To rest or win? Playoff jockeying opens Week 18 betting windows

Lance Pugmire
USA TODAY Sports+

There are those who trust in words, and another group who seek the verification of actions. 

Betting on week 18 in the NFL is all about the actions. 

While we’re hearing things like Aaron Rodgers expressing interest in playing the Detroit Lions so he doesn’t get rusty, knowing his Green Bay Packers own a first-round playoff bye, would the likely MVP risk injury by fully participating in this throwaway game? 

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That’s why Tipico Sportsbook lists the Packers (13-3) as only a 3.5-point favorite over the Detroit Lions (2-13-1) Sunday with quarterback Jared Goff ‘probable’ to return from a knee injury and two-game absence and backup Tim Boyle ready if needed.

As committed to victory as New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick is, he’s also considering the long game. 

So, as the Patriots sit as 6.5-point favorites over the host Miami Dolphins now, don’t be surprised to see them stage the equivalent of a white-flag withdrawal by halftime. 

That’s because the Patriots’ AFC East rival Buffalo Bills (10-6) are leading the division and can clinch it by defeating the last-place New York Jets (4-12). 

With kickoffs coinciding, if the 16.5-point favorite Bills lead comfortably, wouldn’t the playoff-bound Patriots (10-6) prefer a rest session before taking on next week’s road assignment, which will most likely be at Buffalo since the teams split their two regular-season meetings? 

Playoff implications like these will disturb several Week 18 games — they already have with the playoff-eliminated, Baker Mayfield-less Cleveland Browns a 6.5-point favorite at home over the AFC North-champion Cincinnati Bengals and their playoff-rested quarterback Joe Burrow. 

“These final weekends have traditionally been tricky about, ‘Do they sit?’” said Jay Rood, the senior vice president of risk and trading at Bally’s Interactive. “Coaches are saying the right thing. Hopefully by Sunday morning, they don’t decide to let a Tom Brady sit this one out, but teams have the right to do whatever they want.” 

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The league’s parity drives this situation, a game-long observance of any roster tweak that can offer a betting edge. 

“But for those teams solidly in the playoffs, they must be asking themselves, ‘Is it worth jeopardizing a playoff run for this last week, which may or may not improve our position?’” Rood wonders. 

For instance, in the week’s first game at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, the Kansas City Chiefs are favored by 11.5 points at their eliminated division-rival Denver Broncos. The AFC West-champion Chiefs need the unlikely combination of defeating Denver and AFC top-seeded Tennessee to lose as a 10.5-point favorite at Houston and gain the first-round playoff bye. 

So, if the Chiefs seize a two-touchdown halftime lead, why wouldn’t they opt to replace quarterback Patrick Mahomes, which would grant Denver a far better chance to cover the wide point spread.   

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Rood sees the best betting opportunities arriving through live, in-game betting. 

Given the volatility, Rood expects he and the nation’s other bookmakers to place dollar limits on bettors seeking to capitalize on in-game roster developments.   

He said his peers will studiously watch for substitutions of key or multiple starters should a playoff-position team fall behind or opt to ease off a big lead if a victory or loss will not alter their slot. 

“You can have all the algorithms in the world that you want running these (in-game numbers), but the eyeball test and the human element needs to take over at that point as you understand the impact of two to four contributors on a team all taking the second half off,” Rood said. “That’s where the volatility ramps up.” 

Among the few games with two fully interested teams are Sunday night’s win-and-in, lose-and-out AFC West battle between the Los Angeles Chargers (-3) and Las Vegas Raiders and the Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers meeting, both desperately needing the Jacksonville Jaguars to upset the Indianapolis Colts.

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For the New Orleans Saints to make the playoffs, they need a victory over their NFC South-rival Atlanta Falcons and for the Los Angeles Rams to defeat their NFC West-rival San Francisco 49ers. Since the Saints’ offense has been beyond sluggish, they’re only favored by 3.5 points. 

“For others (like Atlanta), this is their playoff, and the best coaches will use that to rally them, to throw a wrench into the rival’s plans,” Rood said. 

That’s not expected in Jacksonville, where the obviously driven Colts are favored by 15.5 points. 

Similarly, that impassioned motivation to secure the best playoff spot is why the Bills are so widely favored. If Buffalo starts pulling away, bettors and bookmakers will turn their attention to the Patriots and Dolphins. 

“Right. If Buffalo’s up 31-10, you might see (Patriots quarterback) Mac (Jones) coming out of the locker room in a baseball cap,” Rood said. “We know the coaches are going to be looking at the other scores and thinking, ‘Let’s take a half-game bye here and be happy with that.’”