NFL WEEK 18: This is a season of change in the NFL, as the decision to add an additional regular season game means that we have a Week 18 for the first time ever, and the less discussed but more consequential decision to add another Wild Card playoff berth for each conference means that only the top seeds get first-round byes and the potential for postseason chaos is higher than ever.
Kansas City’s loss to Cincinnati last week puts Tennessee in the driver’s seat in the race for the 1-seed in the AFC, with the Titans needing only to beat the lowly Texans this week to clinch the bye. Green Bay has already clinched the top seed in the NFC, but coach Matt LeFleur said he plans to play the starters against Detroit this week anyway, including Aaron Rodgers. While I’m sure we’ll see Rodgers and his fellow first-stringers for a series or two, maybe even a quarter or two, you can rest assured he will not finish the game, and the Packers/Lions game is far from the only one this week in which we really have no idea how committed teams will be to winning. We already know that in Cincinnati, for instance, Joe Burrow and the starters will be sitting, and the same is true for the two teams who will do battle in one of this week’s two Saturday night games– both Dallas and Philadelphia have secured playoffs spots and aren’t guaranteed to improve seeding with a win, so Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Jalen Hurts, and a handful of other key players from each team will be watching from the sidelines.
The other Saturday game, Kansas City at Denver, may seem like a mismatch, but if the Chiefs build a comfortable 2nd-half lead are they going to pull Mahomes and other starters? Can we possibly feel comfortable laying a double-digit number in such a circumstance? These are the choices we always face in the final week of the regular season, which makes it maybe the most unusual and uncomfortable week of the year for bettors. But uncertainty and unpredictability can breed opportunity, and with the run we’ve been on lately I’m a bit more confident than usual in our ability to tiptoe through the Week 18 minefield. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Washington Football Team @ New York Giants (WAS -7, 38.5)
Recommendation: Washington -7 at 1.98
This marks the end of a disappointing season for both of these teams, and they definitely both belong in the “bad” barrel, but I do believe there’s a fairly significant difference between them based on what we’ve seen in recent weeks. Yes, Washington has lost 4 in a row, but only one of those games has been noncompetitive, and prior to this current losing streak the Football Team had won 4 straight, beating quality teams like Tampa Bay and Las Vegas along the way. Plus, journeyman QB Taylor Heinicke will likely be playing his final game as a starter before moving back to a reserve role, and anyone who has watched Heinicke play this season knows that his competitiveness and will to win really shines through. In a game like this, when many players may not want to be out there and will be more focused on postgame travel plans, Heinicke’s attitude and leadership abilities should be especially meaningful. The Giants, meanwhile, will be starting Jake Fromm at QB, a second-year player who made his first career start two weeks ago and was benched after throwing for just 25 yards. The G-Men are now at five straight double-digit losses and counting, and I don’t think things are going to get any better this week.
Indianapolis Colts @ Jacksonville Jaguars (IND -14.5, 44.5)
Recommendation: Indianapolis -14.5 at 1.89
Hey– haven’t you heard? The Jags absolutely own the Colts in Jacksonville, beating them the last six times that Indy has ventured down to the River City. And most of the games haven’t even been close, with the average margin of victory for Jax approaching 14 points. Remember too that some of those victorious Jacksonville teams have been BAD… but, and I can’t really believe I’m saying this considering just how terrible the football in Jacksonville has been over the past decade, none of the previous Jaguars teams were quite as putrid as this one. I mean… where do you even start? The Jags have lost 8 straight games, with five of those losses coming by 14 points or more. And things seem to be getting worse, as their last five losses have come by 109 combined points, including last week’s 50-10 shellacking at the hands of New England. The players seem to have totally quit on the coaching staff since Urban Meyer’s firing, and, incredibly, Trevor Lawrence might be the worst rookie quarterback in the history of the league. That’s right– Lawrence has not had more passing TDs than turnovers in a single game this season, and should that hold true on Sunday he would become the first QB in NFL history to start every game and hold this ignominious distinction. Have I mentioned that the Jacksonville defense has totally collapsed, particularly in the trenches, and has surrendered 454 combined rushing yards over the last two games? And that Jonathan Taylor, the NFL’s leading rusher, is lining up Sunday and is 266 yards shy of becoming the ninth player in league history to rush for 2,000 yards? And that the Colts need to win this game to make the playoffs? Don’t overthink this one: Indianapolis will win in blowout fashion. Take it to the bank.
Seattle Seahawks @ Arizona Cardinals (ARI -6, 47.5)
Recommendation: Seattle +6 at 1.91
The Cards have locked up a playoff spot but they’ve been quietly struggling lately, losing three straight games before pulling out a 3-point win in Dallas last week. Their struggles have been especially pronounced at home, where they’ve lost four straight and have only produced one double-digit victory all season– a 26-point win over the Texans back in October. I expect them to have some trouble this week with division rival Seattle, a team that, despite being eliminated from playoff contention, has continued to play hard in recent weeks, going 3-2 in their last five games. Russell Wilson has had trouble finding a rhythm since returning from midseason finger surgery but he was looking like his old self last week, throwing 4 TDs and leading the Seahawks to 51 points in a win over Detroit, and he’s certainly had lots of success against Arizona over the course of his career. Critically, Wilson now has the help of an effective running game with the emergence of Rashaad Penny, who has exploded for 481 rushing yards in his last four games. Penny should find some room to operate against a Cardinals front seven that has been weakened by injuries and is allowing 4.4 yards per rush, and I think the Seahawks have an excellent chance to put a scare in their division rivals, and maybe even win this one outright.
San Francisco 49ers @ Los Angeles Rams (LA -4.5, 44.5)
Recommendation: Los Angeles -4.5 at 1.94
The season is on the line for San Francisco here, as the Niners could lock up a playoff spot with a win but would be eliminated with a loss and a New Orleans victory over Atlanta, but it’s a meaningful game for the L.A. too, as the Rams can clinch a division title and the 2-seed in the NFC with a victory. The major question hovering over this game is whether Jimmy Garoppolo will be healthy enough to start at quarterback– 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has been somewhat coy about it this week, and rookie Trey Lance was adequate in relief of Garoppolo last week, accounting for 280 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a win over Houston, but a Week 17 game against the 4-12 Texans is a far cry from a must-win spot against one of the league’s top defenses, which is exactly what Lance will be facing this week should he draw the start. Even if Garoppolo is healthy enough to go, however, it’s likely that his thumb injury will affect his performance somewhat, and the L.A. secondary has been rock solid lately, allowing just one touchdown pass while producing five interceptions in the team’s current 5-game winning streak. I’m just not sure the San Francisco offense is dynamic enough to overcome a team like the Rams in a spot like this, with everything on the line and L.A. in the midst of a month-long winning streak. A 10-point Rams win feels like the most likely outcome.