This is the time in the NFL season when motivation matters most, and the scenarios are no secrets to handicappers and oddsmakers. Playoff seeds are up for grabs in each conference, some playoff spots still can be claimed, and several teams already eliminated are reaching for reasons to play with a purpose.
“The first thing to keep in mind for the teams that need to win is if they could win whenever they wanted, they would not be in this position,” said Scott Kellen, a professional bettor and NFL analyst for VSiN. “The ‘need to win’ teams are typically laying more points than they should.”
The Seattle Seahawks emerged from the weekend as the NFC’s No. 1 seed, but New Orleans was set to move to the top spot if the Saints defeated Indianapolis on Monday night, and Seattle could fall to No. 5 when the smoke clears.
The NFC looks like a crazy race to the wire. Four teams are in the running for the No. 1 seed, and each of the four could slide to the fifth spot. Green Bay, currently No. 2, could slip to sixth.
Teams in must-win spots have a magnetizing effect on the betting public.
“Always have and always will,” William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said. “The teams in must-win situations are usually inflated favorites.”
The Pittsburgh-New YorkJets game is a prime example in Week 16. The public probably will be attracted to Pittsburgh, which would reach the playoffs by winning its final two games. The Steelers are three-point road favorites over the Jets on Sunday.
The Baltimore Ravens, who crushed the Jets, 42-21, as 17-point favorites last Thursday, are close to clinching the AFC’s top seed. Baltimore is a 10-point favorite at Cleveland this week. The line opened at nine, but it’s obvious to bookmakers where the money will show.
New England is a 6½-point home favorite over Buffalo on Saturday. New England can clinch the AFC East with a win and needs to hold off Kansas City for the No. 2 seed.
Buffalo is in the postseason. Houston still has work to do. The Texans, who hold the upper hand on Tennessee in the AFC South, are 2½-point favorites at Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Seattle is a 9½-point home favorite over Arizona on Sunday and hosts San Francisco in a high-stakes NFC showdown in Week 17.
With the NFC North title on the line, Green Bay is a four-point underdog at Minnesota on Monday. The NFC East is a battle between Dallas and Philadelphia. Dallas is a 2½-point favorite at Philadelphia this week. The division winner is locked into the No. 4 seed and will host a wild-card game.
The bottom line for bettors is to approach the final two weeks with caution, because it’s never safe to assume a team in a must-win spot will cash a ticket.
USC hasn’t been drawing much support against Iowa in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27. The point spread has USC as an underdog of 1½ or two points, depending on the sportsbook. The over/under has settled at 52. It’s an interesting test for total-points handicappers, as USC’s games averaged 61 points, Iowa’s just 37.
USC’s basketball team moved to 9-2 with a win Sunday over Long Beach State. But at 87-76, the Trojans didn’t cover the 17-point spread. USC fell to 5-6 against the spread.
UCLA wasted an opportunity to impress the selection committees with a 75-61 loss Saturday at Notre Dame as a 6½-point underdog. The Bruins are now 7-4 straight up, 6-5 against the spread, but outside the top 110 teams nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s computer rankings.
In the NBA, the Lakers extended their straight-up record to 24-3 on Sunday with a 101-96 win at Atlanta. That margin failed to reach the very high point spread of -12. The Lakers are still moneymakers for the season at 16-11 against the spread.
The Clippers wrapped up a mostly successful Eastern swing with a lethargic loss at lowly Chicago on Saturday. They still went 4-2 straight up and against the spread, concluding the trip 20-8 and 16-12.
Youmans and Fogle write for VSiN.com.