Cashin' tickets not what it's always about for must-win teams

Russell Wilson and the Seahawks are still fighting for playoff position.
© Imagn

If the situation calls for a motivational speech, Pete Carroll can deliver. With his enthusiasm and optimism, the Seattle Seahawks coach is capable of turning into Tony Robbins at any time.

This is the time in the NFL season when motivation matters most, for better or worse, and the scenarios are no secrets to handicappers and oddsmakers. Playoff seeds are up for grabs in each conference, some playoff spots still can be claimed and several teams already eliminated are reaching for reasons to show up and play with a purpose.


“The first thing to keep in mind for the teams that need to win is if they could win whenever they wanted, they would not be in this position,” said Scott Kellen, a professional bettor and NFL analyst for VSiN. “The need-to-win teams are typically laying more points than they should.”


Seattle must continue to win, so Carroll’s motivational messages will be simple. The Seahawks emerged from the weekend as the NFC’s No. 1 seed, but the Packers, Saints and 49ers also are 11-3, and Seattle could fall to No. 5 before it’s over.


The NFC race will be crazy to the wire. Each of the four teams in the running for the No. 1 seed could slide to fifth, and the Packers are currently No. 2 yet could slip to sixth.


Teams in must-win spots have a magnetizing effect on the betting public.


“Always have and always will,” William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said. “The teams in must-win situations are usually inflated favorites, and people will get on those teams one way or another. Does the advantage gambler want (the underdog) now that he’s getting a couple extra points?”


The Steelers-Jets game is a prime example in Week 16. The public probably will be attracted to Pittsburgh, which controls its destiny in the AFC and will reach the playoffs by winning its final two games. The Steelers are 3-point road favorites Sunday.


Any takers on the Jets? There are always sharp bettors who find something to love in ugly underdogs.


“If a team has got nothing to play for, that could mean they play free and with no pressure, if you want to look at the glass half-full,” Bogdanovich said. “There’s always something you can spin.”


The Ravens, who crushed the Jets 42-21 as 17-point favorites Thursday, are close to clinching the AFC’s top seed. Baltimore is a 10-point favorite at Cleveland this week. The line opened at 9, but it’s obvious to bookmakers where the money will show.


Lamar Jackson’s case for MVP is almost clinched, too, so the Ravens might sit several starters in Week 17 against Pittsburgh, and that could help the Steelers secure a playoff spot.


“It’s sort of like preseason for these teams resting their starters,” Kellen said.


“Who’s the backup quarterback, etc.? Some of the teams play their starters for only the first half, which can create great second-half value.”

The Patriots are 6½-point home favorites over the Bills on Saturday. New England can clinch the AFC East with a win and needs to hold off Kansas City for the No. 2 seed.


Buffalo is in the postseason. Houston still has work to do. The Texans, who hold the upper hand on the Titans in the AFC South, are 3-point favorites at Tampa Bay before hosting Tennessee in Week 17. The first of Saturday’s three games features Jameis Winston, who ranks No. 2 behind Jackson in touchdown passes (30) but leads the league in interceptions (24). The Texans are on a 9-3-1 ATS run on the road, and the Buccaneers are 0-4-1 ATS at home this season.


Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is now a long shot to win MVP, but he has two chances to catch Jackson. Seattle is a 9½-point home favorite over the Cardinals on Sunday and hosts the 49ers in a high-stakes NFC West showdown in Week 17. Seattle (11-3) has won 10 one-score games. Its lone double-digit win came in a 27-10 decision at Arizona in late September.


With the NFC North title on the line, the Packers are 4½-point underdogs at Minnesota on Monday. Kirk Cousins has slightly better passing numbers (70.5% completions, 25 touchdowns, five interceptions, 111.1 rating) than Aaron Rodgers (63.3%, 24 TDs, two interceptions, 100.4 rating) this season. Green Bay has looked to be a fraud at times, but Rodgers has a history of big-game magic, and Cousins has a history of being a big-game bust.


After the Vikings lost Dec. 2 at Seattle, Cousins dropped to 0-8 on “Monday Night Football,” the worst record in NFL history. Cousins also has zero career playoff wins.


The NFC East is a battle between the Cowboys and Eagles. Dallas is a 2½-point favorite at Philadelphia. The division winner is locked into the No. 4 seed and will host a wild-card game.


Six games in Week 16 have no playoff implications. One is in Los Angeles, where the Chargers are 5½-point favorites over the Raiders and there is a unique motivational angle to consider: Is it Philip Rivers’ final home game as the Chargers’ quarterback?


Jon Gruden will need a motivational speech. The Raiders were in an intriguing spot Sunday in their final game in Oakland. Bettors piled on the Raiders as 6½-point favorites over the Jaguars, who had lost each of their previous five games by double digits and appeared to have quit on the season. But Jacksonville rallied from a 16-3 deficit for an improbable 20-16 win that Bogdanovich said was “huge” for the books.


The bottom line for bettors is to approach the final two weeks with caution, as it’s never safe to assume a team in a must-win spot will cash a ticket.


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