Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (6-10) at Arizona Cardinals (11-5)

The Cardinals pulled the upset in Dallas last week to keep their chances at winning the division alive, but there is still reason to be concerned about this team long-term. They started the season 7-0, but they benefited significantly from a +8 turnover margin, which was never likely to continue (+3 in 9 games since), and they have not been the same on either side of the ball since losing top wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and stud interior defender JJ Watt for an extended period of time. They are also missing wide receiver Rondale Moore, who could be filling in for Hopkins, interior defender Jordan Phillips, who is supposed to be filling in for Watt, and a pair of starting cornerbacks Robert Alford and Marco Wilson.

In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, which is based on more predictive metrics like yards per play and first down rate, the Cardinals rank 12th, 19th, and 18th on offense, defense, and special teams respectively and 10th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency. That rank is not as good as their record and they are probably even worse than that suggests given the key players they are missing. My roster rankings, which take injuries into account, have the Cardinals just 1.5 points above average.

The Seahawks are just 6-10, but they have been hurt by a 2-5 record in one score games and have a +21 point differential, despite talented quarterback Russell Wilson missing three games and being limited for about three games upon his return. If you exclude that stretch, the Seahawks are 5-5 with a +32 point differential, with their defense (22nd in schedule adjusted efficiency) and their special teams (4th) serving as complementary units to an offense that has still performed above average when Wilson has been healthy this season.

I wish the Seahawks were not missing top linebacker Bobby Wagner, talented run stuffing interior defender Al Woods, and a pair of starting offensive lineman Gabe Jackson and Brandon Shell, but I was considering making the Seahawks my Pick of the Week before those players were ruled out, so even missing those players, I still only have the Seahawks a half point below average and, with the Cardinals 1.5 points above average, we’re getting line value with the Seahawks as underdogs of 6 points.

The Cardinals did win in Seattle earlier this year by 10 with backup quarterback Colt McCoy under center, but Russell Wilson was not 100% in that game, while McCoy played at a fairly high level for the three games he filled in for Murray. On top of that, just because a team won a divisional game on the road as underdogs does not mean they will beat that same opponent more easily in a same season, regular season game rematch. In fact, divisional favorites cover at just a 41.9% rate in that spot and only win straight up about half the time as favorites of 6.5 points or fewer. This isn’t a big play, but the Seahawks are bettable as 6-point underdogs.

Arizona Cardinals 23 Seattle Seahawks 20

Pick against the spread: Seattle +6

Confidence: Medium

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (8-8) at Atlanta Falcons (7-9)

The Falcons don’t have a terrible record at 7-9, but all of their wins have come by one score or fewer against teams with a record of .500 or worse, while their losses have come by an average of 18.78 points per game, giving them a -136 point differential that ranks 6th worst in the NFL. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, the Falcons rank 21st, 25th, and 25th on offense, defense, and special teams respectively and 28th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, even worse than their point differential suggests.

The Saints only have one more win than the Falcons, but their 15th ranked schedule adjusted mixed efficiency and their +19 point differential suggests they have been the much better team this season and that is despite the fact that they have been as affected by absences as much as arguably any team in the league. They still remain without top wide receiver Michael Thomas, who has missed the whole season, starting quarterback Jameis Winston, who went down for the season week 8, starting left guard Andrus Peat, who went down for the season week 7, and talented left tackle Terron Armstead, who has played in just eight games this season, but they are also as healthy as they have been in a while. 

Their defense will have the dominant defensive line trio of David Onyemata, Marcus Davenport, and Cameron Jordan together for just the seventh time this season and the previous two games were games missed by stud linebacker Demario Davis and stud safety Marcus Williams respectively, who have both since returned. Meanwhile, their offense got wide receiver Deonte Harris, who leads the team in receiving yards per game, back from a 3-game absence last week, a few weeks after getting feature back Alvin Kamara back from a 4-game absence, while talented offensive linemen Ryan Ramczyk and Erik McCoy are expected to return after missing 7 games and 5 games respectively this season.

As healthy as they have been in weeks, I have the Saints 3 points above average in my roster rankings, while the frequently blown out Falcons are 4.5 points below average, giving us a calculated line of New Orleans -6. That suggests we are getting significant line value with the Saints as 3.5-point favorites and that they may be bettable at that number, though I want to make sure Ramczyk is actually returning before locking this one in. If he does not play, I would need this line to drop to three.

New Orleans Saints 23 Atlanta Falcons 17

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3.5

Confidence: Low

Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-11) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4)

This line, favoring the Buccaneers only by 8.5 points at home over the Panthers, suggests that the odds makers aren’t sure if the Buccaneers will play their starters for this whole game, but I think it’s likely that they do, given that they will want to secure the #2 seed in the NFC, which will get them at least two home playoff games, as well potential NFC Championship homefield advantage if the #1 seed loses in the second round. Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians has also said they aren’t resting anyone and resting in the final week of the season has never been something Tom Brady has done in his career, even when there has been nothing to play for, so I am not sure why this line is at 8.5, down from 16.5 on the early line a week ago.

The Buccaneers are still going to be short-handed, missing stud wide receiver Chris Godwin, their two best running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones, their two best edge defenders Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, and their top linebacker Lavonte David, but they should still be favored by more than 8.5 points against the Panthers, who are 12.5-point underdogs on my calculated line. The Panthers got off to a 3-0 start, but, in large part due to injuries, have lost 11 of their last 13 games and are one of the worst teams in the league.

The Panthers’ offense bottomed out without feature back Christian McCaffrey and talented center Matt Paradis, while their defense is not as good as it was earlier in this season due to all of the cornerbacks they are missing with injuries, most notably top cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was acquired to replace the injured Jaycee Horn, who is joined on injured reserve by fellow expected starters Donte Jackson and AJ Bouye. This line is underpriced, so the Buccaneers are worth a bet this week.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26 Carolina Panthers 13

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -8.5

Confidence: Medium

New York Jets at Buffalo Bills: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

New York Jets (4-12) at Buffalo Bills (10-6)

The Bills have beaten up on bad teams this season, en route to ranking first in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency and point differential (+177), going 8-1 against teams who are .500 or worse, with their one loss coming by three points and all eight wins coming by at least 14 points, with an average margin of victory of 24.5 points. The Jets would fall into the category of bad teams, but they are not as bad as their 4-12 record and they are being given 16 points here, so we have some room for them to cover even if this game isn’t particularly close, especially if they can get a backdoor cover against a defense that is missing its top cornerback Tre’Davious White, who played in most of the Bills blowout victories this season.

The Jets have struggled significantly with turnovers this season, with the league’s 2nd worst turnover margin at -13, but that is not as nearly predictive as schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, which is based on first down rate and yards per play. The Jets still rank 26th in that metric, but that is still better than their record suggests and their offense has been better in recent weeks, with quarterback Zach Wilson showing some promise. I wouldn’t bet on the Jets, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes, as my calculated line has them as 13-point underdogs.

Buffalo Bills 31 New York Jets 17

Pick against the spread: NY Jets +16

Confidence: Low

New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (10-6) at Miami Dolphins (8-8)

The Dolphins won seven straight games, but that came to a crashing halt last week when they were blown out by a final score of 34-3 in Tennessee. Their losing streak was always the result of an easy schedule, as their only two games over their seven-game winning streak against teams with a record better than 5-11 were against the Baltimore Ravens, who were in a near impossible spot playing on a short week after an overtime game, a spot in which teams have covered just 3 out of 28 times historically, and the New Orleans Saints, who were starting a fourth string quarterback behind a skeleton crew offensive line, also a near impossible situation. Their other five opponents on their winning streak are a combined 21-59.

On the other hand, the Dolphins have struggled in tougher games, losing four of five games against likely playoff qualifiers by double digits. The one exception was week one against the Dolphins’ opponents this week the New England Patriots, but the Patriots won the first down rate and yards per play battle by 0.6 and 2.56% respectively in that game, losing because they lost the fumble margin by -2 in a 1-point loss. Fortunately for the Patriots, fumble margin is highly non-predictive, while yards per play and first down rate differential are much more predictive. On the season, in terms of schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, which is based on yards per play and first down rate, the Patriots rank 4th, while the Dolphins rank 30th.

The Patriots also were starting a rookie quarterback with a bunch of free agent additions week one and did not have their full offensive line, so the Patriots should fare even better in the second matchup than they did in a week one matchup which they should have won if not for two lost fumbles. Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of line value with the Patriots in the past week, as they have gone from 2.5-point favorites on the early line last week to 6-point favorites this week, in the wake of their blowout loss over the Jaguars and the Dolphins’ blowout loss to the Titans. My calculated line favors the Patriots by 8.5, so we’re still getting some line value with them, but I think I would need this line to drop to at least 5.5 for the Patriots to be worth betting.

Update: This line has dropped to 5.5 before gametime, so I am going to place a small bet on New England.

New England Patriots 26 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: New England -5.5

Confidence: Medium

Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1) at Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

The Ravens have lost five straight games, including the last four without starting quarterback Lamar Jackson, but it hasn’t been as bad as that sounds, as their only loss over that stretch by more than two points came in a game started by third string quarterback Josh Johnson. Second string quarterback Tyler Huntley has been Jackson’s replacement in the other three games and remains the starter in this game, having played reasonably well thus far. 

The Ravens are also healthier on defense than they’ve been recently, with edge defender Justin Houston, interior defenders Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams, cornerback Jimmy Smith, and safety Chuck Clark all returning from short-term absences, which have been in part to blame for their recent struggles on the defensive side of the ball. The Steelers are also relatively healthy and they have a slightly better record at 8-7-1, but that’s in large part due to 7-2 record in one-score games, with the Ravens possessing a significant edge in point differential (-2 vs. -58) and schedule adjusted mixed efficiency (16th vs. 27th).

Unfortunately, it’s a pretty open secret that the Steelers aren’t as good as their record, to the point where the Ravens are 3.5-point favorites even with a backup quarterback and a 5-game losing streak. We’re actually still getting a little bit of line value, as my calculated line has the Ravens favored at home by 5 points, but it’s not enough to be confident in the Ravens at all. They’re the pick, but only for pick ‘em purposes.

Update: This line has dropped to 3, so I am going to boost the confident on Baltimore a little bit at that number.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Pittsburgh Steelers 20

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -3

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Cleveland Browns (7-9)

This could have been an exciting divisional matchup between two young quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow, but the Bengals pulled the upset on the Chiefs last week, clinching the division and eliminating the Browns from playoff contention even before the Browns’ eventual loss in Pittsburgh, and, with the Browns season over, quarterback Baker Mayfield has been shut down for the season with his myriad of injuries, while the Bengals will also be without quarterback Joe Burrow, as he is being rested with a knee injury, with the Bengals’ chances of climbing into a top-2 seed in the AFC are minimal.

Burrow will be joined on the sidelines by feature back Joe Mixon, who is in COVID protocols, while a trio of talented starters, safety Vonn Bell, starting left guard Quinton Spain, and defensive end Trey Hendrickson, are also in COVID protocols. On top of that, interior defender DJ Reader could be rested with an injury to get 100% for the Bengals’ playoff game next week and, overall, it doesn’t seem like the Bengals are trying that hard to win this game, leading to the Browns becoming 6-point favorites.

It’s possible some of the aforementioned players could play and it’s unclear what would happen with the line if that happened, but the Browns also might not be trying too hard to win this game, which could become important, as most of their secondary (cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Troy Hill and Greedy Williams and safeties John Johnson and Ronnie Harrison) are legitimately questionable and could be held out of a meaningless game when they might otherwise play. 

If the Browns’ secondary plays and the Bengals’ questionable players don’t, we are getting line value with the Browns at -6, as my calculated line would be Cleveland -9 in that scenario, but depending on who plays for the Bengals and who is out for the Browns, that line could drop as low as Cleveland -3.5, so I can’t be confident at all in either side. I am taking the Browns for now, but that could easily change, as could this line.

Cleveland Browns 20 Cincinnati Bengals 13

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -6

Confidence: None

Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (13-3) at Detroit Lions (2-13-1)

The Packers have nothing to play for this week, having clinched the #1 seed in the NFC last week, and this spread expects them to play their key starters very little, as the Packers would not be mere 3.5-point favorites in Detroit in normal circumstances. My calculated line has the Packers favored by 10.5 if the Lions are missing their two talented tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell, who are both in COVID protocols, and favored by 9 if both Decker and Sewell play. 

However, those calculated lines are meaningless if we don’t know how much action the Packers’ key starters will get. Aaron Rodgers, for his part, says he wants to play, but his head coach Matt LaFleur has also said Rodgers doesn’t need to play and it’s possible he only plays enough to get Davante Adams to some receiving milestones and to put up another few drives to keep fresh in the minds of MVP voters. 

This line doesn’t suggest the Packers’ starters won’t play at all, as they are still favored on the road by more than a field goal, but they may need only Rodgers and Adams to play a half to cover this spread, especially with Jordan Love being a capable backup. I am taking the Packers for now, but this can’t be anything more than a no confidence pick unless something changes or we hear something definitive on how the Packers will approach a meaningless game, with a bye week secured for next week.

Green Bay Packers 24 Detroit Lions 20

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -3.5

Confidence: None

Washington Football Team at New York Giants: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Washington Football Team (6-10) at New York Giants (4-12)

Giants fans thought things were bad with Daniel Jones, but he proved to be the one thing keeping this team somewhat competitive, as the Giants have not been competitive in any of the five straight games they have lost since he went down, losses that have come by an average of 18.4 points per game. However, they haven’t had the easiest schedule over that stretch (Dolphins, Chargers, Cowboys, Eagles, Bears) and this week’s game is probably their easiest game, with a home game against Washington on the schedule.

Washington is just 6-10 and they are arguably even worse than their record, going 5-4 in one score games and ranking just 26th in point differential at -114. Despite that, they are favored by seven points here on the road, a margin of victory they have achieved or surpassed just once all season and never on the road. As bad as the Giants are, they are a little healthier than they have been in recent weeks and Washington is not good enough to be favored by a touchdown on the road against anyone. I don’t want to make this a big play, but my calculated line has Washington favored by just 1.5 points, so there is just too much value here with the Giants to ignore, even if their quarterback situation is horrendous.

Washington Football Team 19 New York Giants 17

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +7

Confidence: Medium

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (6-10) at Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

The Vikings’ suffered their first loss of the season by more than eight points last week and it came on the road in Green Bay in a game in which backup quarterback Sean Mannion started. However, the Vikings have also only won once by more than eight points, while two of their close defeats required the Vikings to get a pick six to make the final score closer than it would have been (Arizona and Baltimore) and they lost both the first down rate and yards per play battle by a wide margin in both of those games, which is more predictive than the final score.

Kirk Cousins returns this week, but he doesn’t solve the problems with the Vikings’ defense, which ranks 26th in schedule adjusted efficiency on the season, dragging the Vikings down to 25th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency on the season. Having Kirk Cousins back does help, but he only missed one game and he’ll be remain without one of his top wide receivers Adam Thielen, while this defense figures to have major problems without a trio of key defensive linemen, Michael Pierce, Everson Griffen, and Danielle Hunter, whose consistent absences in recent weeks have contributed significantly to the Vikings’ defensive struggles.

The Vikings face a Bears team that is just 6-10, but the Bears’ biggest problem has been the turnover margin, as they rank 3rd worst in the NFL at -11, which is not predictive week-to-week. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, which is based on more predictive metrics, yards per play and first down rate, the Bears rank 25th, 11th, 7th, and 20th on offense, defense, special teams, and in overall mixed efficiency respectively. When these two teams met a few weeks ago, the Vikings won by eight, but the Bears won the yards per play and first down rate battle by 12.88% and 2.12 yards per play respectively, losing because they lost the turnover battle by two and went just 2/12 on third down and 2/5 on fourth down, which also isn’t predictive week-to-week. 

I wish Akiem Hicks was playing for the Bears this week, as his presence the last time these two teams met contributed significantly to the Vikings’ offensive struggles, but he has missed most of the season, so his absence is nothing new for the Bears, while the Bears’ offense is as healthy as it’s been at running back, on the offensive line, and in the receiving corps, most notably getting back top offensive lineman Jason Peters and starting wide receiver Allen Robinson, who both missed the last matchup, in a game in which the Vikings had Michael Pierce active. Andy Dalton will start at quarterback with Justin Fields out this week and he is an uninspiring option long-term, he’s still probably the Bears best quarterback in the short-term, given how much Justin Fields has struggled as a passer in his rookie season. 

I would probably need this line to move up to Minnesota -6 for the Bears to be worth betting (my calculated line is Minnesota -3), but that could happen tomorrow when the Vikings are expected to get left tackle Christian Darrisaw, right guard Ezra Cleveland, linebacker Eric Kendricks, and safety Camryn Bynum back from COVID protocols and, if any of those players unexpectedly can’t play in this game, that would make the Bears a possibly attractive bet even at +5.5. This is a low confidence pick for now, but could be updated before gametime.

Update: The Vikings got Darrisaw and Cleveland back as expected, but not Kendricks and Bynum. Kendricks’ absence in particular will be a big loss for a Vikings defense already missing a trio of talented defensive linemen, in a meaningless game a week after being eliminated from the playoff chase. The Bears, meanwhile, will be motivated to get revenge against a team they could have beaten in the first matchup if not for a couple turnovers and failed fourth down conversions, despite the fact that Minnesota was much healthier in that game and the Bears were missing key personnel who will be available in this matchup. This line has dropped to 4.5 or 4 in some places, but my calculated line is Minnesota -1, will these two teams about equal in my roster rankings and the Bears possessing a motivational edge. The Bears are worth a bet.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Chicago Bears 23

Pick against the spread: Chicago +4.5

Confidence: Medium