We all know this is an unusual week in the NFL. It seems trite to be discussing games or picks after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field Monday night.
But the games are scheduled to go on this weekend. With the proper perspective that Hamlin’s health is a much bigger priority than the games, let’s look at the Week 18 slate.
There’s a reason the NFL picked the Detroit Lions-Green Bay Packers game as the Sunday night flex. It’s not “fair,” in terms of playing all the games that affect the NFC wild-card race at the same time. But it’s also not a conspiracy. The NFL wanted ratings. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers playing for a playoff spot was their best move for TV.
Also, the Lions aren’t rolling over even if they’re already eliminated from a Seahawks win.
It’s funny that many believe the Lions will mail it in if the Seahawks beat the Rams (which would eliminate Detroit; the Lions need a Seahawks loss and a win over Green Bay to make the playoffs). First, we don’t give NFL teams enough credit for professionalism and wanting to win, especially in their final game. A few teams can’t wait for the season to be done, whether it’s due to a coach they know is getting fired, a ton of injuries or any other reason, but betting against teams that have “nothing to play for” is a bad strategy. There’s plenty of motivation for NFL teams. You should probably worry more about the teams in the playoffs, who could rightfully sit players to rest for wild-card weekend, than teams whose seasons will end this weekend. (And please don’t allow yourself to believe that any team is tanking to go from, say, the 15th pick to the 13th pick with a loss … it’s not realistic.)
The Lions won’t lay down. Either the Seahawks lose early and they’re playing for a playoff spot, or they’re trying to finish the season on a positive note, with a winning record by knocking their division rival out of the playoffs. If you’ve paid the slightest bit of attention to Dan Campbell as a coach, you shouldn’t be buying into the idea that the Lions are going to quit playing hard.
The Lions are 4.5-point underdogs at BetMGM and I’ll ride with them. The Packers are playing well but so are the Lions (outside of that utter flop at Carolina two weeks ago) and they’re going to be motivated no matter what. The NFL picked a fine game for Sunday night. It should be a close one.
Here are the NFL picks against the spread for Week 18 of the NFL season, with the odds from BetMGM:
Raiders (+9.5) over Chiefs
The Chiefs are on a 1-7-1 streak against the spread. Maybe you believe that’s a sign the Chiefs are overrated, or that oddsmakers consistently inflate their point spreads because they know they’ll get public action either week. Either way it’s not profitable to bet the Chiefs as a favorite, and the Raiders showed signs of not quitting last week.
Jaguars (-6) over Titans
It’s tough to go against a Mike Vrabel team getting too many points. This is for the AFC South championship and the Titans will be as prepared as possible. It’s just tough to take Joshua Dobbs in his second career start, on the road, with the division title on the line. Dobbs looked competent enough last week but I still think the Jaguars pull away in this one.
Here’s a good example of a mediocre to bad team “with nothing to play for” that probably will play pretty hard. The Falcons didn’t finish the season like they wanted, but it would still be a nice finish to the season to beat the Buccaneers. Even if Tom Brady insists on playing, it’s likely to just be a series or two. There’s no reason for the Buccaneers to overextend their starters before a playoff game.
Patriots (+7.5) over Bills
It’s hard to talk about the Bills in football terms this week, for obvious reasons. I don’t know how the Bills will react to what happened on Monday. Nobody can know. I’ll just take the Patriots, who need to win to get into the playoffs and should keep it close.
Vikings (-7.5) over Bears
Nathan Peterman is back in our lives. Peterman will start Sunday, as the Bears play it safe with Justin Fields/try to lose to maybe get the first overall pick. This line was actually Vikings -1.5 earlier this week. That made no sense. This line is a little too high but the Bears are terrible, sent a message they might be trying to lose and they’re starting Peterman. I’m not picking Chicago.
Bengals (-7) over Ravens
It’s impossible to talk about games this week without acknowledging how the still-suspended Bills-Bengals game influences a few of them. If the Bengals don’t play that Bills game, the Ravens can’t win the AFC North. Does Baltimore play it safe believing it’s in a wild-card road game to start the playoffs? Play it out just in case? The same goes for the Bengals. Since it’s impossible to predict, I’ll assume both teams play it out as usual. I have a hard time believing the Ravens can score enough to keep up in this one.
The Texans clinch the No. 1 overall pick with a loss. A lot is said about tanking in the NFL, but it rarely happens. It’s really weird when fans talk about teams that should tank for draft picks when it might be the difference between the 18th pick or the 14th pick. But there is one recent instance of a team pretty clearly tanking for the No. 1 pick, and it happened with Lovie Smith as the head coach. A quick history lesson, borrowed from the power rankings earlier this week: In 2014, the Buccaneers tanked in the finale to get the No. 1 pick. Tampa Bay pulled out starters in the second half of a close game against the Saints, when there was no real reason to pull them from the game other than influencing a loss. The Bucs blew a lead with their backups and fell to the Saints. The NFL chose to ignore it and the Bucs took it Jameis Winston with the first pick. Before you bet the Texans, just keep that history lesson in mind.
Jets (-1) over Dolphins
I believe that the Jets will play as they usually would. The Dolphins will be starting Skylar Thompson, and while the team has been competitive with him, it’s a tough ask for the rookie to lead a win that will keep Miami alive for a playoff berth depending on what the Patriots do. The Dolphins without Tua Tagovailoa have not been the same team this season.
Panthers (+3.5) over Saints
Sometimes the letdown you see in Week 18 is a team that had its playoff hopes at the end of the previous week. It’s possible the Panthers laid an egg after blowing a fourth quarter lead in Week 17 that would have put them in the lead for the NFC South. I still think the Panthers will play fairly well, but it’s hard to depend on that.
Steelers (-2.5) over Browns
I’ll just believe that a Mike Tomlin team that is still alive for a playoff spot — and the path isn’t that ridiculous either — will be at its best this week. We still haven’t seen Deshaun Watson play well and I’m not sure why it would happen on Sunday.
Of all the Week 18 teams that have “nothing to play for” but could really be energized by a Week 18 win, the Broncos are close to the top of the list. They looked like a new team last week after Nathaniel Hackett was fired. The Chargers do have something to play for, because the No. 5 seed in the AFC is a lot better than the No. 6 seed and Brandon Staley seems to understand that too. However, the Chargers could have that fifth seed wrapped up by kickoff if the Ravens lose. The Chargers would be smart to rest their players in that situation and Staley is a forward-thinking coach. And I think we’ll see a Broncos team with something to prove.
Giants (+14) over Eagles
Brian Daboll has indicated he plans to play starters, which would be reckless with a wild-card game coming up and the No. 6 seed locked up. We’ll see. Either way, whoever is playing for the Giants will be playing hard and trying to keep momentum going for the playoffs and wreck the Eagles’ shot at the No. 1 seed. The Giants won’t win but this is a lot of points.
Cardinals (+14) over 49ers
The Cardinals played hard last week and I assume they will again on Sunday. There’s nothing to lose for a team whose offseason starts on Monday. The 49ers are a way better team and still will likely have eyes on clinching the No. 2 seed (which has value, because that ensures a home game in the divisional round), but two touchdowns is a lot.
Rams (+6.5) over Seahawks
The Rams are impossible to predict. One week they look like they want to finish the season strong, other games they look checked out. They were bad last week, so let’s plan on a decent performance this week.
Cowboys (-7.5) over Commanders
Dallas has to play it out like the Eagles could lose and the Cowboys could grab the NFC East title. It’s a tough matchup for Commanders rookie quarterback Sam Howell. I like that Washington is giving Howell some run to end the season, but it could get ugly for a team that got eliminated last week.
Last week: 7-8
Season to date: 129-120-4