NFL WEEK 18: We’ve reached the final week of the regular season and it’s a good one, with several teams fighting for playoff berths in “win or go home” scenarios. It’s safe to say that a week like this is exactly what the league office had in mind when they added a third Wild Card berth to each conference a couple of years ago and expanded the regular season to 18 weeks.

The fun starts on Saturday evening with a classic AFC North showdown between Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Ravens have clinched the top seed in the AFC, but the Steelers are still fighting for the playoffs and need to win this game and have either Jacksonville or Buffalo lose to get in. The late game on Saturday has even more juice, as the Texans and Colts will meet in what is effectively a playoff game, with the winner punching their postseason ticket and the loser going home. Sunday features no fewer than 8 games with significant playoff implications and it can be dizzying to go through all the scenarios, but the teams who can clinch a playoff spot with a win include Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Green Bay, and Buffalo. Each of those teams could still miss with a loss, however, and the Steelers, Vikings, Falcons, and Saints are ready to slide into the picture should those teams falter.

It should be an exciting weekend, with the cherry on top being the Sunday nighter between the Bills and Dolphins in Miami with the AFC East and the conference’s No. 2 seed up for grabs (and for the Bills, their very playoff lives). Let’s jump into the picks:

Houston Texans @ Indianapolis Colts (HOU -1.5, 47.5) *SATURDAY*

Recommendation: Indianapolis moneyline (to win) at 2.13

The season is on the line for both of these teams and everybody and their brother seems to be picking Houston. The young Texans appear to have franchise cornerstones on both sides of the ball in C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr., a defensive minded head coach who has done an excellent job turning things around on that side of the ball, and some exciting young playmakers. However, the most explosive of those playmakers, rookie wideout Tank Dell, is still out with a leg injury, and with the exception of two good performances against the Tennessee Titans the defense has struggled for the past six weeks, with lowlights like surrendering 36 points and 368 passing yards to the Joe Flacco-led Cleveland Browns in Week 16 and giving up 30 to Zach Wilson and the Jets two weeks prior. These Colts hung 31 on the Texans in an 11-point win back in Week 2 and that was before Gardner Minshew had fully taken the reins of the offense, having come in for the injured Anthony Richardson mid-game. Since Minshew became comfortable the Colts have been rolling, winning 6 of their past 8 games to put themselves in this position– one win away from the playoffs. I think they get the job done in front of the home fans… Houston feels overvalued in this spot.

Cleveland Browns @ Cincinnati Bengals (CIN -7, 35)

Recommendation: Cincinnati -7 at 1.92

Handicapping Week 18 games, at least those that aren’t do-or-die elimination contests, is a unique exercise. Teams have varying levels of motivation and in some cases you’re not sure which players you’re going to see on the field, or for how long. This is one of those games: the Browns have nothing to play for, having locked up the 5-seed in the AFC, and so they’re sitting starting QB Joe Flacco and going with journeyman Jeff Driskel, who is 1-9 as a starter since entering the league in 2018. Driskel will be the fifth quarterback to start a game for Cleveland this season and the Browns are a run-first team anyway, so I’d expect the offense to be painfully conservative in this one. And how many key defenders will the Browns sit? We don’t know. What we do know is that the Bengals will have their key offensive players on the field, and Jake Browning, filling it at QB for injured starter Joe Burrow, will be highly motivated to finish his tenure as Cincinnati quarterback on a high note. Motivation and intensity matters, especially in a fast-moving, violent sport like football, and it’s fair to question whether the Browns will be motivated to compete at a high level on a cold, blustery day in Cincinnati when the outcome is irrelevant. It’s been a frustrating 8-8 campaign for the Bengals, but they get to finish things at home against a weakened division rival, and I expect them to take some frustration out in a blowout win.

Chicago Bears @ Green Bay Packers (GB -3, 45.5)

Recommendation: Chicago +3 at 1.91

It’s win-and-you’re-in for the Pack, and they’re playing at home against a division rival who hasn’t beaten them since 2018. What could possibly go wrong, right? Fact is, Chicago is the better of these two teams right now. The Bears are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, having won 4 of 5, and their QB Justin Fields has finally emerged as the dual-threat weapon that the team envisioned when they drafted him with the 11th overall pick in 2021. Suddenly, he doesn’t seem overwhelmed anymore, and the offense is moving. The defense has been playing well, too, allowing just 15.2 points per game over the team’s last five contests. They can’t make the playoffs, but head coach Matt Eberflus might have saved his job, and a win in Lambeau on Sunday to spoil the season for the hated Packers would be a high point for a franchise that has only 1 playoff win since 2007. The Pack had been struggling before picking up a big win in Minnesota last week, and it will be interesting to see how a defense that has recently given up 30+ points to the likes of Carolina and Tampa Bay will deal with a new-look Chicago offense that is humming, having put up 92 combined points in the team’s past three wins. This has all the makings of a Bears victory and a potential turning point in this rivalry, given the trajectory of both teams.

Buffalo Bills @ Miami Dolphins (BUF -3, 48.5)

Recommendation: Buffalo -3 at 2.05

The AFC East is on the line when these teams square off on Sunday night, and though the Dolphins have been the team lighting up the scoreboards this season, it was Buffalo rolling to a 48-20 win when these teams met in Week 4. A lot has changed since then, however, and the Bills would actually miss the playoffs were they to lose this game and Jacksonville and Pittsburgh were to both win. This game, in my opinion, will come down to the play of the quarterbacks and the respective passing attacks. Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa leads the NFL in both passing yards and completion percentage, but it looks like he’ll be without Jaylen Waddle once again after the wideout was forced to miss practice all week rehabbing his ankle injury, and starting RB Raheem Mostert, who leads the league in rushing touchdowns, appears doubtful to play as well. The Buffalo defense has tightened things up after a rash of midseason injuries and has allowed the second-fewest passing yards in the NFL over the past three weeks, so this will be a stiff challenge for Tua and the Fins. The Miami defense, meanwhile, is dealing with injuries in the secondary– at this point it’s essentially Jalen Ramsey and a bunch of backups. Reserve CB Eli Apple was torched repeatedly in a loss to Baltimore last week and will likely be targeted heavily in this one, so it could be a big day for Buffalo receivers not named Stefon Diggs, who is likely to be shadowed by Ramsey all game. The Bills could put a season’s worth of frustration to bed with a win here and Josh Allen will be facing a banged-up Miami defense. I like his chances.

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