This is NFL Best Bets, a recurring series in which football experts and handicappers lend us their insights and picks for the most intriguing matchups for each week of the professional football season.
In our Week 18 edition of Best Bets, Thomas Gable, the director of race and sportsbook at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, sports betting reporter Josh Appelbaum of VSiN, and Mike Golic Jr. of DraftKings share their opinions on five games that will be played over the final weekend of the NFL’s regular season as the league’s playoff picture comes into focus. For a complete breakdown of all the playoff scenarios that could potentially unfold based on what happens in Week 18, read this popsicle headache. (Every team in the games below has a shot at the postseason besides the cellar-dwelling Titans and Panthers.)
You’ve got places to go, people to see and possibly some wagers to make, so let’s get to it.
Texans (-1.5, O/U 47.5) at Colts
Appelbaum’s Assessment: This line opened with the Colts listed as home favorites. We’ve seen this line flip to Texans -1.5, signaling some sharp “dog-to-favorite” line movement on Houston. The Texans are receiving 71% of bets and 83% of the money, indicating a combination of both public and sharp support. Now that the line has moved so much and Houston has become such a public primetime play, I’ll look to go the other way and tease the Colts from +1.5 to +7.5.
Gable’s Guess: The Colts have had a pretty wild season under first-year head coach Shane Steichen and making the playoffs would be pretty impressive for them. Houston’s C.J. Stroud deserves a lot of credit, but the defense for the Texans has been really good. They held the Titans to 187 total yards last week. If they get pressure on the quarterback and stop the run, it carries over into the secondary. I think this is Gardner Minshew versus Stroud. While Minshew has had his ups and downs this season, Stroud has continued to rise to the occasion. I’ll lay the points with the Texans.
Golic’s Gamble: A healthy C.J. Stroud is a big cause for concern for Indy, but the rest of the Texans squad is still dealing with some bumps and bruises. Houston has also lost a number of their top receiving options. I think the Colts’ steady approach on the ground and some timely Minshew plays will keep Indy in the mix. I’ll take the Colts with the points.
IH Best Bet: Primetime in a dome? Rolling with the over.
Jaguars (-3.5, O/U 39.5) at Titans
Appelbaum’s Assessment: This line opened with the Jags listed as a 3.5-point road favorite. The public is leaning on Jacksonville with 56% of bettors laying the points. However, we haven’t seen this line budge off -3.5. Meanwhile, the Titans are receiving only 44% of bets but 73% of the money, a notable “low bets, higher dollars” bet split. Tennessee has value as a divisional dog. Mike Vrabel is 28-22 ATS (56%) as a dog in his career. With Trevor Lawrence banged up, I’ll bank on a close game and take the Titans +3.5.
Gable’s Guess: You can’t get more straightforward than this. If the Jags win, they win their division. Jacksonville’s late-season struggles have allowed the Colts and Texans to believe they have a chance to win it too. The Jaguars’ issues always seem to be the same. They beat themselves a lot. This was a team that was supposed to be in the thick of things in the AFC, and they were in the first quarter of the season, but then the wheels started to come off. The Titans don’t have much to play for other than wanting to be a spoiler. The Titans are 4-3 in Nashville this season and all three losses were by 3 points. They’re certainly staying in games at home and I don’t think it’s going to be easy for Jacksonville. Even with Trevor Lawrence back, I’ll take the points with the Titans.
Golic’s Gamble: These teams are entirely too chaotic to be depended on. I’d lean Jags with the returns of Trevor Lawrence and wide receiver Christian Kirk looking promising, but an angry Titans team led by an angry head coach in Mike Vrabel will probably have a way of mucking things up no matter who is under center for Tennessee. I’ll side with the under.
IH Best Bet: Just a gut feeling, but betting the Jags will roll but Titans will put up a fight. Taking the over.
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Buccaneers (-4.5, O/U 37.5) at Panthers
Appelbaum’s Assessment: This line opened with the Bucs listed as a 6-point road favorite. The public is rushing to the window to lay the points with the Bucs. However, despite receiving 84% of bets, we’ve seen Tampa Bay fall from -6 to -5.5 or even -4.5. This indicates sharp line movement on Carolina, with pros grabbing the points. Carolina is only receiving 16% of bets. The top contrarian play of Week 18 also has correlative betting value as a dog in a low-total game (37.5). Carolina has value as a divisional dog and a dog off a blowout loss of 20 points or more (60% ATS since 2018). I’ll take the points with Carolina +4.5.
Gable’s Guess: Carolina’s offense has been horrendous. This is a football team that needs a reset and there probably aren’t too many teams looking forward to the offseason more than Carolina is. The first time these teams met, Tampa walked away with a 3-point victory. Tampa’s coming off a disappointing loss last weekend, but the team has exceeded expectations this year behind the quarterback play of Baker Mayfield. I don’t expect much from the Panthers here, especially after getting shut out by Jacksonville last week. Four turnovers did in the Bucs last week, but I see Tampa covering this number pretty easily. I’ll lay the points.
Golic’s Gamble: The Panthers have the worst vibes in the NFL. This team lacks the equipment to play spoiler, even amongst its NFC South peers (aside from you, Atlanta). Pro Bowl snub Antoine Winfield Jr. should lead the charge for a Bucs win and a franchise-record third straight division title. I’ll lay the points with Tampa.
IH Best Bet: The Panthers are a mess and the Bucs have something to play for. Laying the points.
Falcons (+3.5, O/U 42) at Saints
Appelbaum’s Assessment: This line opened with the Saints listed as a 3.5-point home favorite. The public is all over the Saints, with 69% of bets laying the points with New Orleans at home. However, despite this lopsided betting, we’ve seen New Orleans fall from -3.5 to -3 at several shops. This signals sharp reverse line movement on Atlanta, with pros leaning toward grabbing the points instead of laying them. The Falcons are receiving 31% of bets but 54% of the money, a sharp contrarian bet discrepancy. Dogs off a blowout loss of 20 points or more (like the Falcons) are 105-69 ATS (60%) since 2018. I’ll grab the Falcons plus the hook +3.5.
Gable’s Guess: Things are complicated here for the Saints. They need to win this game and hope Carolina can pull off the upset against Tampa. If Tampa wins, things get a lot more convoluted. Unfortunately for them, a lot of the teams on the playoff bubble hold wins over them this season. Derek Carr has thrown two or more TDs in four consecutive games as the Saints’ offensive line has gotten better. Not much has gone right for Atlanta coach Arthur Smith in the latter half of the season and the calls for him to be fired have gotten louder. The quarterback play has been terrible this year. We knew if the Falcons were going to make the playoffs this season, they would need good quarterback play. I think the Saints get this done at home, but it’s a stay-away for me unless the number drops back to 3.
Golic’s Gamble: Atlanta’s defense becoming the strength of the team was one of the bright spots of the year, but it was not on my bingo card entering 2023. These teams head into 2024 ranked fifth (Saints) and seventh (Falcons) in expected points allowed per play on defense and both should provide a stiff test for a pair of mediocre offensive units. Give me the under.
IH Best Bet: Don’t really trust either team, but trust the Saints slightly more. Laying the points.
Bills (-3, O/U 49.5) at Dolphins
Appelbaum’s Assessment: This line opened with the Bills listed as a 2-point road favorite. We’ve seen Buffalo rise from -2 to -3, signaling wise-guy money laying the points with Buffalo. Currently, 56% of bets and 67% of the money is backing the Bills, signaling modest public support but also heavy sharp action. The Bills are surging and blew out Miami earlier this season 48-20. Meanwhile, the Dolphins are dealing with a plethora of injuries and have struggled against teams above .500 all season long. I’ll back the Bills to win the game on the moneyline -155.
Gable’s Guess: I feel like we’ve been building to this game for weeks now and it was kind of destined these two teams would play for the division. The Bills have been hot and have been moving up the power rankings. Miami not only lost to Baltimore last week, which would’ve wrapped up the division, but they also lost some key players. The toughest blow was the edge rusher Bradley Chubb tearing his ACL. Miami could be heading into this game very shorthanded. Tua is trending toward playing, but they’ve been dealing with injuries on the offensive line as well. The Bills are playing this game to win the division, but there is a scenario where they could miss the playoffs if they lose. Miami is not facing the same scenario. All the momentum seems to be with Buffalo and Miami is facing significant injuries. I’ll lay the points with the Bills.
Golic’s Gamble: Buffalo ran into a bad matchup last week against New England in a look-ahead game. The Bills risk missing the playoffs if a few results go sideways for them and should have a sense of urgency against a Dolphins team that got beat up on the scoreboard and physically against the Ravens last week. I think Buffalo punches their postseason ticket and completes one of the more improbable division title runs that I can remember. I’ll lay the points.
IH Best Bet: Due to the standings, Buffalo has more riding on this game than Miami does. Laying the points.
Last Week: 4-1, This Season: 41-34-4
Editor’s note: Betting lines fluctuate based on injuries, the weather and other factors. Double-check the odds before betting.