Cover 3: Will Underdogs Have Their Day Again in Week 10?
NFL

Cover 3: Will Underdogs Have Their Day Again in Week 10?

Parity still does exist in the NFL.

Much to the dismay of chalk players everywhere, Week 9 proved that nothing is a given in the league that’s spouted the “On any given Sunday” mantra since at least the Eisenhower administration.

Underdogs accounted for seven outright winners of the 14 games on last week’s schedule, including a pair of absolute stunners as the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys were dealt defeats as double-digit favorites. Three other favorites managed to win while failing to cover the spread.

With the Miami Dolphins starting Week 10 with a surprising win over AFC North front-runner Baltimore, the trend could very well continue.

Now, don’t take that as an endorsement to wager the mortgage payment on the 0-8 Detroit Lions when they go into Pittsburgh this weekend to face the resurgent Steelers. Nor does it mean the suddenly struggling Bills will face-plant again as 12-point road favorites when they take on the New York Jets (who, coincidentally, won straight up as a double-digit home underdog in Week 8). It’s just a cautious reminder that the talent disparity between teams is rarely as wide as perceived.

The gaps in the standings are starting to close as well following last week’s shakeup. There’s still more of a separation between the haves and have-nots in the NFC, where five teams still reside with two or fewer losses at the midway point. There’s an interesting race brewing at the bottom of the playoff ladder, though, with four teams within a game of the 4-4 Atlanta Falcons for the seventh and final postseason spot.

Two of the games our watchability index has helped us target in Week 10 involve teams sitting right off the Falcons’ tail. The Minnesota Vikings face perhaps a season-defining moment when the league’s most consistently erratic team visits the Los Angeles Chargers, and the injury-plagued Seattle Seahawks will be at a similar crossroads when they head to Wisconsin to battle the NFC North-leading Green Bay Packers – a matchup that gets substantially more spice with the expected returns of superstar quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers.

As for the AFC, a remarkable nine of the conference’s 16 teams sport records of either 5-3 or 5-4. That includes the entire AFC West, which doesn’t figure to receive any more clarity regardless of the outcome of Sunday night’s showdown between the Kansas City Chiefs and Las Vegas Raiders, our third feature game of the week.

Here’s a prelude for what promising to be another Sunday of suspenseful – and probably puzzling – results.

Minnesota Vikings (3-5) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-3), Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX

Line: Chargers by 3

The Analyst Win Probability: Chargers 54%

Why to Watch: Because these teams have a knack of playing close games, and a troubling habit of losing late leads. Both the Vikings and Chargers have been involved in a league-high six games decided by six points or less, with Minnesota’s three overtime contests tied with the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans for tops in the NFL this season.

The Vikings also lead the league in a more dubious statistic, as they’ve blown a fourth-quarter lead in five of their eight games thus far. The Chargers aren’t far behind, having relinquished a lead in the final frame four times in 2021, but their four comeback victories when trailing in the fourth quarter is tied with Baltimore for the most in the NFL. Minnesota owns only one such win, the main reason why Mike Zimmer is being increasingly viewed as a potential end-of-season casualty while rookie counterpart Brandon Staley is gaining some steam as an NFL Coach of the Year candidate.

Late-game quarterback play is another contributing factor to why the Chargers are currently tied for the AFC West lead while the Vikings are still toiling in the middle of a crowded NFC pack. Justin Herbert’s six touchdown passes in the fourth quarter trail Patrick Mahomes by one for the most in the NFL, and the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year sports a strong 100.6 passer rating in the final period.

In contrast, Kirk Cousins has often failed to follow up excellent starts with good finishes. The veteran quarterback has been flawless in the first half of games, producing a stellar 123.4 passer rating with a 12-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers drop dramatically afterward, with Cousins’ having generated a mediocre 84.3 rating in third and fourth quarters with just four TD passes in second halves or overtime.

LARGEST DECLINE IN PASSER RATING, SECOND HALF FROM FIRST HALF

PlayerFirst HalfSecond HalfDifferential
Kirk Cousins, MIN123.484.3-39.1
Russell Wilson, SEA143.8108.2-35.6
Kyler Murray, ARI123.095.0-28.0
Sam Darnold, CAR82.059.4-22.6
Justin Herbert, LAC108.190.0-18.1
(min. 100 total pass att.)

To be fair, the Vikings haven’t had it easy in the season’s first half, as all five of their losses have come to teams currently above .500. On the other hand, they’re 0-5 against opponents that presently possess winning records, while the Chargers have more successfully handled a challenging schedule of their own by going 3-3 against teams currently above .500

There is one matchup that Minnesota may be able to exploit, however, and one the Vikings must do to have their best chance of leaving L.A. with a sorely needed victory.

Key matchup: Dalvin Cook vs. Chargers’ run defense

The Chargers’ largest liability has been defending the run. According to our EVE model, they rank last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per play over expected (0.742) and have won just 21.54% of one-on-one matchups on run plays, which stands 31st overall.

Cook, who’s expected to play as the NFL investigates a civil lawsuit filed against him by a former girlfriend, appears to be in a spot to dominate and likely would – if this were 2020. The two-time Pro Bowl back averaged 3.47 yards per carry on run disruption plays (when a defender wins his matchup against a specific defender and successfully defends multiple gaps) last season – the third-highest rate among players with at least 150 attempts. That number has dipped to 2.29 in 2021, and he’s been stuffed (running plays of negative yardage) on 16.5% of his carries – the highest rate among backs with 50 or more attempts.

Cook still brings plenty of home-run ability, as evidenced by the 66-yard run he ripped off against the Ravens last week, but the consistency hasn’t been the same as past years. He also hasn’t gotten much help from an offensive line in which all five starters rank below league average at their positions in win percentage on running plays.

The Chargers will present an opportunity for Minnesota to revive a once-formidable running game and improve upon its recent struggles in converting third downs, which we touched on last week. The question now becomes whether the Vikings can take advantage.

Seattle Seahawks (3-5) at Green Bay Packers (7-2), Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS

Line: Packers by 3.5

The Analyst Win Probability: Packers 53%

Why to Watch: It’s Russell Wilson vs. Aaron Rodgers, or at least we think it will be. The Packers won’t know until later Saturday whether their quarterback will clear COVID-19 protocols, but all signs point to that happening. Wilson, meanwhile, seems close to certain to be returning from a three-game absence caused by a broken finger to add a spark to a Seattle offense that was mostly stale with understudy Geno Smith at the controls.

It’s also the first meeting between these two recent powerhouses since the Packers’ 28-23 win at Lambeau Field in the 2019 NFC divisional playoffs, as well as a chance for the Seahawks to reverse a longstanding run of struggle in Green Bay. Seattle last won at Lambeau 22 years ago, having lost nine consecutive road games in the series including the postseason.

Breaking that curse could prove difficult. The Packers have won eight straight regular-season home games dating back to last November and have yielded 17 or fewer points in the last six of those victories – both the longest active streaks in the NFL.

Rodgers has rebounded well from a disastrous season-opening display against the New Orleans Saints, though his well-thrown percentage of 76.8 and pickable pass percentage of 3.66 remain below the league averages and pale in comparison to his MVP campaign of 2020. Those numbers could easily rise against a Seattle defense that doesn’t get to the quarterback much (28th in pass rush win percentage) and has often been powerless to stop quality receivers, with Julio Jones, Justin Jefferson, Deebo Samuel and Robert Woods all recording at least 118 yards in earlier meetings. The Seahawks also surrendered 128 receiving yards to running back Alvin Kamara in their Week 7 loss to the Saints.

That could spell a big day for Davante Adams, who’s won 49.32% of his individual matchups for the sixth highest rate in the league (min. 60 matchups). The Packers are 12-1 in their last 13 regular-season games, going back to midway through the 2019 season, when Adams eclipses 100 yards.

Key matchup: Russell Wilson vs. Packers’ pass defense

Few, if any, quarterbacks throw the deep ball better than Wilson, whose 137.6 passer rating on throws of 21 yards or more in the air is the best among quarterbacks with at least 10 such attempts. That important element of the Seahawks’ offense was considerably less prevalent during his absence, with Smith attempting only eight passes of 21 or more air yards during his three-plus games under center.

The reduction of downfield throws particularly affected DK Metcalf in a negative manner. No player has registered more big receiving plays (gains of 25 or more yards) than the hulking wide receiver since he entered the league in 2019, but he registered just one (an 84-yard touchdown against the Saints) during Smith’s three-start stint. Metcalf’s 13 other catches over that stretch resulted in 113 yards, an average of 8.7 yards per reception that borders on Danny Amendola territory.

receptions of 25 or more yards since 2019

Metcalf needs to be more than just a red-zone force in a game the Seahawks may have to score in bunches to win. That also may be easier said than done, considering how well Green Bay’s defense has performed over the last two weeks.

Joe Barry’s unit put on a clinic against the Chiefs’ mighty offense last Sunday, limiting Patrick Mahomes to the lowest yards per pass attempt (4.49) of any of the 2018 NFL MVP’s 63 career starts, counting the postseason. It rendered Tyreek Hill a virtual non-factor until the 2020 All-Pro came up with a third-and-10 catch in the final minutes that sealed an ugly 13-7 Kansas City victory. One week earlier, the secondary came up with two pivotal picks of Kyler Murray, including Rasul Douglas’ end-zone grab in the waning seconds that sent the Arizona Cardinals to their lone loss of the season.

Those feats are more impressive when factoring in that Green Bay has played its last five games without top corner Jaire Alexander, forcing players such as Douglas and rookie Eric Stokes into prominent roles. And they’ve delivered for the most part, with both owning burn-allowed percentages (the rate at which a defender allows a targeted receiver to achieve a successful play regardless of the quarterback’s throw) under the league norm of 52.7% (Stokes is at 42.9%, Douglas 45.0).

The Packers will have another tough assignment on their hands this week, but Wilson’s task isn’t going to be so easy either.

Kansas City Chiefs (5-4) at Las Vegas Raiders (5-3), Sunday, 8:20 pm ET, NBC

Line: Chiefs by 2.5

The Analyst Win Probability: Raiders 53%

Why to Watch: With just a half-game separating all four division members in the standings, any and every contest pitting AFC West foes carries significant weight. The burden may be especially heavy on the Chiefs, who stand 1-4 in conference games and would be further handcuffed in any playoff tiebreaker scenario with another loss within the AFC.

The two-time defending conference champs do come in with momentum off their first winning streak of the season, while the adversity-filled Raiders are trying to regroup from both last week’s loss to the New York Giants as well as the recent release of wide receiver Henry Ruggs following a serious off-field incident.

Ruggs’ departure had an impact on the field as well with the speedster’s absence felt in last Sunday’s defeat. Derek Carr’s longest completion against the Giants went for 24 yards in his first multi-interception outing of the season as Vegas lacked the big-play element that’s been vital to its success through the first half of 2021.

The Raiders are 4-0 this season when producing three or more passing plays of 25 or more yards in a game, and 1-3 when having two or fewer.

Las Vegas has attempted to remedy the situation by signing DeSean Jackson, who figures to debut with his new team this week and may immediately step into an important role. Jackson turns 35 next month but showed he’s still capable of taking the top off a defense in his scant opportunities with the Rams earlier this season, as three of his eight receptions resulted in gains of at least 40 yards.

These longtime rivals delivered a couple of barnburners a season ago, with the Chiefs avenging a 40-32 home loss with a 35-31 victory in Las Vegas. Kansas City’s offense hasn’t exactly been clicking of late, though, having managed a pedestrian 36 points over the last three games with Patrick Mahomes mired in the worst slump of his career.

Which brings us to …

Key matchup: Patrick Mahomes vs. Raiders’ pass defense

The Packers weren’t doing anything revolutionary defensively when they held Mahomes to a paltry 166 passing yards last week. The blueprint for slowing down Kansas City’s usually formidable offense and its all-world quarterback was established earlier this season, then effectively implemented in recent meetings with the Titans and Giants before Green Bay executed it to near perfection.

The formula is more or less a simple one. Defenses are eschewing blitzing the Chiefs in favor of dropping extra players into coverage, forcing Mahomes into either unwanted checkdowns or higher risk throws into crowded spaces to enable opponents to capitalize on his naturally aggressive tendencies.

It’s a game plan that’s working, especially of late. All of Mahomes’ 10 interceptions have come in non-blitz situations, and his passer rating of 71.1 over the last three weeks is the lowest of his career for any three-game stretch. Only Sam Darnold, Jacoby Brissett and rookie Trevor Lawrence have recorded a lesser number during that time frame.

Think again if you believe the Raiders are going to deviate from that strategy. Las Vegas has called the fewest blitzes in the NFL this season, sending an extra attacker on only 11.9% of opponent’s passing plays.

The Raiders have also been one of the toughest teams in the league to throw on, trailing only Buffalo in passing yards allowed per play over expected. That success is a byproduct of their ability to generate consistent pressure from four-man fronts, as Vegas also ranks second in the league in pass rush win percentage at 29.64%.

That last number looms as a major concern for a Kansas City team that may have to start a third-string right tackle with both Mike Remmers and Lucas Niang dealing with injuries. Whoever does get the call will mostly be lined up opposite Raiders one-man wrecking crew Maxx Crosby, our second-ranked edge defender in terms of adjusted pass rush win percentage.

adjusted pass rush win percentage for edge rushers
(min. 50 one-on-one matchups)

Gus Bradley’s defense does have an Achilles’ heel, however. The Raiders rank 25th overall in rushing yards allowed per play over expected (0.330) and are dead-last in individual win percentage on running plays, with their defenders successful on only 20.7% of their one-on-one matchups.

There’s a longstanding narrative that Andy Reid teams neglect the running game, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. The Chiefs rushed for 200 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4 and 186 against the Chargers a week earlier, with Clyde-Edwards Helaire surpassing 100 yards in each of those contests. The second-year back reportedly could be activated from injured reserve for Sunday’s showdown, and could have a major role if indeed he does return.

And while it’s true that Kansas City doesn’t run the ball all that often, it’s certainly not incapable of doing so. The Chiefs’ offensive line has won individual run-blocking matchups at an 80.25% clip, the highest rate of any NFL team. Rookie center Creed Humphrey’s 89.83% success rate is the best of any lineman with at least 50 one-on-one matchups, while Niang (86.79%) and left guard Joe Thuney (82.67) have been well above average as well.

Our models do give the Raiders a slight advantage here, but this is a game the Chiefs certainly can win by making a few adjustments and if Mahomes gets back to being Mahomes.


Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads and Greg Gifford contributed. Graphic design by Briggs Clinard.

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