Stuckey’s Week 17 NFL Betting Guide: Must-Win Doesn’t Mean Must-Bet

Stuckey’s Week 17 NFL Betting Guide: Must-Win Doesn’t Mean Must-Bet article feature image
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Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III

  • Twelve NFL teams are fighting for playoff seeding or a playoff berth on the final Sunday of the regular season.
  • Don't expect the teams that are eliminated from playoff contention to roll over for the must-win crowd in Week 17.

Just like the past two seasons, we will have plenty of meaningful football on Sunday. That’s not always the case when betting the NFL in Week 17.

There are five teams that must win to either clinch a playoff spot or to keep their playoff chances alive with help from other team(s).

  • Titans
  • Steelers
  • Raiders
  • Eagles
  • Cowboys

The Titans and Eagles find themselves in the most ideal spots, simply needing a win to punch their ticket. The others need to win and get help.

We also have seven teams that have clinched playoff spots but are still fighting for critical seeding:

  • Texans
  • Patriots
  • Chiefs
  • Packers
  • Saints
  • 49ers
  • Seahawks

It’s worth noting that the Texans will have nothing to play for if the Chiefs win in the early slate. Also, if the Packers blow out the Lions, the Saints could pull all of their starters as their result would mean nothing to their seeding if Green Bay wins. The Saints need either a Packers or 49ers loss to earn a bye.

And there are only three teams locked into a seed entering Sunday’s games:

  • Ravens (No. 1 in AFC)
  • Bills (No. 5 AFC)
  • Vikings (No. 6 NFC)

The other 17 teams have already been eliminated from playoff contention and are seemingly playing for nothing.

Naturally, we have a few matchups between eliminated teams and teams with “motivation.” On the surface, one might want to bet the team playing for something. That seems like a logical angle. However, that’s already baked into the line and the impact is generally over-accounted for in the market.

These are still NFL players that will suit up for pride, job security, incentives and even some old-fashioned love of the game.


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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 if against a division rival. In a way, this becomes a Super Bowl for some after disappointing seasons.

Teams with nothing on the line will also play much looser, while teams in must-win scenarios may potentially play super tight and conservative, playing not to lose rather than to win.

Historical Results

According to Bet Labs (which goes back to 2003), teams that need to win to get into the playoffs (or would need help with a loss) in Week 17 have gone 13-21 against the spread (38.2%) when playing eliminated teams. A $100 bettor backing those 34 teams that needed to win against “dead” teams in Week 17 would have lost close to $1500. (If you’re curious, 12 of those 34 teams lost straight up on the moneyline.)

And 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 7-18 ATS (28%).

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 an approximate 60% ATS clip in a sample size of almost 150 games over the past 25 years.

There have been plenty of infamous examples of teams in a must-win scenario laying over a touchdown in Week 17 and losing to teams with zero 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 (yes, that one), the Cardinals scored a touchdown in the final seconds to win 18-17 and eliminate Minnesota from the postseason.

Bonus fact: The Vikings lost a Week 17 game in a similar scenario the following season to Patrick Ramsey and the 5-10 Redskins. Just take a look at what head coach Joe Gibbs said to his team to fire them up for this so-called “meaningless” game.

2004: Steelers (+9.5) Knock Out 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? Pitt 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, prolonging 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.

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 the Broncos would have loved to even tie, the 49ers won on a field goal in overtime in the final seconds.

I’m sure Chiefs fans remember this game (and a few others that year) that somehow got them into the playoffs.

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 Tampa’s 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.

Finding the Betting Value 

We will see this scenario play out this year in four specific games:

  • Eagles at Giants (+4.5)
  • Redskins at Cowboys (-11)
  • Raiders at Broncos (-3.5)
  • Steelers at Ravens (+2)

You’re crazy if you think the Ravens, Redskins, Giants or Broncos will lie down with a chance to spoil a rival’s season.

While it doesn’t fit the exact criteria, the Texans also sort-of fit this mold. Houston could technically have an incentive to win if the Chiefs lose to the Chargers. However, if Kansas City wins, the Texans will be locked into the No. 4 seed. Keep in mind that Bill O’Brien has said that he plans on playing his starters and trying to win no matter what. That might sound crazy but he comes from the tree of Bill Belichick, who doesn’t really believe in resting starters in Week 17.

The Texans were just +3 at Tennessee two weeks ago in a game they won. Now, you can get them above a field goal at home after what I consider  a market overreaction to this situation.

(Update: Bill O’Brien has revised his original statement of playing his starters, so I’d avoid this one at its current price.)

Now, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever bet a team that needs to win in Week 17 against an eliminated team. It ultimately comes down to the value in the number. There have obviously been plenty of cases where a team that needs to win  takes care of business with ease.

But don’t just blindly play teams because they need to win against a seemingly dead team. You’re probably not going to get much value.

That said, I can’t make a case for the Redskins with all of the injuries in their secondary. Dallas could just play pitch-and-catch all the way down the field.

I also would need a -3 to back the Broncos. The Raiders need a lot to happen to get in, so I don’t think this must-win effect is really impacting the market for a team that could set the NFL record for the worst net scoring margin to make the postseason.

I do fancy the Giants at +4 or better. This is still the same flawed Eagles team that recently lost to the Dolphins and needed late comebacks to beat the Redskins and Giants (in overtime at home).

The Ravens also have value to me at +2. I think the market over-reacted to John Harbaugh’s announcement of which starters will sit. This is still a prideful Ravens team looking to keep their winning streak going at home against their division rival.

Plus, there’s a reason Harbaugh has been dominant SU and ATS in the preseason: the Ravens have excellent depth and value these types of games. Although, in what will likely be a very low-scoring affair, teasing the Ravens from 2 to 8 might be wiser.

Good luck and always expect the unexpected in Week 17 of the NFL season.

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