What goes into an NFL team being put on upset alert?
I get asked this question every week, either on Twitter or in the comments to this recurring column. The answer is never simple, and it's usually different depending on the team in question.
First, Vegas odds are really the only objective way to say who is the favorite and who is the underdog. There is a great example this week. In the Detroit-Minnesota game, I think the Vikings should be the favorite at home, but Vegas favors the Lions. In the end, there are few games in which everyone agrees on a favorite. So rather than quibble about that, odds are the best way to go.
Note, too, that "upset alert" doesn't mean I'm picking the underdog to win. It's called an "alert" for a reason. These games are three days away when I write this every week, and I'm letting fans know who they should be watching out for. If you want to know who I and the rest of B/R's lead writers are picking, you can see that column every Tuesday morning.
So how does one decide which teams need to be worried? Matchups are usually the biggest reason. Can a less talented team win specific battles that would turn the tide? Trends are another reason. Things like home-field advantage, which team has to make a cross-country trip and which team is healthier play a big role.
So which teams need to be worried in Week 10?
The Falcons need to be worried this week, that's for sure.
Yes, the Falcons' biggest storyline of the season has been "is this the week?" Is this the week the Falcons are finally tested? Each team they faced early in the season went on to (at best) mediocrity. Falcons fans hate this meme and are almost certainly going to bristle at it being brought up for the second week in a row here.
That said, the positive for the Falcons is that they execute really well. If they continue to execute on both sides of the ball, they can beat anyone. This is a talented team that brought in substantial talent in the offseason and has multiple ways of moving the ball down the field.
The worry has to be whether the New Orleans Saints are hitting their stride at the right time. Can that Falcons defense match up against a team with so many weapons if Drew Brees spreads the ball around and moves around to avoid the rush?
As good as Matt Ryan has been, if this game turns into a shootout, Brees has to be the favorite.
The Detroit Lions are on this list because "favorite" is probably a misnomer. The Vikings have already beaten the Lions, and the Metrodome is a pretty hostile place to visit.
The hope for the Lions, and the reason Vegas put the line where it did, is that Christian Ponder has been terrible as of late. He's making mistakes he was not making in the first quarter of the season, and it's turned the Vikings offense into a one-dimensional mess.
The other reason Vegas (and I) picked the Lions is that the Vikings need to have a great day on the ground to win, and the Lions' rushing defense has been stellar and getting better this season. The Lions are still incredibly susceptible to a well-timed trap, but they're not getting gashed as much as people would suspect.
The Lions are on upset alert, however, because Adrian Peterson is a beast. He is single-handedly able to reverse trends. He is capable of turning any defense into Swiss cheese in a matter of minutes. Even when he is bottled up for most of the game, he is always a risk for a big gainer.
If Ponder figures things out or Peterson is able to get loose more often than not, the Lions will go home the loser.
This is a perfect example of a game in which one team is vastly overmatched but has a chance because of specific matchups. The matchup in question, of course, is the St. Louis Rams defense against the San Francisco 49ers offense.
The Rams have enough talent on the front four to apply pressure to Alex Smith and bottle up Frank Gore without committing to many players to the blitz. They also have talent at cornerback to slow down the Niners receivers. This will put extra responsibility in the hands of Smith to make plays. If he makes mistakes, that could mean big momentum-changing plays for the Rams.
The problem for the Rams is that the opposite is also true—their offense has little chance against the Niners defense. They will be overmatched up front, and Sam Bradford hasn't been a world-beater. He will need to be at his best to even keep the Rams close.
Yet the 49ers can't rest on their laurels. This is an NFC West rival, and anything can happen. They're playing well and have the target on their backs. Jeff Fisher will have the Rams fired up.
The Niners have to be prepared for everything the Rams could throw at them.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at "The Go Route."