NFL Odds, Picks, Predictions: Colts, Saints Are Must-Win NFL Teams To Fade In Week 18, Plus Case Against Titans
Getty Images. Pictured: Colts QB Carson Wentz, Saints HC Sean Payton and Titans QB Ryan Tannehill (left to right)
Some people hate betting the final week of the NFL regular season with many dead teams across the league and increased uncertainty around who will sit or start. For example, questions linger about who will sit for the Eagles, Cowboys, Packers, Bengals and Bucs.
For what it’s worth, Mike McCarthy came out and said Dallas would play to win, as did Tampa head coach Bruce Arians. Packers head coach Matt LaFleuer also said he doesn’t like the idea of his team having a three-week break. Meanwhile, the Eagles and Bengals are dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks and may opt to sit their starters, with the final call for the latter potentially being impacted by the Chiefs’ result on Saturday. That said, it’s just mid-week coach speak, so don’t take it as gospel.
I personally have always loved this week, as I generally find value backing the “dead teams” against teams that need to win to either get into the playoffs or keep their postseason hopes alive.
This year, we have one open spot in the NFC and two in the AFC that have yet to be locked up. The following seven teams are fighting for those open spots — two in the NFC and five in the AFC:
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Baltimore Ravens
- Los Angeles Chargers
- Las Vegas Raiders
- San Francisco 49ers
- New Orleans Saints
- Indianapolis Colts
We don’t have to pay much attention to the first four teams on this list for this particular exercise since the Ravens and Steelers will meet in Baltimore in an elimination game. The winner would still have a shot at punching their ticket to the dance, but would need a lot of help elsewhere. Baltimore also needs wins by the Patriots, Jaguars and Raiders — while the Steelers need a Jaguars’ victory and the Raiders-Chargers game to not end in a tie.
Meanwhile, the Chargers and Raiders will face off on Sunday night in Las Vegas with the winner guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. While Los Angeles would be eliminated with a loss, the Raiders do still have another path if both the Colts and Steelers lose. In that case, the Raiders would clinch a playoff spot prior to the Sunday night game and would have no incentive to win other than to eliminate the Chargers, who would need to win to get in or else the Ravens would take the final wild-card spot.
Interestingly enough, both the Raiders and Chargers would get in no matter what if that game ends in a tie. That brings up a fascinating prisoner’s dilemma if the game got to over time. There would actually even be a collusion incentive for both teams to tie if the Steelers and Jaguars both win. As much as I’d love to see each team just trade kneel downs for the entirety of the game, the commissioner has the right to award a double forfeit if neither team tries, so don’t get your hopes up.
Let’s move on to the other three teams.
San Francisco can clinch a playoff spot with a victory over the Rams in a road game that might actually have a much higher percentage of 49ers fans in attendance. While I did bet the 49ers at +6 since I think that line was way too high in a favorable matchup for Kyle Shanahan’s bunch, they aren’t playing a team that doesn’t have any incentive. The Rams can clinch the division with a win (or an Arizona loss), which would guarantee them a home playoff game and improve their seeding potential.
That only leaves a pair of clubs playing in games they need to win against teams that have already been eliminated from postseason contention:
- New Orleans Saints
- Indianapolis Colts
If the Saints beat the Falcons on the road, they will clinch a playoff spot if the 49ers lose to the Rams. A loss in Atlanta would send New Orleans packing. Meanwhile, the Colts are in with a simple road win (or tie) over the lowly Jaguars. A loss doesn’t necessarily eliminate them, but they would need wins by the Dolphins and Ravens on Sunday afternoon and then an already-clinched Raiders team over the Chargers on Sunday night.
On the surface, one might want to bet the teams playing for something — that seems like a logical angle. However, that’s already baked into the line and that motivation narrative tends to get over-accounted for in the market.
These are still NFL players who will suit up for pride, job security, incentives and even some old-fashioned love of the game.
It’s also the last game of the season for those not headed to the playoffs. And why not end the season playing spoiler — especially against a division rival? In a way, Week 17 becomes a Super Bowl for some teams after going through the motions late in the year after disappointing seasons.
You could also argue that teams with nothing on the line will play much looser, while teams that need to win may potentially come out super tight and conservative, playing not to lose rather than to win.
Must-Win NFL Teams ATS
According to our Action Labs data, teams that need to win in the final week of the regular season to get into the playoffs (or would need help with a loss) have gone 16-26 (38.1%) against the spread (ATS) when playing teams with zero incentive. If you’re curious, 13 of those 42 teams lost straight up on the moneyline.
Also, if you focus solely on favorites laying more than a field goal, the case for fading these “must-win” teams becomes even more glaring at 10-22 (31.25%) ATS.
If you aren’t impressed by the overall sample size, eliminated teams playing teams that need to win over the final two weeks of the season have hit at a 63% clip (94-56-4) since 1990.
There have been plenty of infamous examples of teams in must-win scenarios laying more than a touchdown in the final week of the regular season and losing to teams with no motivation.
Let’s take a walk down memory lane.
2003: Cardinals (+7.5) Stun Vikings
The Vikings just needed a win in Week 17 over a 3-12 Cardinals team to clinch a playoff berth. Led by Josh McCown, Arizona scored a touchdown in the final seconds to win 18-17 and eliminate the Vikings from the postseason.
Bonus fact: The Vikings lost a Week 17 game in a similar scenario the following season to Patrick Ramsey and a 5-10 Washington squad.
2004: Steelers (+9.5) KO Bills
Winners of six straight, the 8-7 Bills needed a win at home in Week 17 for a shot at the playoffs. The bad news? They would face the 15-1 Steelers. The good news? Pittsburgh would rest most of its key starters on both sides of the ball.
However, despite playing with mostly backups, quarterback Tommy Maddox led Pittsburgh to the road victory to prolong Buffalo’s playoff drought. To add insult to injury, the Jets lost to the Rams, which the Bills also needed to happen to make the playoffs in conjunction with a win.
Similarly, the Steelers had that happen to them in Week 17 of the 2019 season when they needed a win (and some help) against a Ravens team that decided to rest their starters. Baltimore rolled 28-10.
2006: 49ers (+10) Shock Broncos
All the Broncos had to do was beat (or tie) the 6-9 49ers at home in Week 17 to punch a ticket to the dance.
Quarterback Alex Smith and the 49ers tied the game late to force overtime. And in a game that the Broncos would have loved to even tie, the 49ers won on a field goal in overtime in the final seconds.
2008: Raiders (+11) Eliminate Bucs
With Jamarcus Russell under center and Michael Bush running wild, the 4-11 Raiders went on the road and ended the Bucs’ season. Believe it or not, the Raiders came from 10 down in the fourth quarter to hand the Bucs their fourth straight loss to end the season.
2017: Bengals (+8) Upset Ravens
As a Ravens fan, it pains me to relive the memory of a 6-9 Bengals team ending Baltimore’s season on a last-second Tyler Boyd touchdown in Baltimore.
The Seahawks, who entered the day needing a win and help, also lost that same day as 8-point favorites against the Cardinals.
2020: Bills (+3.5) Backups Send Dolphins Packing
While this one doesn’t technically fit since the Bills could’ve improved their seeding, I wanted to highlight the wackiness of the final week of the regular season. Buffalo decided to sit a number of key starters against a Dolphins team that needed to win to clinch a playoff berth. The Bills ended up winning 56-26 in a lopsided affair.
What Does This Mean For Week 18?
Here’s what I think of both games that fit this scenario this upcoming weekend:
Colts (-16) at Jaguars
Just like last year, the Colts will travel to Duvall County needing a win in the regular-season finale against a terrible Jaguars team. As similar 15-point favorites, Indy ended up pulling out a 28-14 victory but failed to cover the closing number. The one-win Jaguars — led by Mike Glennon at quarterback — actually had the ball down by six with less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
I’d imagine you’d get the best effort of the Jaguars here after an embarrassing blowout loss to the Patriots last week. For what it’s worth, teams that didn’t cover by 23 or more points the previous week have covered at a 55% clip since 2003. It’s also worth noting Jacksonville’s roster was completely decimated by COVID last week. With the recently changed NFL COVID protocols, it should be in much better shape this week.
The Colts are also a major regression candidate in the turnover department. They lead the league with a +16 turnover margin and 33 takeaways with only 17 giveaways. While you can attribute some of their takeaway numbers to their prowess of punching the ball out of opposing ball carriers, Carson Wentz should have many more interceptions.
Only Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson have fewer interceptions than Wentz among 29 quarterbacks with at least 400 drop backs this season. You’d expect the first two to have elite turnover numbers based on their numbers this year and throughout the course of their careers. However, Wentz’s turnover-worthy throw metrics in 2021 suggest he should have closer to double the six interceptions he’s thrown in just under 500 attempts and trending down.
Conversely, Trevor Lawrence — who has undoubtedly performed horrendously by every metric — has been a bit unlucky with some of his peripherals. Don’t be shocked if you see a couple deflections go Jacksonville’s way on Sunday.
That said, I’m not going to sit here and preach good things about the putrid Jags. This is simply a play on what I feel is an inflated number based on my projections in this particular spot.
It is at least worth mentioning a new more modern phenomenon: the threat of the tank. As we saw with the Eagles in last year’s regular-season finale against a Washington team needing a win to get into the playoffs (sorry, Giants fans), a loss may be in the best interest of the already-eliminated team for improved draft positioning and/or easier opponents next season. However, I don’t believe that’s too much of a concern here with the Jags, who could potentially lose the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft with a win and Lions loss.
Pick: Jaguars +14.5 or better
Saints (-4.5) at Falcons
The Saints need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive against a Falcons team that will be looking to play the role of spoiler one week after being officially eliminated from playoff contention.
I do think there is a bit of value in the Falcons here.
It does help that Matt Ryan has enjoyed some decent success against the Saints since Dennis Allen took over as defensive coordinator in 2015. Over that span, Ryan has 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions with 3,802 passing yards in 13 games against New Orleans. That comes out to a per-game average of 2 TD, .85 INT and 292 yards.
Plus, it’s a decent-sized chore for this Saints offense to cover as a 4.5-point favorite with Taysom Hill (3 TD and 5 INT with a 56.8% completion percentage on the season) under center and a subpar wide receiver group.
Since Week 8, here’s the list of quarterbacks who rank lower than Hill in EPA+CPOE among 36 with at least 150 plays:
- Cam Newton
- Mike Glennon
- Zach Wilson
That’s it for a Saints offense that ranks 31st in Success Rate since Week 8. For the season, New Orleans’ rush offense ranks 28th in both EPA per play and success rate, as teams just don’t have to respect their aerial attack. Plus, on the other side of the ball, the Saints’ strength of shutting down opposing ground games doesn’t mean as much in this particular matchup since the Falcons have a completely nonexistent rushing attack.
When these two teams met back in November in New Orleans, the Saints closed as a 6.5-point favorite in a game Atlanta held on for dear life in after building a 24-6 lead in the fourth quarter. My opinion on neither team has changed much since and I project New Orleans as a favorite of below a field goal. Therefore, I’ll happily take the +4.5 or better with the home pup in a game with a very low total of 40.
Both teams should get some key pieces back from the COVID-19/reserve list, but the Saints do still have some key injuries along their offensive line. It’s also worth monitoring the status of Atlanta tight end Kyle Pitts, who left last game with a hamstring injury. I do think he’ll play if he has any shot, considering this is the last game of the season and he needs just 58 yards to break Mike Ditka’s single-season record for most receiving yards by a rookie tight end.
Pick: Falcons +4 or better
Additionally, I like the Texans catching double digits at home against the Titans. While Tennessee has already clinched a playoff spot and the AFC South title, it needs a win to lock up the highly-coveted No. 1 overall seed in the AFC. (It can also secure the top seed with a loss, but would need lots of help.)
You may recall back in 2019 when the Patriots simply needed to beat the Dolphins to lock up the top overall seed in the AFC. Miami pulled off the stunner in Foxboro as 17.5-point underdogs. Chiefs fans are hoping history repeats itself as they could benefit once again.
I feel this number is a bit high for a Titans team that tends to play up-and-down to competition under head coach Mike Vrabel. We saw that earlier this year when Houston went to Nashville and upset the Titans in their own building.
Last year, the Titans also went to Houston in the final week needing a win to lock up a playoff spot. They ended up pulling out a victory on a field goal in the final seconds, but failed to cover as a 7.5-point road favorite.
Houston is still playing hard and Davis Mills has improved as the season has progressed. I believe this number is a shade too high for a Titans offense that has been pretty underwhelming since Derrick Henry went down with an injury, ranking 25th in EPA per play since Week 9.
Pick: Texans +10.5 or better