Of all the weeks in the NFL season, Week 18 might be the hardest to navigate from a betting perspective. You have to assess the motivation level of every team, but at the same time be careful not to give motivation too much weight. Some teams will rest starters the entire game, others will play starters for parts of a game and some teams might even play their starters entirely too long for no reason. Looking at you, Brandon Staley.
Once you navigate the muddy waters and try to gather all of the relevant information and handicap factors that are nearly impossible to handicap, you might find yourself with a few bets you like. Those bets could be looking like easy winners for 59 minutes, and then it all comes crashing down. To add to the craziness of Week 18, we saw two epic bad beats unfold in Sunday afternoon's early slate.
Entering Week 18, the formula for the Houston Texans was simple: lose and clinch the first overall pick of the upcoming NFL draft.
Of course, players don't care about the organization from a macro level like that. Their careers are far too short and every time they get on an NFL field is an opportunity for them to put plays on tape and earn more money down the line. On top of that, unless a coach is very secure in their job, they don't have the luxury of losing games for better draft picks either. As we saw on Sunday night, Lovie Smith certainly wasn't secure in his job as the Texans fired him after just one season.
Houston entered its season finale against the Indianapolis Colts as a 3-point road underdog. The Texans came out to an early 10-0 lead thanks to a Brandin Cooks touchdown and Ka'imi Fairbairn field goal in the first quarter. The Colts immediately answered with Sam Ehlinger finding Michael Pittman Jr. for a touchdown to cut into Houston's lead.
It was actually a fun back-and-forth game between two of the league's worst teams. If you bet the game to go over 37.5 points, you had little to no sweat. Early in the fourth quarter, Ehlinger found Mo Alie-Cox to give Indianapolis a 4-point lead. With 3:37 remaining, Chase McLaughlin connected on a 54-yard field goal to extend the lead to 7.
Bettors who had the Colts were feeling good. They just needed Indianapolis' defense to stop Davis Mills and they would have the win in the bag. Houston could clinch the first overall pick and all would be right in the world.
With 1:26 left, the Texans faced a fourth-and-12 from midfield. Mills found Cooks for a 30-yard gain to keep the drive going. With under a minute left, Mills was sacked by Zaire Franklin on third down, setting up a fourth-and-20 from the 28-yard line. On the ensuing play, Mills was flushed out of the pocket and in the face of pressure, he threw up a prayer. The ball went right through the hands of a Colts defensive back and into the bread basket of tight end Jordan Akins.
Of course, neither team wanted this game to go to overtime so the Texans went for 2. Mills again found Akins to give Houston a 1-point lead. Ehlinger and the Colts got the ball to midfield, but ran out of time and couldn't get into field goal range.
Houston converted two fourth-and-long plays on their final drive and messed up their draft positioning. Their fans probably aren't all too happy on Monday morning, and bettors who had the Colts feel their pain.
'Pitchy pitchy woo woo' never ends well
The Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets could have played 40 quarters of football on Sunday and I'm still not sure either team would have found the end zone. In that type of game, you'd probably want to take the 3.5 points with the underdog.
The Miami Dolphins needed a win over the Jets and then needed New England to lose to Buffalo in order to get into the playoffs. They got both of those results, but for bettors, it was the margin of victory and the method in which they achieved it that was all the talk.
With just about 20 seconds left in the game, Jason Sanders kicked a 50-yard field goal to give Miami a 9-6 lead over the Jets. With how things were looking in the Patriots game, it was rather apparent at the time that this kick was sending Miami to the playoffs. However, bettors who had the Dolphins weren't satisfied. Miami closed as a 3.5-point favorite.
Of course, anyone who has any experience betting on football knew that this game wasn't over. The Jets got the ball back with 18 seconds left. Joe Flacco threw two incomplete passes. With five seconds left on their own 25-yard line, it was time to unleash the old-school, backyard mayhem that Scott Van Pelt has coined "pitchy pitchy woo woo." Flacco found Wilson who then decided to lateral the ball backward. The Jets kept throwing the ball backward until it ended up in the hands of Elijah Moore, who was near the goal line. Moore tried a lateral, the ball bounced off a defender and then out of the end zone for a safety.
The points were meaningless in the outcome of the game, so nobody was overly focused on that. In fact, the broadcast flashed 9-6 as the final score before it went to commercial break. However, in the above clip, you can see the official make a half-hearted safety call. Those 2 points counted and they meant a lot to a whole bunch of people.
Just remember, you don't win a bet until you survive the heart-wrenching lateral play at the end of games.
Public wins five favorite bets
The betting public had a solid Week 18 to wrap up the NFL regular season. In fact, the public's five most popular bets all cashed.
The most popular public bet of Sunday was the Minnesota Vikings to cover as a 7-point favorite against the Chicago Bears. Minnesota was going to play its starters for at least the first half as it still was technically playing for the No. 2 seed in the NFC. On the other hand, the Bears were starting Nathan Peterman at quarterback as Justin Fields was injured. Minnesota won and covered with ease in a 29-13 victory.
Bettors also liked the New York Giants to keep it close against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles needed a victory to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC, while the Giants had absolutely nothing to play for. Davis Webb started at quarterback for New York while Saquon Barkley, Dexter Lawrence, Andrew Thomas and Leonard Williams were all inactive. As a result, the Eagles closed as 16.5-point favorites. Philadelphia came out to a 19-0 lead but New York didn't quit late. The final score ended up being a 22-16 victory for Philadelphia and a cover for the Giants.
Cincinnati was another popular bet for the betting public. Most of the action came with the Bengals as a 9-point favorite before kickoff as news was spreading that Tyler Huntley likely wasn't going to play. Once it was official that Anthony Brown would start at quarterback for Baltimore, the spread moved to 11.5 points. The Bengals ended up winning the game by 11 points. There's a lesson to be learned here about being on top of news and not waiting until the last second to place your bets.
Other popular bets for the public were the Buffalo Bills to cover as a 7.5-point favorite over the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams to keep it within 6 points against the Seattle Seahawks. Buffalo beat the Patriots by 12 and the Rams lost to the Seahawks by a field goal in overtime.
Unders, underdogs finish season as winners
The story of the majority of this NFL season was that games weren't featuring as many points as we were accustomed to and that underdogs were keeping games close at a high rate.
In Week 18, both underdogs and unders went 9-7. It's a fitting cap to a season that saw both of those sides cash tickets for bettors at a high rate.
On the season, unders went 149-119-3, which was good for a 55.6% win rate. What's even more impressive about that is that oddsmakers certainly adjusted for the lack of scoring as the season went on. In Week 18, eight games featured a closing over/under point total of 40 points or lower. Only two games on the schedule had a closing total over 44 points.
Underdogs went 141-118-8 on the season, cashing for bettors at a very profitable 54.4% rate. We saw four underdogs win outright in Week 18: Washington, Carolina, Detroit and Houston.