NFL WEEK 18: For the first time in the history of the National Football League we’ve reached Week 18 of the regular season, as this is the first year of the new 17-game schedule and expanded playoff field. Many of the league’s better teams will be looking ahead to next week and making roster decisions accordingly, but we do have some drama on tap this week, starting on Saturday night in a place that hasn’t seen many big games in recent years: Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field. The Jags have been rolling lately and they’ll host the Titans in a “win and you’re in” battle for the AFC South crown. Northeast Florida hasn’t seen this type of excitement since the last monster truck rally– it’ll be a bad night to be a Bud Light!

The final wild card spots in both conferences are also up for grabs: in the AFC, the Patriots must win in Buffalo to clinch the final berth, a task which will be made easier if Kansas City is able to beat Las Vegas on Saturday, which would render the game meaningless for the Bills. Should the Patriots lose, the Dolphins will be able to get in with a win over the Jets, and if New England and Miami both lose, the door would open for Pittsburgh to claim the final spot with a win over Cleveland.

In the NFC, the Seahawks need to beat the Rams on Sunday afternoon to stay alive. If they do, they’ll also need Detroit to beat Green Bay on Sunday night to sneak in. Should Seattle lose to Los Angeles, then Sunday night’s Lions/Packers showdown will be a do-or-die game with the playoffs at stake. That would certainly be a fitting way to end this season, two of the NFL’s oldest franchises playing a critical game on a frigid night at Lambeau Field. I can see the frozen breath coming through the facemasks already…

Weeks like this, when many teams will be making strategic roster and playing time decisions and therefore won’t be putting their best foot forward, are always a little tricky from a bettor’s perspective, but there’s still gold in them hills, and we’ve done our best to find it. With that in mind, here are three I like for Sunday:

Minnesota Vikings @ Chicago Bears (MIN -6.5, 43.5)

Recommendation: Minnesota -6.5 at 1.95

The Vikings, as most everyone now knows, are not as good as their record indicates. They’re 12-4 with a point differential of minus-19, which seems almost impossible, and they are outgained by the opposition in the majority of their games thanks to their league-worst defense. They do have an explosive offense led by the NFL’s best receiver, however, and with an outside chance to clinch the 2-seed in the NFC, they will be playing the starters in this one.

The Bears, meanwhile, will be finishing out another failed season, and they’ll be doing so without starting QB Justin Fields, who has been ruled out of this game with a hip injury. Fields was the engine that drove the Chicago offense, nearly setting a new NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback, and with him on the sidelines and Nathan Peterman under center, moving the ball is going to be a struggle, even against the porous Minnesota defense. But in this case a poor offensive performance may be just what the doctor ordered for the Bears, because they need to lose this game. That’s right, with a win here Chicago will have the fourth pick in April’s NFL draft, but with a loss the Bears would lock up the second pick in a worst-case scenario, and they’d be picking first if Houston were to beat Indianapolis on Sunday. Everyone knows the score obviously, particularly management and ownership, and I’m sure this situation played no small part in the decision to rest Fields this week. Look for Minnesota to close out the season in style with a blowout win over a division rival.

Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers (PIT -2.5, 40.5)

Recommendation: Cleveland +2.5 at 1.91; Cleveland moneyline (to win) at 2.19

The Steelers still have a pulse in the playoff race, but just barely: to claim the AFC’s final Wild Card spot, they need a win here and losses by New England and Miami. It won’t be easy, as the Browns are 4-2 in their last six games and finally seem to be finding a rhythm with Deshaun Watson under center. Watson may not be back to peak form yet, but he seems to be getting closer every week, and last week he threw 3 touchdown passes while also doing some damage with his legs in Cleveland’s 24-10 win over Washington, a game that eliminated the Commanders from playoff contention.

Watson wasn’t available for the first game between these teams this season, back in Week 3, but the Browns won 29-17 anyway behind 113 rushing yards from Nick Chubb, the NFL’s second-leading rusher. Chubb topped 100 yards on just 14 carries against a tough Washington defense last week and he’ll be relied upon heavily once again in this one. His continued success will only make things easier for Watson, which could be bad news for the Pittsburgh defense. And with the Steelers averaging just 17.5 ppg and starting a rookie quarterback, the defense is going to have to keep them in the game. They probably will, for a while anyway, but I like Cleveland’s chances of leaving Heinz Field victorious.

Detroit Lions @ Green Bay Packers (GB -4.5, 48.5)

Recommendation: Detroit +4.5 at 1.92

Both of these teams seemed to be dead in the water at times this season, and yet this game will be for a playoff berth if the Rams manage to beat the Seahawks. Even if Seattle wins that game, thereby eliminating Detroit from playoff contention, this game would be an opportunity for the Lions to crush the postseason dreams of a hated rival and wrap up the franchise’s most successful season since 2017. There’s a lot at stake here, in other words, and you can be sure that the atmosphere at Lambeau Field will be electric as the Pack try to lock up the NFC’s final Wild Card spot.

That said, atmosphere, mystique, and the Ghosts of Offenses Past can only take you so far. And though Aaron Rodgers is still the trigger man in Green Bay, this Packers offense is nothing like the units that have carved up the NFL for the past several years. The receivers can’t get separation, there are no reliable deep threats, and so Rodgers has been forced to lean on the running game and a dink-and-dunk attack that has produced the worst statistical season of his career and has left many wondering whether the 39-year-old has hit Father Time’s wall. In the recent 4-game winning streak that has saved the Packers season, the offense has been efficient but certainly not explosive, even in last week’s 41-17 win over Minnesota, when the Pack were actually outgained by the Vikings after piling up only 315 total yards and 5.2 yards per play. The stats were similar in wins over the Bears, Rams, and Dolphins, with Green Bay never averaging 6 yards per play or accumulating 360 yards or more in any of those games. The defense and a tremendous special teams unit have been doing the heavy lifting.

The question is, against an offense like Detroit’s, can this style of play hold up? The Lions rank third in the NFL in total offense and can hurt you in a variety of ways, as the Jared Goff-led passing attack has been quite explosive and the running game has been effective and efficient, producing 4.6 yards per attempt and 129.7 yards per game on the ground. And that’s the bottom line here: the Detroit offense is simply superior to that of Green Bay, better in every way and every conceivable metric. Though the Packers probably have the better defense, the Lions have been playing better on that side of the ball in recent weeks, and when these teams met in Week 9 the Detroit defense totally smothered Rodgers and the Pack, shutting them out in the first half and limiting them to just 9 points in a Lions win. The Packers have the intangibles working for them this time around… the Lambeau Field mystique, Rodgers’ experience and record in big games of this nature… but Detroit is the better team. Given that reality, taking the 4.5 points here feels like stealing.

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