January 7, 2022

Week 18 NFL Game Picks: Who Will Make the Playoffs?

We've made it to the final week of the 2021-22 NFL season. Week 18 is new, and the majority of the playoff teams have been determined. But there's plenty of room for the seeding to be finalized.

In addition to the playoff seeding, many teams can start positioning themselves for a better draft pick come April. Considering the lack of incentive for most of the league to win and the cold weather across the nation, this might be a tough week to watch. That doesn't mean we can't profit.

The main storyline will determine the matchup's outcome. We'll dive into the top storyline for each game, and I'll also provide a pick for each game, with odds courtesy of DraftKings.

Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos 

Storyline: Do the Chiefs try for top seed?

The NFL scheduled this game ahead of the Titans' bid to earn the top seed to ensure the Chiefs go all-out against the Broncos. But, Tennessee has to face Houston, almost assuring them of an easy victory. Considering this game has a 10.5-point spread and that Denver has had more success than most teams keeping Kansas City's scoring in check, this isn't an easy play.

The red herring of the matchup is obviously Denver's struggling offense and their issues moving the ball. I'm putting some faith into Drew Lock's ability to show just enough against a fairly uninterested Chiefs' defense to tease Broncos fans about his potential and to keep Denver close enough to cover. 

Pick: Broncos +10.5 (-105)

Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles 

Storyline: Does either team relax early?

While both teams have already clinched a playoff spot, the Cowboys are still trying to solidify their seed. The problem is, they need help to move up to the Nos. 2 or 3 seed. Philadelphia may choose to fight hard and be a thorn in their side, or rest their starters in the second half and prepare for a showdown against one of the premier NFC foes.

With Dallas at least trying to create more momentum for the playoffs and give themselves the opportunity to host more home games, there's motivation beyond playing a rival. I expect Philadelphia to be a nuisance but to cede in the second half.

Pick: Cowboys -5 (-110)

Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions 

Storyline: Can the Lions pull a win for the culture?

The Lions are rightfully earning praise for how they're progressing despite a bad roster. Their culture is trending upwards, a rare feat in the first year of a tough rebuild. But whether they can even beat a resting Packers team in Week 18 is still up for debate.

Instead, the total is much more attractive. Even if Aaron Rodgers plays the entire game, the Packers' defense is notably stingy. There are simply too many outcomes where the Packers either suffocate the Lions' offense or opt for backups.

Pick: Under 45 (-110)

Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars

Storyline: The Colts can't sleepwalk against Jags

The Colts need to win in order to clinch a playoff spot, but thankfully, they face the worst team in the NFL. The bad news is they've dropped four straight road games in Jacksonville. Trends be damned, it would take a legendary brain-fart performance from Carson Wentz and the Colts to lose this.

The ridiculous 15.5-point line is a non-starter for me, though. The Colts have played in close games almost exclusively this season. Even the terrible Jaguars could get feisty and still lose by 14. I like the under as the Jaguars die off with a whimper.

Pick: Under 44 (-110)

Washington Football Team at New York Giants 

Storyline: Will the Giants score a touchdown?

The New York Giants need a hard reset, including dumping head coach Joe Judge. They've fallen apart as the season has continued, losing five straight games and failing to score a touchdown in three of those games. The Giants have scored just 72 points since Nov. 7, reaching a new low.

Washington is in the midst of their own four-game losing streak, but their dreadful offensive performances haven't permeated the defense each week as well. This line is large for two bad teams, but I like Washington's explosive core of playmakers enough to squeeze out a cover.

Pick: WFT -7 (-110)

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings

Storyline: Have the Vikings given up?

This might be it for several Vikings' stalwarts. Head coach Mike Zimmer, quarterback Kirk Cousins (out with Covid), and wide receiver Adam Thielen (out with an ankle injury) could all be on the chopping block this offseason as the Vikings rebuild. It'd be a sad end to a talented team that never got over the hump, but everything dies. 

The Bears, who are starting Andy Dalton, have been impossibly inept on offense all season. If Minnesota has given up completely, though, the Bears have enough defensive ability to keep this a low-scoring affair and squeeze out a cover and under. I'll bet on the safer of the two options for what will be a painful game to watch.

Pick: Under 44.5 (-115)

Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns 

Storyline: Who plays for either team?

There's nothing immediate on the line for these two teams but pride. The Bengals could try and secure a higher seed so they could possibly have home-field advantage if either the Chiefs or Titans lose before the championship round. They won't, though, as they're set to rest the majority of their stars.

Cleveland is likely to do the same, though, making this a game of backup pride. Trying to parse which second-team is better is difficult. It's hard to imagine the Browns' being almost one full touchdown better though, so I'll take the points. 

Pick: Bengals +6 (-115)

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans 

Storyline: Can Houston slow the Titans' run game?

Another Texans game, another large line against them. Houston has had a double-digit spread in six of their last 10 games, and they've covered three of them. Tennessee has the ability to demolish Houston's 32nd-ranked run defense, but they may opt to simply get the job done.

The No. 1 seed is on the line. The formula for a Houston upset or cover is clear: Davis Mills has one of his occasionally solid games, and the Titans play relaxed. I don't think that happens, though, considering how the Titans beat Miami down last week. 

Pick: Titans -10 (-115)

Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens 

Storyline: Does Big Ben win his final game?

There's an outside shot for both of these teams to sneak their way into the playoffs but neither is at all likely. This will be about pride more than anything. With Ben Roethlisberger sure to retire after the game, the Ravens will want to send him out with a loss instead of a rosy goodbye.

Lamar Jackson is out again, though, and the Ravens have freefallen without him. It's stunning to see the Steelers as underdogs considering this. I'll sprint to take the Steelers with points as they finish the year with an inspired performance.

Pick: Steelers +5 (-110)

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons 

Storyline: Can Taysom Hill get the offense rolling?

We haven't seen the Falcons and Saints play each other since Nov. 7, but the 27-25 margin was telling. Atlanta won despite completely abandoning the run game, with 332 of their 366 yards coming through the air. While New Orleans is a stingy rush defense that ranks fourth in yards allowed, there's no denying the Falcons can unleash Cordarrelle Patterson as an X-factor.

This game will boil down to how well New Orleans can move the football. With three straight games with 280 total yards or less, it's safe to say they're far from a juggernaut. Atlanta is a bad overall club, but they've shown a reasonable baseline of defense against units like New Orleans'. 

Pick: Falcons +3.5 (-110)

New York Jets at Buffalo Bills

Storyline: Buffalo must secure their seeding

There's not a ton to say about this one. Buffalo simply needs to win in order to ensure they host their first-round matchup. They'll either see the Patriots, Colts, or Chargers. Considering the Patriots' success in Buffalo's bad weather previously, they're the lone team who wouldn't dread playing in the tundra. 

This game is about dominance. I expect Buffalo to stomp the Jets early so they can rest in the second half. That means an under as the Bills pull away in the 27-10 range. 

Pick: Under 41.5 (-115)

San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams 

Storyline: How does Trey Lance continue to progress... if he starts?

The matchup of the afternoon is clearly this one. The 49ers are fighting to stay in the playoffs despite starting rookie Trey Lance or a less-than-100% Jimmy Garoppolo. A win locks them in, but they're facing a motivated Rams team that wants the second seed.

This line has been hammered down despite five straight Rams losses. I don't love the value two points lower than opening, but the 49ers have outcoached and outplayed the Rams for years. That continues, and the 49ers cover.

Pick: 49ers +4.5 (-110)

Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Storyline: How long does Tampa play starters?

The Buccaneers decided to play their starters in the season finale, trying to avoid rust as the playoffs loom. I'd agree with the decision for the defense since they're breaking in several bodies back into the rotation after missing time. The offense is gambling their chances a bit because losing Mike Evans or Tom Brady would effectively end their season.

Carolina is a terrible team right now, losing six straight games and failing to cover in each. They'll lose again this week behind a dreadful offense. They simply aren't capable of competing at a reasonable level.

Pick: Buccaneers -8 (-110)

New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins

Storyline: Does Miami continue winning streak at home vs. Patriots?

The one code that Bill Belichick has struggled to crack is winning in Miami consistently. This yearly affair tends to end with Miami capping off a bad season with a shocking win. There's something about this matchup that causes the Dolphins to rise.

I think they at least hang closely in this one after being beaten to death in the trenches last go-around. Tua Tagovailoa needs to bounce back from a rough game against Tennessee, and the Dolphins' defense must be more sound in the run game to help quiet some of the loud noise about their shockingly bad showing last week.

Pick: Dolphins +6.5 (-115)

Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals 

Storyline: Can the Cardinals slow the Seahawks' run game?

Arizona can still win the NFC West if the Rams lose to the 49ers, and Arizona takes care of business at home. The Seahawks showed some spirit last week in a dominant 51-29 beatdown of the Lions, but the Cardinals have a much more stout defensive front to combat. I expect Pete Carroll to continue to fight with the ground game despite the possibility of this being Russell Wilson's final game in Seattle.

Arizona has at times shown quality run defense but teams often play from behind and forget to pound the small middle of the unit. I expect a lower-scoring game as Seattle makes it a point to own the clock and stay close.

Pick: Under 48 (-110)

Los Angeles Chargers at Las Vegas Raiders 

Storyline: Win and you're in

We finish out the regular season with a great battle between the Chargers and Raiders. The winner will claim the final AFC playoff seed and have the right to fight for their lives against the Chiefs or Titans. At least it's a shot to advance.

Their previous matchup ended 28-14. Playing in Vegas will be more difficult, but I don't see a much different outcome. The Chargers have too much playmaking compared to Vegas' mediocre roster. 

Pick: Chargers -3 (-115)

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