Well, here it is. The final week of the 2021 NFL regular season and football contest championships, mini-contests, quarterly prizes, booby prizes and $6 million in Circa Survivor are on the line. Wow. What a ride it has been for many, and for a select few the sweat has never been greater until now.
The five remaining entries in Circa Survivor all advanced in Week 17 and all did so fairly easily. Three of the remaining five entries have either the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Kansas City Chiefs left to use, and can thus grab the $1 million bonus with a win by either of those teams. One of the five remaining entries, Chris Piper, has only one Week 18 favorite in his arsenal — the New Orleans Saints. Another entry, Syracuse Hawkeyes, has two of this week's favorites available, the Saints and the Tennessee Titans. My guess is we'll have two entries on the Chiefs, one on the Buccaneers and one each on the Saints and Titans. It is very possible that all four of these teams win outright this week and the $6 million gets split five ways, with three players grabbing the $1 million bonus. It is one thing to play in a football contest worth hundreds of thousands, but $6 million is a sweat of another level. In addition to the great money, the title of champion never goes away and goes into the annals of Las Vegas history. It pays to win late … in many ways.
All of that said, we have one of the crazier weeks of the season upon us. Similar to Week 1 in which there are so many unknowns. In Week 18, we know the teams, but will those teams truly suit up — or will they rest their stars, having already clinched a postseason berth? Who will show up in the matchups between teams whose seasons are over? How will the must-win teams handle the pressure? Oh, and we have to account for COVID-19 absences as well. Throw in hedging opportunities, game theory, playing contrarian … and you have yourself one hell of a week. But as avid bettors, fans and contestants, this is the pressure cooker one lives for — and had hoped for some 18 weeks ago.
I mentioned last week that I like to bet against teams that have to win to advance to the postseason. The Los Angeles Chargers were a candidate last week, but their opponent, the Denver Broncos, was bitten hard by the COVID bug just a couple of days before kickoff, nor was Teddy Bridgewater able to start at quarterback, missing a second straight week with a concussion. So the Chargers cruised to victory.
The moral of the story is it is difficult to commit to a winner midweek with so much uncertainty as far as player availability, primarily because of COVID. So my advice would be to wait as long as possible before making one's contest selections, in hopes that all pertinent information will surface before the selection deadlines.
There are two must-win teams I am looking to go against in Week 18.
Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars (+ 16)
Let me first note that it is not entirely a must-win situation for the Colts, but if they were to lose outright, it will take a number of dominoes to fall correctly for them to get into the playoffs. Secondly, yes, it is very difficult to back this Jaguars team right now. In fact, I went against them successfully last week as 16-point underdogs — but that could be part of the handicap this week as well. No team likes to be embarrassed and that is exactly what the Jags were on Sunday, humiliated, falling to New England 50-10. That and the fact that the Colts are a division rival may be enough to get Jacksonville's attention. It is also worth noting that the Colts have not won at Jacksonville since 2014. They were nearly beaten outright by the Jaguars earlier this season in Indianapolis. Indy was fortunate to force a fumble in the final two minutes as the Jaguars were driving for what would have been a game-winning touchdown in a 23-17 final.
I made the number 9 in favor of the Colts and my first set of number crunches spits out Colts -10. The sportsbooks know the situation here, too. So maybe 9 or 10 is too low, but there is a large part of the betting public that will bet the Colts no matter what the number is — because of the must-win situation and because of what we all saw the Patriots do to the Jags last week. So 16 is likely inflated. If the Jaguars have a pulse this week, they should be able to stay inside the big number.
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons (+ 4.5)
The Falcons upset the Saints 27-25 in Week 9, beginning a five-game losing streak for New Orleans. Atlanta is 3-3 in its last six games, as are the Saints. Their competition has been different for sure, but New Orleans has been so poor offensively as of late and the Falcons actually showed some heart on Sunday in Buffalo. Yes, they were aided by some Bills turnovers, but Matt Ryan sacrificing his body, trying to run for a touchdown late in that game tells me this team has not quit — and what they are playing for in Week 18 is to end a division rival's season. If Ryan's TD was not overturned, that is 21 points put up against one of the NFL’s best defenses in the league — and a team that also owns a lethal offense. If the Falcons can put up 21 against another excellent defense in the Saints — a team with no offense — they should be able to stay inside the number if not win outright.
The unfortunate part here is the number. I thought the Saints would be closer to a touchdown road favorite and when I dive into the stats, it comes out even higher than that, but I have to look at playing the situation, and New Orleans has no other option than to win. We know that must-win teams must not be that good and also carry that added pressure. Conversely, the Falcons can play loose and aggressively. The Saints have been a road favorite four times this season and they are 3-1 SU but just 2-2 ATS, with wins and covers coming at Washington and at the Jets, but a win and no cover against a Geno Smith-led Seahawks team. This will be the first time this season they are suiting up as a division road favorite.
I do believe this number will creep up toward the end of the week, so waiting for that as well as any COVID news is recommended. And if you are going to ultimately back the Jaguars and the Falcons, something to firmly plug your nose with is probably a good idea, too.