Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel spoke the truth this week.
His team is 5-11 and he was asked about motivation for Week 18. His answer should be required reading before watching games this week. He spoke passionately about the meaning of winning, even if it doesn’t result in a playoff spot.
You can’t tell most NFL players there’s nothing to play for, even if their playoff situation has been decided.
Last season, there was some angst that the Packers were being “given” a playoff spot by the NFL. The theory went that when the Seattle Seahawks won earlier in Week 18, the Lions would have nothing to play for in the Sunday night finale and the Packers would get an easy win. The Seahawks did win, eliminating the Lions. Then the Lions beat the Packers to knock them out of the playoffs. Detroit took that momentum through the offseason and won the NFC North this season.
So much for “nothing to play for.”
Not every team is going to be at its best in Week 18. Plenty of teams have made business decisions on quarterbacks and other starters to be rested for the wild-card round (and we’ll go through many of them in the picks below). And some teams have packed it in. Anyone who watched the Los Angeles Chargers lose 63-21 to the Las Vegas Raiders in coach Brandon Staley’s final game knows it can happen. But it doesn’t happen nearly as often as you’d think.
Teams playing their final game want to win. Even when it comes to draft picks, it’s incredibly rare that teams tank (Lovie Smith and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did tank in the 2014 season finale and nobody cared, but that’s uncommon). Those who are out of the playoffs battle hard to win. Everyone who is playing doesn’t want to put something terrible on tape, especially backups who are filling in for resting starters. Tyler Huntley isn’t as good as Lamar Jackson and the Ravens will have a tougher time winning without their MVP quarterback, but it’s not because Huntley and his teammates on the field aren’t trying.
That leads into the Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers game. The Packers are playing for everything. If they win they get a playoff spot. The Bears have already been eliminated. But Chicago is playing very well lately, they want to kick their rivals out of the playoff bracket and they want to go into the offseason feeling good. I’m picking the Bears +3 and think they win straight up, just like the Lions last season when they “had nothing to play for” at Lambeau Field. The Bears have plenty to play for, even if a win wouldn’t lead to a postseason berth.
Here are the picks for Week 18 of the NFL season, with the spreads from BetMGM:
The Ravens won’t play Lamar Jackson, but John Harbaugh played it coy with the other starters, saying Wednesday that nobody would be ruled out yet. Presumably, other key players will get at least some rest and anyone with even a minor injury will sit. The Steelers need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive, and they’ve been reborn with Mason Rudolph taking over at quarterback. Tyler Huntley, who will start for the Ravens on Saturday, wasn’t great when he played last season but the Ravens still went 2-2 with him, and I think they’ll play hard enough to keep it close.
It’s a little surprising to see the Texans favored on the road in this game, which will send the winner to the playoffs. But it is logical. The Texans looked right back on track with C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr. back in the lineup last week. Still, while Stroud has been excellent his home/road spilts are telling. Stroud is worse across the board in road games. The Texans are 2-4 in his road starts, compared to 6-2 in his home starts. And one of the home losses was to the Colts, though that was all the way back in Week 2. Maybe Stroud punctuates a great rookie season with a big win, but I’ll take the home team.
Saints (-3) at Falcons
Both teams are alive for the NFC South title, though they’d need a Buccaneers loss. It’s never comfortable to pick the Saints, but I’m not trusting the Falcons.
Bengals (-7) over Browns
The Browns are sitting Joe Flacco in this game, starting Jeff Driskel at quarterback instead. They’ll presumably rest other starters too. The Bengals seem to want to end the season on a high note, as quarterback Jake Browning detailed this week.
Patriots (-1.5) over Jets
Not sure if the Patriots players are too into the storyline of this possibly being Bill Belichick’s final game, but maybe that helps a little. And the Patriots are playing harder than the Jets late this season.
Titans (+5.5) over Jaguars
Mike Vrabel talked about not being able to sleep after losses and that’s easy to understand. The Jaguars are playing for an AFC South title, but they’re going to get the best from Tennessee. Remember that last year, the Jaguars beat the Titans in the finale to end their season in a winner-take-all AFC South title game.
Lions (-3.5) over Vikings
Dan Campbell doesn’t seem like the type of coach that would rest anyone. And he said he wouldn’t sit players this week because Detroit has a small shot at the No. 2 seed. They need the Cowboys or Eagles to both lose, but those NFC East teams play late while Detroit plays early. So it’s not like Campbell will scoreboard watch and take starters out if it’s clear the Cowboys or Eagles aren’t going to lose. The Vikings are still alive for a playoff spot but barely, and are changing quarterbacks again back to Nick Mullens. I’ll trust that Campbell will play this game normally.
Buccaneers (-4.5) over Panthers
The Panthers would love to ruin the Buccaneers season. Tampa Bay wins the NFC South with a victory and is eliminated with a loss. But the Panthers simply aren’t good enough to be a spoiler here.
Commanders (+13) over Cowboys
Now that the Cowboys have a clear path to the NFC East title, you’d think they will blow out Washington. But Washington could be excited to spoil Dallas‘ hopes. The Commanders know this is likely Ron Rivera’s final game and I’d think they’ll play hard for him. This seems like a game that will be much closer than anyone expects.
49ers (-4) over Rams
It’s Carson Wentz vs. Sam Darnold! Welcome to Week 18. The 49ers are locked into the No. 1 seed and the Rams don’t seem likely to worry much if they get the No. 6 or No. 7 seed. The starting quarterbacks are out and I’d assume plenty of other starters will be too. I’ll just ride with San Francisco‘s better depth.
Giants (+4.5) over Eagles
How can you trust the Eagles right now? They seem to be falling apart at the seams. The Giants probably should have beat the Rams last week, and the Rams are playing better than the Eagles lately.
Seahawks (-3) over Cardinals
Perhaps this will be proven wrong, but it felt like the Cardinals played their Super Bowl last week, beating the Eagles. Maybe there will be a letdown this week. The Seahawks are still alive, and they’ll be motivated knowing that a Bears win over the Packers is possible.
Raiders (-2.5) over Broncos
It’s not like the Broncos’ quarterback change helped the offense. The Raiders seem to like Antonio Pierce and want to give him every chance to get the permanent head coaching job.
Chiefs (+3.5) over Chargers
I know the Chiefs are sitting players, having locked up the No. 3 seed, but I’m not taking the Chargers.
Bills (-3) over Dolphins
I don’t think the Bills came all this way just to lose to the Dolphins with a division title on the line. The Dolphins have a lot of injuries and despite the win over the Cowboys, I still have questions about them vs. top competition.
Last week: 8-8
Season to date: 131-121-8