The final week of the NFL betting season can often be a tough one for handicappers to tackle, and this year appears to be no exception.
Rather than picking games based on which team is better against the run or which team might struggle because of a key injury, we are left to determine which teams “want it more” and which teams are just looking forward to the end of the season.
Before you start making picks against the spread this week, it’s important to know what teams have to gain, which teams might be motivated to spoil their opponents’ chances, which teams are just trying to stay healthy for the playoffs and which teams are prepared to just mail it in.
Here’s a quick look at this weekend’s slate:
Carolina at Atlanta (Panthers -5.5)
The Panthers have a ton to gain, needing a victory to clinch the NFC South title and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. But the Falcons aren’t just going to roll over and let their division rivals have it. Atlanta has had a disappointing season, but the Falcons have been putting up a fight down the stretch, even leading the 49ers at halftime last week in San Francisco.
Houston at Tennessee (Titans -7)
The season can’t end quickly enough for the Texans, who have been the biggest disappointment in the NFL this year (remember when their season win total was set at 10.5?) Houston has already fired its coach during the season, so we don’t see the Texans trying to save anyone’s job here. Tennessee is also out of it, but Titans coach Mike Munchak is on the hot seat. That, and the chance to avenge a loss earlier this season to the Texans, might be enough to motivate Tennessee in this one.
Cleveland at Pittsburgh (Steelers -7)
Pittsburgh has something to play for, still having an outside chance of qualifying for the playoffs. That “must-win” factor has driven this point spread up to a touchdown, much higher than it normally would be. The Steelers are one of Cleveland’s most-hated rivals, and we don’t see any way the Browns just want to let Pittsburgh run them over on Sunday. Expect Cleveland to play loosely while the Steelers might be burdened by the pressure.
Washington at NY Giants (Giants -3.5)
The Redskins played their ‘Super Bowl’ last week, leaving it all on the line in that heartbreaking loss to the Cowboys. This is a definite flat spot for Washington. New York could also let down after ending Detroit’s playoff chances last week, but the Giants enter this game in a much more positive frame of mind than their division rivals.
Baltimore at Cincinnati (Bengals -6)
The obvious hungry team here is the Ravens, who need a win to give themselves the best chance of making the playoffs. But don’t underestimate what the Bengals are playing for. Cincinnati has a slim chance of overtaking New England for the No. 2 seed in the AFC, but the Bengals should still be excited to end the Ravens’ season as well as end the campaign with a perfect 8-0 mark at home. There’s also some question as to how Baltimore will rebound from that thrashing it took last week at home to the Patriots.
Jacksonville at Indianapolis (Colts -10.5)
The Colts could move up as high as second in the AFC with a win and a couple losses from teams they’re chasing. Indy’s biggest motivation, however, might be to stay hot going into the playoffs. We’re not sure how much the Colts will keep the foot on the gas pedal in the fourth quarter, however, which could open the door for the Jags to earn a back-door cover with a late score. Jacksonville has won three in a row on the road and also was victorious in its past two visits to Indy.
NY Jets at Miami (Dolphins -5.5)
Miami needs a victory and some help to make the playoffs, following a brutal loss last week in Buffalo. The Jets are eliminated, but aren’t likely to just roll over and hand the Dolphins what they need. New York has won six of its last eight in Miami, where the last six games between the division rivals have been decided by an average of under four points.
Detroit at Minnesota (Vikings -3)
How do the Lions show up for this one? Detroit’s December collapse was made complete last week with an overtime loss to the Giants, and now the Lions have to go to Minnesota to play a meaningless game. The Vikings have won 14 of their last 15 home games against Detroit and should be motivated to close the Metrodome with one final win.
Green Bay at Chicago (Packers -3)
The winner of this one qualifies for the playoffs, while the loser goes home. That’s enough motivation for both teams. This point spread, however, seems awfully inflated by the return of Aaron Rodgers to the Packers. Favouring Green Bay by a field goal in Chicago means the Packers would be 6-point favourites on a neutral field, or 9-point faves at home. We don’t see how there’s that much dispararity between two division rivals needing a win on the final day of the season.
Buffalo at New England (New England -8.5)
The Pats can clinch the second seed in the AFC with a win over the Bills. That is almost guaranteed to happen, but covering 8.5 points might be a different story. The road team is 12-5 ATS in the last 17 meetings in the series.
Tampa Bay at New Orleans (New Orleans -13)
The Saints need a victory to keep their NFC South title hopes — or even playoff hopes — alive. New Orleans will also be motivated to get back on top of its game, following two straight road losses. Tampa is stumbling towards the finish line of a tough season, losing three of its last four by double digits. Three of the Saints’ last four home wins came by a combined total of 68 points.
Denver at Oakland (Broncos -11.5)
The Broncos will lock up top spot in the AFC with a win, so they’ll be playing their top players as long as the outcome is in doubt. That’s bad news for a Raiders team that has allowed an average of 33.6 points per game since Nov. 3. Oakland is a mess. Terrelle Pryor gets the start at QB, but his agent suggests the only reason he is starting is because the Raiders want him to fail.
San Francisco at Arizona (pick)
The 49ers need a lot of things to go their way to move up the NFC playoff ladder, so they’ll likely just be doing some fine-tuning in this one. Arizona looks to build on last week’s upset in Seattle that kept its playoff hopes alive. The Cardinals have won seven of eight and could tie a franchise record with an 11th victory Sunday.
Kansas City at San Diego (Chargers -9.5)
The Chiefs have nothing to gain this week, already locked into the fifth playoff spot in the AFC. San Diego needs a victory and have Miami and Baltimore lose or tie. The Chargers should know the results of those games when they take the field at 4:15 pm eastern, which might make their result against the Chiefs meaningless. If San Diego is eliminated before kickoff, that might lead to a less-than-inspired effort from the Bolts. The line will also drop accordingly, so it might be worth it to bet against San Diego early.
St. Louis at Seattle (Seahawks -11.5)
Seattle should be in a bad mood for this one, coming off a rare loss at home last week to Arizona. Beyond that, however, the Seahawks only need a victory in order to clinch top spot in the NFC. If they’re up 17 points in the fourth quarter, we could see Pete Carroll rest Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and the other top Seattle talent. That might open up the door for the Rams — who are shooting for a .500 season — to earn a late cover.
Philadelphia at Dallas (Eagles -6.5)
Just like Green Bay/Chicago, the winner is in and the loser goes home. The hot-and-cold Eagles were scalding hot last week, whipping Chicago on national television, and the point spread on this game shot up to a touchdown when it was announced that Tony Romo won’t be starting for the Cowboys. Dallas turns to capable backup Kyle Orton instead. Orton isn’t as flashy as Romo, but he’s not going to make the game-deciding crucial mistake either. We think the Cowboys can keep things competitive at home playing a conservative style on offence.