Here's how to play it when starters sit out NFL Week 18

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

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Most NFL fans and analysts focus on meaningful games in the season’s final weeks, but there are inevitably those games in which one team has clinched its playoff position and decides to rest its starters. These games, meaningless to at least one team, lose a lot of their luster and are seemingly impossible to handicap.

Unfortunately, the recent bowl season has acclimated us to the process of trying to handicap games in which at least one team doesn’t have its full allotment of players. The degree of tanking varies: Some teams sit their stars for the entire game, while others might play them for a quarter or two to keep things in sync. Making matters worse, there seems to be a recent trend in which teams that are eliminated rest key players to preserve their health. 

Despite the uncertainty, many bettors have trouble staying away from these games. They figure with betting lines so far out of whack, oddsmakers must be making a mistake. Hats off to those bettors, as I will illustrate that these games hold a ton of value.

In recent years, there have been more than enough of these games in the final week of the regular season to draw some conclusions. Last year, there were three. The general rule of thumb is if the line looks too abnormal or if it moves significantly throughout the week, you can expect some kind of resting-starters strategy. Those are the two giveaways: line not normal or line moving rapidly. The trickiest spot is if a team plays late but its playoff prospects are affected by an early game. Those lines can change dramatically by the minute as playoff scenarios play out. Of the four finales that qualified as resting-starters games in 2019, three of them saw a line move of at least 7.5 points. 

I used to try to stay away from these games until I saw some of the trends that have developed. In most cases, bettors would rather play games in which the teams’ motivational levels are somewhat equal. However, if you are a bettor with access to a database in which you can interchange starters and backups and then measure the line variation, perhaps it is you who has the actual advantage in these games.

For the purposes of this article, I have taken a snapshot of the last 13 years of regular-season finales and pulled out those in which one of the teams either rested its starting quarterback entirely or pulled him at some point in the game. These are games in which the lines differed wildly from their projected power-rating line, or alternatively, moved significantly all the way up to kickoff. In almost all of the cases, the teams resting key starters were playoff qualifiers that had nothing to gain by winning. As you look at the chart, perhaps you can recall being on the right or wrong side of these contests. 

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