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Youmans: Fitting that wild NFL season will end in Vegas

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN senior editor) 

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What seemed implausible after Week 1, when Aaron Rodgers and the Packers opened with an embarrassing 35-point loss, has become reality heading into Week 18. For the second year in a row, the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC will go through Green Bay.

So why would Rodgers bother to play in Detroit on Sunday? Rodgers has the option to sit out of the Packers’ finale, but the MVP frontrunner has said he plans to play anyway. The irony is Rodgers threatened to sit out the entire season during his summertime diva act.

The final week of the NFL regular season is always a unique challenge for bettors and bookmakers. Most games will feature some sort of playoff implications, though a few such as Packers-Lions could have a preseason feel.

“There are so many of these games that are basically playoff games,” Westgate SuperBook vice president Jay Kornegay said. “Most of the games are meaningful, but there are some games that mean absolutely nothing.”

Prior to Week 17, when Green Bay won to clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed, the SuperBook posted a lookahead line with the Packers favored by 11 points against the Lions. The line reopened Monday morning with Detroit as a 2-point favorite. By the afternoon, the Packers were back in the favorite’s role at -2.

“What’s the incentive for Green Bay?” said Vinny Magliulo, VSiN oddsmaker and Gaughan Gaming sportsbook director. “Do you see Rodgers on Sunday? Probably, but for how long? Rodgers is the No. 1 player in the league in terms of impacting the number. And it’s not just Rodgers. Who else is not going to play?”

With a last opportunity to tighten his grip on the MVP award, Rodgers might want to play a quarter or a half, but it would be surprising if he plays more. The Packers also must consider the idea of staying sharp for the playoffs with a bye week on deck.

“If Rodgers is going to play a half, they might be up 21-0 or 21-7,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “I don’t know if he even plays a half.”

Magliulo said there will be “a lot of line movement” on the NFL board this week as bookmakers react to information made available by coaches pertaining to starters and playing time. It’s just as important to read between the lines to find the motivation for each team. There are also COVID-19 issues that are not going away. This week in the NFL is a different animal and similar to handicapping the college bowl season.

The Chiefs are 9.5-point favorites at Denver in Saturday’s first game of a double feature. The motivation is obvious for Kansas City, which can clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed with a win and a Tennessee loss on Sunday. The Titans are 10.5-point favorites at Houston.

The Cowboys-Eagles game Saturday night falls into a gray area because it means slightly more for Dallas, which opened as a 2.5-point road favorite and was moved to -7 by Monday night, partly due to COVID reports on the Eagles’ side. The Cowboys could get the NFC’s No. 2 seed with a win. Philadelphia has clinched a playoff spot and is likely to face Tampa Bay in the postseason, win or lose Saturday.

There are two Sunday games — 49ers-Rams and Chargers-Raiders — with significant playoff implications for all teams involved.

The Rams are 5-point home favorites against the 49ers, who need to win to clinch a postseason spot. San Francisco still could lose and sneak into the field with some help. The Rams clinch the NFC West with a win or an Arizona loss to Seattle.

Las Vegas will be the setting for Sunday’s prime-time showdown that amounts to an all-in bet for the Chargers and Raiders. The winner clinches a playoff berth in the AFC and the loser likely goes home. The Raiders could lose and still get in, but they would need the Colts to fall as 15.5-point favorites at Jacksonville.

The Chargers are favored by 2.5 to 3 points in what Magliulo said “will be the most-bet game of the week.” I bet the Raiders + 3, mainly because I consider that a good number on the dog and believe the line will close at less than a field goal.

The Raiders have overcome a massive amount of adversity this season. Derek Carr led the way to a third consecutive win, 23-20 at Indianapolis in Week 17, to keep the playoff hopes alive. Las Vegas has a 4-4 home record, including an Oct. 10 loss to the Bears in what was Jon Gruden’s final game before his stunning resignation. The Chargers beat the Raiders 28-14 on Oct. 4.

“There’s going to be a lot of Raiders money, especially with the game being in Las Vegas,” Magliulo said. “I would make the Chargers -1.5 to -2.”

Minor playoff implications exist in a few other AFC matchups. The Bills are 17-point favorites against the Jets, with Buffalo looking to clinch the AFC East with a win. The Jets snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Week 17, when Tom Brady’s last-minute touchdown pass lifted the Buccaneers to a 28-24 victory as 14-point favorites.

“That would have been one of our biggest wins of the year if the Jets could have pulled that off,” Kornegay said.

While Brady and the Bucs are wobbling down the stretch, rookie quarterback Mac Jones and the Patriots appear capable of making a playoff run and could clinch the division with a win and a Buffalo loss.

New England, a 6.5-point favorite at Miami, and Cincinnati each have long-shot hopes at the AFC’s top seed, but neither team will get there. Joe Burrow and the Bengals have clinched the AFC North and are realistically playing for nothing on Sunday as 3-point underdogs at Cleveland. Burrow should sit this one out.

The short list of meaningless games includes Bears-Vikings and Washington-Giants, but some bettors will be searching for angles in those games too.

With the NFL fully embracing gambling and the Manning family pitching a sportsbook during commercial breaks, it’s fitting the final game of the regular season will be in Vegas.

 

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