In each of the two instances in which Cousins’ Vikings scored six or fewer points, they put up 28 or more points in the following week. But those bounce-back games came against teams that didn’t possess a defense like New England’s.

The Patriots held the Jets to three points last week, but needed a punt-return touchdown to defeat New York. New England’s offense isn’t scoring in bunches, either.

The deciding factor might come down to Cousins’ psyche. Known for faltering in prime-time games — he owns a 10-18 career record in such contests but is 2-1 on Thursday night with Minnesota — Cousins returns to the national stage to round out a holiday full of football. He’ll meet a team coached by a legend who has caused him problems in their previous meetings. Cousins averaged 209 passing yards with a TD-INT ratio of 2:3 and 69.4 passer rating in his two games against Bill Belichick’s Patriots, who own a 2-0 record against him.

New England will have to find a way to contain Justin Jefferson and the rest of Minnesota’s passing attack. Much like Dallas last week, the Patriots are excellent at getting after the quarterback, ranking second in sacks through 11 weeks.

A second helping of that type of defense might not be best for Cousins and the Vikings on Thanksgiving.

  • WHERE: FedExField (Landover, Md.)
  • WHEN: 1 p.m. ET on Sunday | FOX
  • SPREAD: Falcons +4.5

Atlanta is running into a bad statistical matchup in Maryland, where the sixth-ranked rushing defense welcomes a Falcons team that relies heavily on the ground game.

So why am I choosing the Falcons? It’s not complicated: Arthur Smith continues to get the most out of the talent on his roster.

On paper, there’s no way the Falcons should be 5-6. They lack star power, and Marcus Mariota, while mobile, isn’t an ideal choice at quarterback. And yet, they’re just one game below .500 as we enter Week 12.

Atlanta’s best chance of victory on Sunday revolves around attacking Taylor Heinicke and trying to force turnovers. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Falcons will need to find a way to use their speed and multi-faceted rushing attack to sustain drives against a tough defense.

They won’t have the injured Kyle Pitts to create mismatches, but they do have Cordarrelle Patterson, who continues to make a difference as a running back and a dynamite returner. They might need to utilize him as a weapon in the passing game, too, in this contest.

Atlanta has rushed for 90-plus yards in every game this season, but Washington presents quite a challenge with the third-ranked rush defense since Week 7. Creating confusion with misdirection will be key for the Falcons. Atlanta must hit the Commanders where they least expect it with lightning strikes produced by Mariota and Patterson. Otherwise, it could be a long Sunday for Smith’s team in Landover.

  • WHERE: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
  • WHEN: 8:15 p.m. ET on Monday | ESPN/ESPN Deportes
  • SPREAD: Steelers +2.5

This week, my confidence in the final pick for this piece is lower than usual. Indianapolis has played better in the last couple weeks and quietly ranks fifth in total defense. The Colts are welcoming a Steelers offense that has struggled to establish an identity throughout the year and proceeds with a rookie at quarterback in Kenny Pickett.

Seems like a bad matchup for the Steelers, right?

Well, not quite. Since T.J. Watt returned from injury a couple weeks ago, the Steelers have played inspired, competitive football, and they’re meeting a Colts offense that is one of the worst when it comes to protecting the ball.

Watt has made a few Herculean plays in his abbreviated season, and it feels like he’ll do so again at least once against Matt Ryan.

It starts with stopping Jonathan Taylor, and Pittsburgh’s seventh-ranked run defense appears up to the task. The Steelers have also been opportunistic when it comes to creating turnovers, routinely tipping passes thrown into traffic and coming away with interceptions. Ryan is prone to committing those types of mistakes.

I expect a low-scoring affair peppered with Indianapolis turnovers and just enough offensive success to make it close. I’m not saying Pickett will lead the Steelers to a decisive road win, but I think Pittsburgh stays within range to keep things interesting into the fourth quarter — which is the perfect time for Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick (or Damontae Kazee, or Levi Wallace, or someone else) to team up and force a turnover at a critical moment.

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