Why NFL Week 18 may be hardest one yet to handicap

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LAS VEGAS — What seemed implausible after Week 1, when Aaron Rodgers and the Packers opened with an embarrassing 35-point loss, has become reality heading into Week 18. For the second year in a row, the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC will go through Green Bay.

So why would Rodgers bother to play in Detroit? Rodgers has the option to sit out of the Packers’ finale on Sunday, but the MVP front-runner has said he plans to play anyway.

The final week of the NFL regular season is always a unique challenge for bettors and bookmakers. Most games will feature some sort of playoff implications, though a few such as Packers-Lions could have a preseason feel.

“There are so many of these games that are basically playoff games,” Westgate SuperBook vice president Jay Kornegay said. “Most of the games are meaningful, but there are some games that mean absolutely nothing.”

Prior to Week 17, when Green Bay won to clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed, the SuperBook posted a lookahead line with the Packers favored by 11 points against the Lions. The line reopened Monday with Detroit as a 2-point favorite.

“What’s the incentive for Green Bay?” said Vinny Magliulo, VSiN oddsmaker and Gaughan Gaming sportsbook director. “Do you see Rodgers on Sunday? Probably, but for how long? Rodgers is the No. 1 player in the league in terms of impacting the number. And it’s not just Rodgers. Who else is not going to play?”

The Packers clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Getty Images

With a last opportunity to tighten his grip on the MVP award, Rodgers might want to play just the first quarter, first half or more. The Packers also must consider the idea of staying sharp for the playoffs with a bye week on deck.

Magliulo said there will be “a lot of line movement” on the NFL board this week as bookmakers react to information made available by coaches pertaining to starters and playing time. It’s just as important to read between the lines to find the motivation for each team.

The Chiefs are 9.5-point favorites at Denver in Saturday’s first game. The motivation is obvious for Kansas City, which can clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed with a win and a Tennessee loss on Sunday. The Titans are 10.5-point favorites at Houston.

The Cowboys-Eagles game on Saturday night falls into a gray area because it means slightly more for Dallas, which is a 5-point road favorite and could get the NFC’s No. 2 seed with a win. Philadelphia has clinched a playoff spot and is likely to face Tampa Bay in the postseason, win or lose Saturday.

There are two Sunday games — 49ers-Rams and Chargers-Raiders — with significant playoff implications for all teams involved.

The Rams are 5.5-point home favorites against the 49ers, who need to win to clinch a postseason spot. San Francisco still could lose and sneak into the field with some help. The Rams clinch the NFC West with a win or an Arizona loss to Seattle.

Sony Michel runs in for a touchdown against the Ravens on Jan. 2, 2022 as Matthew Stafford celebrates in the background.
Sony Michel runs in for a touchdown against the Ravens on Jan. 2, 2022 as Matthew Stafford celebrates in the background.
AP

Las Vegas will be the setting for Sunday’s prime-time showdown that amounts to an all-or-nothing bet for the Chargers and Raiders. The winner clinches a playoff berth in the AFC and the loser essentially goes home. The Raiders could lose and still get in but they would need the Colts to fall as 15.5-point favorites at Jacksonville.

The Chargers are favored by 3 points in what Magliulo said “will be the most-bet game of the week.”

Derek Carr led the Raiders to their third consecutive win, 23-20 win at Indianapolis in Week 17, to keep their playoff hopes alive. Las Vegas has a 4-4 home record, including an Oct. 10 loss to the Bears in what was Jon Gruden’s final game as coach before his stunning resignation. The Chargers beat the Raiders 28-14 on Oct. 4.

“There’s going to be a lot of Raiders’ money, especially with the game being in Las Vegas,” Magliulo said. “I would make the Chargers -1.5 to -2.”

Minor playoff implications exist in a few other AFC matchups. The Bills are 16.5-point favorites against the Jets, with Buffalo clinching the AFC East with a win. The Jets nearly pulled off a major upset in Week 17 before Tom Brady’s last-minute touchdown pass lifted the Buccaneers to a 28-24 victory as 14-point favorites.

“That would have been one of our biggest wins of the year if the Jets could have pulled that off,” Kornegay said.

The Patriots, who are 6-point favorites at Miami, could clinch the division with a win and Buffalo loss.

Mac Jones
Mac Jones
USA TODAY Sports

New England and Cincinnati each have long-shot hopes at the AFC’s top seed, but the Bengals have clinched the AFC North and are realistically playing for nothing on Sunday as 3-point underdogs at Cleveland.

The short list of meaningless games includes Bears-Vikings and Washington-Giants, but some bettors will be searching for angles in those games too.

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