Early leans & analysis Wk 18
Early leans & analysis

Posted Friday, January 6 at 3:30 PM EST. Odds are subject to change.

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Week 18

Regular readers of this space are aware that we always post our recommendations on Friday and subsequently post our official plays on game day. Well, with all the uncertainty surrounding the seedings and the general mood of the league, we didn’t want to waste hours of research and writing up games with something we could not use. Therefore this week is going to be a little different. We’ll have some games today, some tomorrow and some on Sunday. News came in late on Thursday that the Cincinnati/Buffalo game has officially been canceled. 


Because of the canceled game, the league's owners will vote today (Friday) -- with 24 of 32 needed (three-fourths majority) to approve -- on scenarios approved by the competition committee Thursday that involve a neutral site for an AFC Championship Game. Those are dependent on Week 18 outcomes:


If Buffalo and Kansas City both win or tie, a Bills-Chiefs championship game will be at a neutral site.


• If Buffalo and Kansas City both lose and Baltimore wins or ties, a Bills-Chiefs championship game will be at a neutral site.


• If Buffalo and Kansas City both lose and Cincinnati wins, a Bills or Bengals vs. Chiefs championship game will be at a neutral site.


The potential neutral sites have not yet been determined. The seeds will hold up throughout the playoffs.


If Buffalo and Kansas City both win this weekend, the Chiefs will get the bye. If Buffalo wins and Kansas City loses, the Bills will be the No. 1 seed and get the bye, and no neutral sites would come into play.


If the Ravens win and are matched against Cincinnati in an AFC wild-card game, the site will be determined by a coin flip. If Cincinnati wins or if the two teams are not matched against each other after a potential Ravens win, regular scheduling procedures will go into effect.


Week 18

Sunday, January 8th

Minnesota @ Chicago +7½

1:00 PM EST. A couple of Week 17 no-show, blowout losers collide. Only one of them will play again this season, which is of course the Vikings, at home, next weekend. This is it for the Bears, who should come out and play for real in an attempt to go out on a winning note in front of the home fans, and avoid a 0-6 skunking of a season within their NFC North division. Full disclosure, the Bears haven’t won at all since that Monday Night Football win in New England on Oct. 24 so their stock is low. The problem of course is that  Justin Fields will not play.  Nathan Peterman will start for Chicago and quite frankly, we don;t want to be holding a ticket on Peterman or if the Bears just mail it in. 


Meanwhile, the NFC No. 2 seed is still in play for the Vikings so long as they win at Soldier Field and the 49ers lose to the Cardinals. San Fran is a 14-point choice so Minnesota isn’t very interesting either. Every Vikings’ road game this season has been either life-and-death at the end, or just death. Freezing cold temperatures in Chicago isn’t likely to benefit a Minnesota team that might not even be interested so we’re going to have to sit this one out. Hold a gun to our head and we’d reluctantly take the points. Recommendation: Chicago +7½

Baltimore @ Cincinnati 

1:00 PM EST. Writeup coming on Sunday morning.

Houston +2½ @ Indianapolis

1:00 PM EST. These divisional rivals tied 20-20 in the season opener. It never really got any better for either franchise. The 2-13-1 Texans are just one loss away from wrapping up the No.1 pick in the NFL draft so it is time to get down to business and secure that loss. The 4-11-1 Colts are on a six-game losing streak, counting back to the game they got lucky against the Raiders. Interim head coach Jeff Saturday could use the win as he is, supposedly, a candidate to become the head coach next year. If either team scores more than 17 points, it will be on a turnover or special teams play. All that said, we wouldn’t spot 2½ points with the Colts even if the game was final. Recommendation: Houston +2½

Carolina @ New Orleans -3½ +100

1:00 This week we can throw the X’s and O’s out the window more than any other week, as this final week of the season is all about trying to figure out which team will show up and which team will not. That puts the Saints in our sights more than the Panthers.  


The Panthers beat the Lions in Week 16 in a surprise, but this season, no matter how it ends, is little better than the 5-12 from last season. The search for a new head coach begins and yet another upheaval to the roster. Taking the Lions down 37-23 last week had to be very gratifying for the Panthers, as it was their final home game. Now what? Anything this week is anti-climactic, which is why we will not trust the Panthers to show up. Mentally speaking, suggesting Carolina’s season ended last week is not unreasonable.   


Saints coach Dennis Allen has been firm about not making major changes to the lineup with no chance of reaching the playoffs but what is he supposed to say? The Saints are ending on a positive note with potentially four-straight wins, but even 8-9 on the season is one game worse than last season and there's speculation that Dennis Allen may be replaced. Panthers stock is definitely up but so is Saints’ stock after they beat Philadelphia last week. The price (-3½) and situation has us, without conviction, leaning Saints. Recommendation: New Orleans -3½ 

Tampa Bay @ Atlanta -4½

1:00 PM EST. The Bradys work here is done, as they captured the NFC South with last week’s 30-24 win over the Panthers. That game was a thrilling affair that saw the Buccaneers come back from a 21-10 fourth quarter deficit. The Bradys have been playing “playoff” football for weeks and have nothing to gain by showing up here. The Bucs need this trip to Atlanta like they need a hole in the head. This is its bye week and this price suggests Tampa is going to take it. Recommendation: Atlanta -4½

Detroit +5 @ Green Bay

8:20 PM EST. The stinky block of cheese in the room here is that the Lions will know their fate before they take the field, which is not really the way it’s supposed to be. However, the NFL only cares about money and TV ratings and big TV ratings lead to more money. Don’t think Uncle Roger and company won’t use the incredibly high number last Monday’s Bills/Bengals tilt pulled in, as TVs across the continent tuned over to see the human drama unfolding in the league’s next rights negotiations. We digress, as there will be plenty of time to roast Roger Goodell and his organized crime syndicate masquerading as a professional sports league another day. Just remember, the NFL doesn’t care about its fans, its players, or anything else. All it cares about is the all-mighty dollar.

Could the NFL have scheduled a game like the Browns/Steelers or Eagles/Giants in this spot? Absolutely, but those games lack star power. Specifically, Aaron Rodgers level star power. Rodgers is an enigma that has become very polarizing in the last year. People either love him or hate him. There is no in-between. When you reach that level, you become “must see TV.” We’ll concede the Pack have taken care of their own business with four straight wins, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the many breaks they needed along the way over the last month up to and including Washington losing last week, as well as the Lions, Seahawks, and Commanders losing the week prior. No team outside of the Steelers has seen all of the chips fall their way. 

The playoff situation heading into Sunday night looks like this—there is one playoff spot up for grabs, with the Packers, Lions and Seahawks (all 8-8) in the mix. Seattle will play the Rams in the late window and are a 5½-point favorite. Teams favored in that range are no locks but if the Seachickens win that game, Detroit City is toast, and this becomes a classic, “must win” game for the Packers. If that happens, there is bound to be an overreaction to the Lions being eliminated, which means the price on Green Bay will 100% increase. The Lions are +5 at the time of this writing but if Seattle wins, that could rise as high as -7 or -7½. Should that come to pass and the Lions can ruin the Packers playoff hopes, they're going to be very motivated to do so and now it’s just a matter of how undervalued they are going to be by kickoff. Recommendation: Detroit +5

New England @ Buffalo -7 

1:00 PM EST. The Pats are in with a win at the Bills OR a Dolphins loss vs. Jets AND a Steelers loss vs. Browns. Buffalo’s motivation levels (K.C. plays on Saturday, which effects Buffalo’s seeding) among all the distractions from last week has us waiting as long as possible to post our recommendation or official play. Writeup coming on Sunday morning. 

L.A. Rams +6 @ Seattle

4:25 PM EST. We all know the Rams are done for the year, but there is still much to be played for when you consider the future of a guy like QB Baker Mayfield, who was dropped like a bad habit by the Panthers only to find himself on the field less than 48 hours later starting for the Rams on Thursday Night Football. It has not all been sunshine and roses, but Mayfield has played much better since joining the very depleted Rams. Dude is auditioning for a job next season, either in L.A. or someplace else. Moreover, the Rams can also shut down the Seahawks playoff hopes before the Packers have a crack, which in itself is tremendous motivation. 

This is another “must win” game for one side, but the outcome here will impact more than just the 8-8 Seahawks. If Seattle wins this game, the Lions will be eliminated, and their game in Green Bay on Sunday Night Football will become “meaningful” for only the Packers. We must note that Green Bay holds all the cards here. If the Pack win, they are in, regardless of what happens here. Of the three 8-8 teams that are jockeying for the last Wild Card spot, only the Lions can have their playoff hopes ripped away before they take the field.

Market perception is that Seattle benefits from not having its postseason hopes ripped away without playing a down, but we do not see it that way at all. There is more pressure on Seattle here, as they are the only team that is perceived to have motivation in this game when we know that couldn’t be further from the truth. That perception provides an opportunity to take back inflated points in a game that the Rams can absolutely win outright. Recommendation: L.A. Rams +6

Denver -2½ over L.A. Chargers

4:25 PM EST. The Broncos’ recent six and 3-point losses vs. Kansas City may prove that the 51-14 loss vs. the Rams was a scoreboard outlier produced to get rid of Nathaniel Hackett as head coach, as 75% of their 12 losses have been by one score. First meeting in October resulted in a 19-16 OT victory for the Chargers, with Justin Herbert throwing 58 passes that didn’t do much on the scoreboard. It was another overworked day for the Denver defense but that was then and this is now. The Broncos are going without a head coach and lost their last two games. Another upheaval awaits in the offseason but this is a final home game. Do the Broncs have appeal as the home chalk? Probably not but read on.  


The Chargers have clinched the playoffs and cannot win the division so they are only waiting to see which seed they take. They are the current No. 5 seed and will play the No. 4 seed which will most likely be the Jaguars - no treat there. But it would be a better fate than ending up at the Bengals or Bills.


Let’s assume that Cincinnati will beat the Ravens. A Baltimore loss clinches the #5 seed for the Bolts, which is very noteworthy here considering they'll avoid Kansas City, Buffalo or Cincinnati in the Wildcard. Now, let’s assume for a moment that you are the Chargers, what do you want, a game against P Mahomes, J Burrow or Josh Allen or a game v Trevor Lawrence and the Jagwires? Hey, everyone’s appetite is different. Recommendation: Denver -2½


Philadelphia -16 over N.Y. Giants +16


1:00 PM EST. Philadelphia was 14 or 14½ earlier in the week so we cannot recommend playing a bad number. A few weeks ago, nobody believed this matchup would have more postseason ramifications for the Birds than the G-Men but here we are, as two straight losses have put the Eagles in must-win mode to sew up the NFC East and a bye in the first round of the playoffs, with a possibility of falling to the fifth seed with another loss if they don't, as Dallas (and/or San Francisco) lurk menacingly. On the plus side is that Jalen Hurts (shoulder) has been named the starter for the first time in three weeks after the Gardner Minshew Show jumped the rails last week against the Saints.


Meanwhile, the Giants are locked into the sixth seed and would expect to not risk many regulars (especially Saquon Barkley, finally in a healthy state late in the season), though Brian Daboll has been non-committal since early in the week as to what sort of lineup New York might or might not field this weekend. Some insiders expect a very limited appearance by Daniel Jones and many of the starters, and none at all by Barkley. We know it is must-win time for the Birds but this “must-win” is a little bit different from the others because the G-Men have a lot to lose should anyone get injured. It wasn’t too long ago (Dec. 11) that Philly, with a healthy Hurts, ran up a 48-22 score at the Meadowlands, taking charge early with long TD drives on their first two possessions and dominating throughout, rushing for 253 rush yards in the process. Conscious of that and the fact the Birds have been almost spotless at the Linc with Hurts in the lineup, we can gulp hard and lay this inflated price with the anticipation the G-Men might understandably low-key things here. Why wouldn’t they? Recommendation: Philadelphia -16

San Francisco -14 over Arizona

4:25 PM EST. The Cardinals might have preferred Montezuma’s Revenge to the beating they absorbed from the 49ers at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City on November 21, as without Kyler Murray the Big Red was helpless to keep pace in a 38-10 SF romp. Murray returned afterward but subsequently went out with a knee injury Dec. 12 vs. the Patriots, forcing Kliff Kingsbury into a late-season QB merry-go-round that had different QBs starting in four straight games; Murray and apparently Colt McCoy (concussion symptoms) remain out, and Kingsbury conducting an impromptu competition between Trace McSorley and recently-added David Blough the past two weeks to see who might start the finale, with expectations that it will be Blough, who fared a bit better last Sunday vs. Atlanta than McSorley the week before vs. Tampa Bay.

Regardless, it’s the sort of predicament, mostly brought on by injuries, the Cardinals have dealt with all season and perhaps enough for Michael Bidwill to give Kingsbury one more mulligan for a return shot in 2023. Though with GM Steve Keim apparently on the outs, there’s a chance for a complete house-cleaning, too. With most of the Arizona intrigue on off-field matters, we’re reluctant to trust Arizona to show up here and compete, especially as the Niners can lock up the NFC’s 2 seed. It’s also one more dress rehearsal prior to the postseason for the 49ers to iron out a couple of recent rough spots on the miserly Niners’ D that has leaked a bit more than it should in recent wins over Washington and the Raiders. Thus, no reason for Kyle Shanahan to take his foot off of the accelerator, as he gives near-flawless Iowa State newcomer QB Brock Purdy one more chance to make another NFL foe look like Texas Tech. He and the 49ers will probably do exactly that. Recommendation: San Francisco -14

Our Pick

Leans & analysis (Risking 0 units - To Win: 0.00)

N.Y. Jets +117 over Atlanta
Washington +9 -110 over Miami
Arizona +240 over Pittsburgh
Houston -3 -110 over Denver
San Francisco -3 +103 over Philadelphia
Green Bay +6 -106 over Kansas City
Early leans & analysis Wk 13 over