Bleacher Report's Expert Week 18 NFL Picks
NFL bettors face a unique challenge as they place wagers on Week 18 games. Some teams will play with a postseason spot up for grabs and seeding undecided, while other clubs will turn to backups to avoid risking injuries in a non-playoff campaign. As a result, we could see a few lopsided contests or spirited efforts to play spoiler.
NFL analysts Gary Davenport, Brent Sobleski, Kris Knox and Maurice Moton, editor Wes O'Donnell and B/R Betting host of "Winners Only Wednesdays" Greg Ivory took several favorites this week. However, you'll see compelling cases to take massive underdogs who may rest starters or have poor records.
Before we dive into the final picks of the regular season, here's the updated Bleacher Report betting leaderboard standings with last week's records in parentheses.
1. O'Donnell: 126-122-7 (8-7)
2. Ivory: 121-127-7 (8-7)
T-3. Moton: 118-130-7 (6-9)
T-3. Davenport: 118-130-7 (3-12)
5. Knox: 115-133-7 (6-9)
6. Sobleski: 114-134-7 (5-10)
Consensus picks: 109-111-7 (5-8)
Lines are from DraftKings as of Thursday, Jan. 5, at 4 p.m. ET. Check DraftKings for the latest odds info. Information on public betting trends is courtesy of the Action Network. ATS records are provided by TeamRankings.
Kansas City Chiefs (13-3) at Las Vegas Raiders (6-10)
DraftKings Line: Chiefs -9
For now, the Kansas City Chiefs hold the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Until the NFL figures out how to handle the playoff standings after it suspended the game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills, the Chiefs won't have much clarity on the seeding, so expect them to go full throttle on Saturday.
The Chiefs cannot sleep on the Las Vegas Raiders, who nearly beat them in Week 5 but squandered a 17-point lead. The Silver and Black also pushed the San Francisco 49ers to overtime before coming up short 37-34. For context, the 49ers have the league's longest win streak at nine games, and they needed an extra period to put away a Raiders squad that started Jarrett Stidham over Derek Carr at quarterback.
Davenport placed his wager with an emphasis on the recent performances of both teams.
"The Chiefs still have plenty to play for, including potentially the No. 1 seed in the AFC. And the Raiders are still—well, let's just say things haven't gone as planned in Sin City this year. (My New Year's Resolution was to be nicer, and I've reneged on that in the first week.) But Kansas City hasn't exactly been blowing teams out of late, and the Raiders just gave the 49ers all they could handle before blowing their 23rd double-digit lead of the season. The Chiefs are going to win Saturday, but the Raiders will keep it close."
Score Prediction: Chiefs 34, Raiders 27
Tennessee Titans (7-9) at Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8)
DraftKings Line: Jaguars -6.5
The Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tennessee Titans have the prime-time Saturday night slot with the AFC South title on the line.
On a hot streak, the Jaguars have won five out of six games following their Week 11 bye. The Titans have trended in the opposite direction with six consecutive losses. Our entire panel expects Jacksonville to win the contest, but Moton believes Tennessee covers the spread.
"Jacksonville likely wins this game, though Tennessee should be able to keep viewers at the edge of their seats for this win-and-in playoff matchup. Titans quarterback Joshua Dobbs will make his second career start in six years, though Tennessee relies on its ground attack to open up the offense, which means Derrick Henry will force Jacksonville to respect the run. Meanwhile, the Titans will find openings downfield in play-action designs.
"Last week, the Titans rested Henry, so he'll be ready to run the ball 30-plus times Saturday night. The three-time Pro Bowl running back won't carry Tennessee to the playoffs, but he'll keep his team in striking distance throughout the game. The Titans lose by less than a touchdown."
Consensus: Jaguars -6.5
Score Prediction: Jaguars 28, Titans 20
New England Patriots (8-8) at Buffalo Bills (12-3)
DraftKings Line: Bills -7
The Buffalo Bills will prepare to play under distressing circumstances. Their starting safety, Damar Hamlin, is in critical condition after he suffered cardiac arrest in the first quarter of a game with the Cincinnati Bengals this past Monday.
Fortunately, Hamlin has shown positive signs on his road to recovery. On Thursday, University of Cincinnati Dr. Timothy Pritts said, "He is beginning to awaken, and it appears his neurological condition and function is intact."
Quarterback Josh Allen told reporters that the team will honor Hamlin's wishes (via his father) for the team to play.
"You can't not honor his request to go out there," Allen said. "Today's news was a lot of tears of joy, I'll tell you that. To know that's what he wants, that's what his dad wants, I think guys are excited to get out there."
Moton weighed in on the matchup and leaned toward the Bills because they've topped the Patriots by wide margins in recent contests.
"With the positive news about Hamlin, the Bills seem ready to suit up again." Moton said. "On top of the added motivation, Buffalo has beaten New England by at least 12 points in three of the last four division meetings.
"In a win-and-in situation, the Patriots will give the Bills their best shot, but Bill Belichick's club falls short on the road in a double-digit loss with a disjointed offense that struggles to execute in critical situations, ranking 26th in third-down conversions and last in red-zone touchdown rate."
Consensus: Bills -7
Score Prediction: Bills 27, Patriots 17
Minnesota Vikings (12-4) at Chicago Bears (3-13)
DraftKings Line: Vikings -7.5
In a matchup between the best and worst teams in the NFC North, this spread seems appropriate, though bettors may hesitate to place wagers on the Minnesota Vikings after they laid an egg in a 24-point loss to the Green Bay Packers last week.
With that said, Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell seemed eager to clinch the No. 2 seed and build some steam on the way to the postseason when he spoke to reporters.
"I think it would probably be more subtle than [sitting starters], just knowing that the two seed is still available for us. Regardless, we still have a lot to play for just from a momentum standpoint—[for] a football team that's had some highs this year, for sure, and then one of our low moments of the season [against the Packers] where you'd like to be able to rely on a lot of things we built here to come back together and make sure we rectify some of the issues that contributed yesterday."
Moton bought into O'Connell's words and expects the Vikings to beat the Bears decisively.
"If the Vikings win and the San Francisco 49ers lose to the Arizona Cardinals in the second wave of Sunday games, they would move up from the No. 3 seed to the No. 2 spot in the NFC. On top of postseason seeding to play for in Week 18, Minnesota must wipe off the stench of a 41-17 loss to Green Bay. Coming off an awful performance, the Vikings need positive momentum heading into the playoffs.
"Meanwhile, Chicago will start Nathan Peterman over Justin Fields (hip) for this contest. Since 2020, the former has completed six out of 11 passes for 50 yards and an interception in the regular season. The Vikings will take advantage of a rusty backup quarterback and thump the Bears on their field."
Consensus: Vikings -7.5
Score Prediction: Vikings 30, Bears 13
Houston Texans (2-13-1) at Indianapolis Colts (4-11-1)
DraftKings Line: Colts -2.5
At the bottom of the AFC South division, the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts currently hold top-five draft picks.
Colts signal-caller Sam Ehlinger will make his third career start and has a chance to show progress before the team addresses the quarterback position in the offseason. Matt Ryan (benched) and Nick Foles (ribs) have struggled mightily in their starts under center this season.
Moton expects the Texans to have their eyes on a rookie quarterback, which will factor into the way they approach this contest.
"NFL teams don't play to lose, but the Texans can lock in the No. 1 draft pick with a loss to the Colts on Sunday. Assuming Houston wants a quarterback in the 2023 draft, it can reshape its short- and long-term future with the top selection in a few months. Don't be surprised to see more backups on the field for the Texans in live auditions for next season.
"As for the Colts, interim head coach Jeff Saturday may want to go out on a high note. In Week 10, he took over for Frank Reich and won in his debut against the Las Vegas Raiders, but since then, Indianapolis has dropped six consecutive outings. Though owner Jim Irsay said that Saturday will be a candidate for the full-time head-coaching position, how can anyone believe him with the team going 1-6 on the interim coach's watch?
"Saturday goes out a winner against a team in line for the No. 1 overall pick, but he'll probably get another media job after the season."
Score Prediction: Colts 17, Texans 14
New York Jets (7-9) at Miami Dolphins (8-8)
DraftKings Line: Jets -1.5
Already eliminated from playoff contention, the New York Jets can pull the Miami Dolphins out of the picture with them. The Dolphins need a win and a New England Patriots loss to clinch a spot.
Gang Green could see a familiar face at quarterback for the Dolphins, which swayed Moton to the Jets.
"The Dolphins have significant question marks at quarterback. Head coach Mike McDaniel doesn't know if Teddy Bridgewater (dislocated pinky finger) will suit up, and Tua Tagovailoa remains in concussion protocol. Miami may have to roll with rookie seventh-rounder Skylar Thompson, who started in the 40-17 loss to Gang Green in Week 5.
"The Dolphins' explosive wide receivers, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, won't have a major impact on the game with a banged-up or rookie quarterback while going against the Jets' second-ranked pass defense.
"Even though the Jets will start quarterback Joe Flacco, he at least has the experience to stabilize their offense. Gang Green wins a low-scoring nail-biter in Miami."
Consensus: Dolphins +1.5
Score Prediction: Dolphins 23, Jets 20
Carolina Panthers (6-10) at New Orleans Saints (7-9)
DraftKings Line: Saints -3.5
The New Orleans Saints have quietly won three games in a row, and though they cannot make the playoffs, this squad can hang its hat on a strong finish to the 2022 season.
On the opposing side, the Carolina Panthers lost a hard-fought battle with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17, which eliminated them from the playoff hunt. Still, the club may put together a spirited effort to boost interim head coach Steve Wilks' candidacy for the full-time job. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown spoke on behalf of the locker room when he told reporters that the team wants Wilks to become the lead skipper beyond this season.
With a Panthers win, Wilks would have a 6-6 record since taking over for Matt Rhule.
Knox can see Carolina coming out flat, though. He thinks the Panthers' loss to the Buccaneers may snowball into a lackluster performance in the final week of the season.
"This just has the feeling of a weird game to me, much like the first meeting between these two teams. New Orleans turned it over three times in Week 3, allowing the then-faltering Panthers to escape with an eight-point win. I won't be surprised if we see a mirror of that game, only going the other way.
"The Panthers were red-hot before last week's loss to the Buccaneers. I think the emotional letdown of blowing a shot at the playoffs will take a toll on Carolina. The Saints, meanwhile, have won three in a row and just knocked off the Philadelphia Eagles—albeit without Jalen Hurts under center. I think confidence will carry the Saints at home, and I have a strong feeling that Sam Darnold's streak of solid play comes crashing down in New Orleans."
Score Prediction: Saints 26, Panthers 20
Cleveland Browns (7-9) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
DraftKings Line: Steelers -2.5
The Pittsburgh Steelers remain in the hunt for a playoff spot. They must beat the Cleveland Browns and hope that the New York Jets knock off the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills top the New England Patriots to claim the No. 7 seed in the AFC.
So, the Steelers undoubtedly will have their eyes on AFC East division games while they play against the Browns.
Since the Steelers' Week 9 bye, they've won six of eight contests, and rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett has led game-winning drives in the last two weeks. With his late-game play and a stout defense that's allowed 17 or fewer points in six consecutive outings, Pittsburgh has made an art of pulling out close battles. The team has won by three points in three of its last four victories.
In a contest that could go either way, Sobleski backed the Browns, who have improved on both sides of the ball in recent weeks.
"Cleveland gets a chance to play spoiler in Week 18. Granted, the Steelers need a win and some help to clinch a wild-card playoff spot, but the Browns can go into the offseason with a sweet victory over their rival while building toward next season. All of the issues came to light in Cleveland this year with a flawed defense and an untenable, yet completely avoidable, quarterback setup. Both of those situations are improving as the season winds to a close, which makes the Browns a difficult matchup at this point in the year."
Consensus: Steelers -2.5
Score Prediction: Steelers 23, Browns 17
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8) at Atlanta Falcons (6-10)
DraftKings Line: Falcons -4
While a division rivalry between these teams can spark some competitiveness, this matchup doesn't have any playoff implications. The Falcons fell out of postseason contention a couple of weeks ago, and the Buccaneers clinched the NFC South title last week.
Nonetheless, Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles will play his starters, including quarterback Tom Brady, who made it clear while on his Let's Go podcast (h/t Greg Auman of Fox Sports) that he wants to suit up on Sunday.
Even with Brady on the field in games with higher stakes, the Buccaneers have struggled with sub-.500 teams. They've trailed in the fourth quarter of games with the New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers only to pull out victories late in the frame.
The Buccaneers may lack the urgency to complete another comeback if they fall behind, but Sobleski took the points with Tampa Bay.
"Tampa Bay already secured a division title, and Sunday's Week 18 matchup against the Falcons is essentially meaningless. However, Brady wants to play in the game. As such, the Bucs' recent formula of stinking to start a contest only to make a comeback later can still hold true. Besides, a winning season is still possible for Tampa, with the Falcons really struggling on offense since rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder entered the lineup. At worst, this contest should at least be close."
Consensus: Falcons -4
Score Prediction: Falcons 24, Buccaneers 16
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-4)
DraftKings Line: Bengals -7
On Thursday, the NFL officially canceled the Week 17 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills. The league will discuss playoff implications and scenarios on Friday. With the proposals in place, a coin flip may determine the Bengals' wild-card matchup location, and they could play in the AFC Championship Game at a neutral site. As a result, Cincinnati has a lot at stake in Week 18.
As Moton noted, the Bengals may struggle with unsettling thoughts after a traumatic experience, which possibly affects their on-field performance, but they're still the overall better team, specifically at the most important position.
"The Bengals may look sluggish in this matchup, having witnessed Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapse on their field on Monday. However, if Cincinnati can draw any motivation from the playoff implications of this matchup—with at least a shot at the No. 2 seed—it can handily beat a Ravens squad that will play without quarterback Lamar Jackson.
"Since Jackson went down with a sprained PCL in Week 13, the Ravens haven't scored more than 17 points in a single game. If Joe Burrow can put together a few decent drives, the Bengals can win this matchup by more than seven points."
Consensus: Bengals -7
Score Prediction: Bengals 22, Ravens 13
Los Angeles Chargers (10-6) at Denver Broncos (4-12)
DraftKings Line: Broncos -2.5
Following a Christmas Day debacle (a 51-14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams), the Denver Broncos fired head coach Nathaniel Hackett, and the team had a competitive Week 17 battle with the Kansas City Chiefs but came up short (27-24).
Interim head coach Jerry Rosburg probably isn't atop the Broncos' head coaching candidate list, but Denver seemed prepared for a matchup against one of the league's top teams last week.
Even though Denver will shuffle offensive play-calling duties with Justin Outten set to call the shots, Moton backed the Broncos to cover against a Los Angeles Chargers squad that may look ahead to the playoffs.
"Bettors must be careful with this line because the Chargers may lock into the No. 5 seed before they kick off with the Broncos in the second slate of Sunday games. Suppose the Baltimore Ravens lose to the Cincinnati Bengals, which is highly possible with quarterback Lamar Jackson (sprained PCL) set to miss his fourth consecutive game. In that case, Los Angeles can look forward to a matchup with the winner of Saturday's contest between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.
"If you take that into consideration, the Chargers may not show much offensively against a respectable Broncos defense that ranks in the top 10 in yards and points allowed. Moreover, quarterback Russell Wilson likely wants to finish a disappointing season on a high note with looming changes in Denver's coaching ranks. The Broncos win by a field goal."
Consensus: Chargers +2.5
Score Prediction: Chargers 20, Broncos 17
New York Giants (9-6-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
DraftKings Line: Eagles -14
The Philadelphia Eagles cannot sleepwalk into the playoffs. They rank atop the NFC, but they need a win to clinch home-field advantage through the conference championship round.
According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the Eagles expect quarterback Jalen Hurts to play after he missed two games with a sprained shoulder. The dynamic signal-caller is a clear upgrade over Gardner Minshew, who threw for three touchdowns and three interceptions as a fill-in starter in back-to-back losses.
Philadelphia would have a clear edge over New York with Hurts' return, but Knox predicts that Big Blue will sneak through the back door to cover a wide spread.
"I'm sure I'm an outlier here, and that's unsurprising. The Eagles need a win to clinch the NFC's No. 1 seed, and they may have Hurts in the lineup. The Giants, meanwhile, are locked into a wild-card spot (No. 6 seed) and have little to play for.
"That said, I don't expect New York to give minimal effort here, even if it rests starters. This is a divisional game, and the Giants have an opportunity to spoil Philly's bid for a first-round bye. While Hurts will potentially provide a big offensive boost, the Giants can keep things close by attacking the Eagles' run defense (24th in yards allowed per carry). And if the Eagles do get a big lead, I'd expect them to start pulling starters and coast to the playoffs. With all of this considered, 14 points is just too many for me to lay here."
Score Prediction: Eagles 31, Giants 21
Arizona Cardinals (4-12) at San Francisco 49ers (12-4)
DraftKings Line: 49ers -14
Still in the mix for the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers will likely play their starters for at least a portion of this contest. Head coach Kyle Shanahan shared his thoughts on his approach to Week 18 with reporters (h/t 49ers Webzone).
"I think about a lot of that stuff. I don't talk about it all. We'll see how it plays out, and we'll see what the situation is and I know one thing we would love to be the one seed, but right now we got the two seed and we want to make sure we at least stay the two seed. In order to do that, we need to win.
"Maybe if Minnesota lost before us, that wouldn't be the case, but I'm counting on us having to win to get that, and we're not going to know until the game's over whether we have a chance for the one seed. To me, there's only one thing that guys should be worried about and our team should be talking about, and that is beating Arizona."
The 49ers will face the Cardinals, who haven't won a game since Week 10 and will trot out quarterback David Blough for his second start of the season. Davenport didn't call for an upset win, but he's not comfortable laying 14 points with San Francisco in this circumstance.
"What self-respecting football fan wouldn't want to get on board the David Blah Express? Oh, it's Blough? Whatever. The Cardinals aren't a good team. In addition to starting their 16th quarterback of the season, the Redbirds will also be without DeAndre Hopkins on Sunday. But two full touchdowns is a lot to lay with a Niners team that could pull players in the second half with the postseason looming. This game screams backdoor cover by Arizona."
Consensus: 49ers -14
Score Prediction: 49ers 28, Cardinals 10
Los Angeles Rams (5-11) at Seattle Seahawks (8-8)
DraftKings Line: Seahawks -6
Before you count out the injury-riddled Los Angeles Rams, remember that they almost beat the Seattle Seahawks with quarterback John Wolford under center about a month ago, losing 27-23.
The public and most of our panel have sided with the Rams, but Moton went in the other direction to back the Seahawks, who can cling to their playoff hopes with a victory.
"The Seahawks will be fully invested in this game because they can clinch the No. 7 seed in the NFC playoff picture with a win plus a Green Bay Packers loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday night. If wideout Tyler Lockett plays through a leg injury, Seattle could find a lot of success throwing against the Rams' 22nd-ranked pass defense.
"As for the Rams, they've lost two of their last three games by 12 or more points. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has played well in four games with them, throwing for four touchdowns and one interception with a 67 percent completion rate, but he doesn't have the firepower (without Cooper Kupp or Allen Robinson II) to keep pace with Seattle's ninth-ranked scoring offense."
Consensus: Rams +6
Score Prediction: Seahawks 24, Rams 21
Dallas Cowboys (12-4) at Washington Commanders (7-8-1)
DraftKings Line: Cowboys -7
The Dallas Cowboys will likely conduct business as usual in a matchup with the Washington Commanders, who are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
If the Cowboys beat the Commanders, the Philadelphia Eagles lose to the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers lose to the Arizona Cardinals, they would climb from No. 5 to the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Dallas can claim the NFC East title with a win and an Eagles loss.
Because the Cowboys can still host a playoff game, they'll likely play their starters, which doesn't bode well for rookie fifth-round quarterback Sam Howell, who's set to make his debut start. Howell hasn't thrown a regular-season pass, and he'll probably have Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence bearing down on him in the pocket.
Most of our crew loves the Cowboys in this situation, though O'Donnell believes Week 18 action can bring some surprises, and this may be one of them.
"Washington could fall flat on its face in rookie Sam Howell's first career start in a meaningless Week 18 game against a Cowboys team that technically has something to play for if the Philadelphia Eagles lose to the New York Giants (game is being played at the same time). That's not the Ron Rivera way, though, and I don't expect this team to hand Dallas anything. I won't try to convince anyone to follow here, but I'll take the home team with the points because the final week of the season is always weird."
Consensus: Cowboys -7
Score Prediction: Cowboys 31, Commanders 20
Detroit Lions (8-8) at Green Bay Packers (8-8)
DraftKings Line: Packers -4.5
The NFL flexed this game into the Sunday Night Football prime-time slot to feature the Green Bay Packers, who can clinch a postseason berth with a win over an NFC North division rival in the Detroit Lions.
The Lions would make the playoffs with a win and a Seattle Seahawks loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Head coach Dan Campbell told reporters that his squad will play to win regardless of whether Detroit can fight for a playoff spot.
Since November, the Lions have been one of the hottest teams in the league, winning seven of their last nine games. Their impressive stretch started with a 15-9 victory over the Packers in Week 9.
Though Green Bay has put together a four-game winning streak to peak at the right time, O'Donnell expects the Pack to battle Detroit in a tight game.
"Yeah, plain and simple, I don't want to see the Packers in the postseason. There's a chance the Lions will be eliminated from playoff contention before this game even kicks off, but they're preparing like it's a playoff game. They've already beaten Green Bay once this season and whether they're battling for a postseason berth or pride, I'll take these points in what should be a fun, close game."
Consensus: Packers -4.5
Score Prediction: Packers 27, Lions 21
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