Final week of the NFL season is one of the most difficult to handicap

Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs are big favorites over the visiting Chargers, but Philip Rivers has a knack for big games when the Chargers are big underdogs.
(Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

Five oddsmakers put their heads together in a back room of the Westgate SuperBook early Sunday night. It’s a weekly meeting during the NFL season, but this one was different because it’s Week 17.

It was time to post opening lines. There were playoff scenarios and different motivational angles to debate. Nothing is routine about the final week of the regular season.

The arguments heated up when the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game was on the table. Baltimore clinched the top seed in the AFC, so it was assumed coach John Harbaugh will sit several starters in a meaningless game for the Ravens. Pittsburgh needs to win and get help — a Tennessee loss at Houston — to make the playoffs.


“This was the one we talked about the most,” said John Murray, SuperBook director. “I doubt Harbaugh will sit all 12 of his Pro Bowlers. I don’t think the Baltimore backups are going to lay down and let the Steelers beat them. But there were people in the room saying the Steelers should be favored.”

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Dec. 23, 2019

The Westgate and William Hill books opened the Ravens as one-point favorites. On Monday, after Harbaugh announced quarterback Lamar Jackson will sit out and Robert Griffin III will start, the favorite flipped to the Steelers as one-point favorites.

“In the regular season, Week 17 is the hardest by far,” said Nick Bogdanovich, William Hill sportsbook director. “It’s sort of like preseason because you’re just waiting on information and you’re guessing. When push comes to shove, the majority of the money will be just on teams who need to win.”

Kansas City needs to win, but that statement comes with an asterisk. The Chiefs can claim the No. 2 seed by beating the Chargers and getting help. But the help needed is a New England loss to Miami, and that’s a long shot with the Patriots favored by 16½.

“If the Chiefs look up and see New England is leading Miami 21-0, the Chiefs could take their starters off the field,” Murray said. “You are dealing with a lot of in-between numbers. You are going through every scenario. It takes a little while to do the Week 17 lines.”

The Chiefs are 7½-point favorites over the Chargers, who are playing for nothing. Still, Philip Rivers and the Chargers tend to be better when playing as road underdogs with no pressure.


With Houston clinching the AFC South, only the conference’s sixth spot is up for grabs. Tennessee will get the final spot with a win at Houston or losses by the Steelers and Indianapolis. It makes little sense for Houston coach Bill O’Brien to play quarterback Deshaun Watson, so the Titans are a 5-point road favorite.

“The Texans really have nothing to play for, so my guess is Houston probably will rest Watson and get him ready for the wild-card game,” Murray said.

The NFC playoff puzzle is more complex from top to bottom.

Dallas needs a two-team parlay to hit to win the NFC East and reach the postseason as the No. 4 seed. The Cowboys must defeat Washington and hope Philadelphia falls in its finale against the New York Giants.

“Sometimes the team that needs to win to make the playoffs is a little tight, and you might find an advantage,” said Chuck Edel, a Las Vegas professional bettor. “The public will bet Philly off its big win over Dallas. The Giants don’t need the game, so they can be loose as a goose, and I’m looking at the Giants in this situation.”

The Eagles are 4½-point favorites over the Giants, who can play spoilers and suddenly have momentum after rookie Daniel Jones returned to pass for 352 yards and five touchdowns in an overtime victory over the Redskins. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are 11-point favorites over the Redskins.

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Dec. 23, 2019

The San Francisco-Seattle game to decide the NFC West is no handicapping mystery. The Seahawks are three-point home underdogs. The 49ers can earn the No. 1 seed with a win or play on the road in the wild-card round with a loss.

Playoff seeds for the 49ers, Saints, Packers, Seahawks and Vikings are to be determined.

“It’s wild,” Bogdanovich said. “It has been a wild year.”

It’s so wild, even Oakland (7-8) still has a playoff shot. The Raiders must win as a 3½-point underdog at Denver and hope several other dominoes fall their way.

Buffalo is locked into the fifth seed in the AFC. The Bills, one-point home favorites over the New York Jets, might opt to start quarterback Josh Allen and other key players but not play them the entire game.

Second-half and in-game wagering lines could take dramatic swings based on teams pulling starters as the games develop.

“It’s kind of like a mixture of college bowl games and NFL preseason,” Edel said. “Motivation plays a big role in Week 17.”

Playing in their final game at Dignity Health Sports Park, the Chargers struggle behind a battered Philip Rivers in a 24-17 loss to the Raiders.

Dec. 22, 2019