NFL straight-up picks, Week 18: Unpacking a weekend with playoff stakes and meaningless games (2024)

NFL straight-up picks, Week 18: Unpacking a weekend with playoff stakes and meaningless games (1)

Christian D'Andrea

January 4, 2024 7:01 am ET

Picking this year’s college bowl game winners was a special challenge. Opt-outs and transfer portal declarations left some rosters decimated and others relatively intact. Depth chart breakdowns and “who’s more excited to be there?” analysis were subject to the turnover of players looking out for themselves and their futures (rightfully so, to be clear) just as much as turnovers on the field itself.

That made it tricky to figure out who’d stand up across the slate of non-College Football Playoff games. And now we get a similar conundrum in Week 18 of the 2023 NFL season. The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers have each locked up home field advantage throughout the postseason and their conference’s respective first round byes. The Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions have each locked down division crowns and Wild Card hosting duties. A dozen teams have seen their Super Bowl hopes officially extinguished and Saturday/Sunday’s games are the only things standing between them and vacation time.

We already know stars like Patrick Mahomes and Christian McCaffrey won’t play. Other teams locked into playoff spots will take a similar tack when it comes to keeping key players healthy for more meaningful games. But we’re not sure exactly who that’ll be — and who’ll only play a couple series, who’ll sit out the second half, etc. When you’re making your full-week predictions on Wednesday, it makes things pretty difficult.

Welp, here are our best guesses. Anything with a ? suggests I struggled with the pick and might have overthought it. And check back closer to gameday for any changes that may have floated to the surface as news about teams resting players trickles in.

GameChristianCharlesPrinceMary
Steelers at RavensRavens?RavensSteelersRavens
Texans at ColtsTexans?TexansTexansTexans
Browns at BengalsBengalsBengalsBengalsBengals
Vikings at LionsLionsLionsLionsLions
Jaguars at TitansJaguarsJaguarsJaguarsJaguars
Jets at PatriotsPatriotsPatriotsPatriotsPatriots
Falcons at SaintsSaintsSaintsSaintsSaints
Buccaneers at PanthersBucsBucsBucsBucs
Bears at PackersBears?PackersPackersPackers
Broncos at RaidersRaidersRaidersRaidersRaiders
Eagles at GiantsEaglesEaglesEaglesEagles
Seahawks at CardinalsSeahawksSeahawksSeahawksSeahawks
Chiefs at ChargersChargersChargersChargersChargers
Rams at 49ers49ersRamsRamsRams
Cowboys at CommandersCowboysCowboysCowboysCowboys
Bills at DolphinsBills?BillsBillsBills
Last week:12-413-312-412-4
Year to date:180-76172-84163-93157-83

And here are those picks in an easier to digest chart.

NFL straight-up picks, Week 18: Unpacking a weekend with playoff stakes and meaningless games (2)

Easiest game to pick: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-5) over the Carolina Panthers

NFL straight-up picks, Week 18: Unpacking a weekend with playoff stakes and meaningless games (3)

AP Photo/Peter Joneleit

Everything is a mess in Charlotte, from the product on the field to the drink-flinging hedge fund manager whose meddling has only seemed to make things worse. David Tepper’s team has been a disaster, clinching a No. 1 draft pick the franchise won’t be able to make (it belongs to the Chicago Bears) in a season that saw Frank Reich last 11 games as head coach and the stunning disconnect of a defense that ranks third in yards allowed but 32nd in points given up.

The Bucs, on the other hand, need a win Sunday to make it to the postseason via the NFC South crown. Failure here would be the kind of lore-building exercise appropriate for a team once owned by Hugh Culverhouse, but is unlikely. Carolina just got smoked 26-0 by a Jaguars team that started CJ Beathard at quarterback. Now the Panthers get to return home to play out the string in front of a disinterested fan base that’s been served nothing but embarrassment this season.

Yeah, Tampa Bay should be fine.

Last week: 1-0 (1.000)
Season to date: 12-5 (.706)

Hardest favorite to back: Buffalo Bills (-3) at the Miami Dolphins

NFL straight-up picks, Week 18: Unpacking a weekend with playoff stakes and meaningless games (4)

AP Photo/Matt Durisko

I don’t trust the Dolphins. Miami has 11 wins but only one came against an opponent with a winning record. This is also the same team that went up to Orchard Park, New York in Week 4 and gave up 48 points to the same Bills they’ll face with the AFC East title on the line.

Buffalo took the momentum from that win and went 3-5 in the half-season that followed, giving the world plenty of reason not to trust Sean McDermott’s team. The Bills offense is turnover prone (two-plus in seven of 16 games this season. Their defense remains solid but depth is a concern thanks to unfortunate injuries. And this team is well versed in losing games it’s supposed to win; just look at losses to Zach Wilson and Mac Jones (and, kinda/sorta Russell Wilson) for evidence.

But here’s a weird sentence to write: the Buffalo Bills have truly galvanized after reports their head coach wanted the team to be more like Al-Qaeda surfaced. Hoooooo (deep sigh). Since then, Buffalo is 4-0 and has turned 14 percent playoff odds into a win-and-in situation thanks to post-bye victories over the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and, uh, two AFC teams we’re not gonna worry about right now. That’s enough to get me to believe in the Bills over the team whose only quality win this season came against a Cowboys team incapable of beating anyone of consequence on the road.

Last week: 1-0 (1.000)
Season to date: 16-1 (.941)

Upset pick of the week: Chicago Bears +3 over the Green Bay Packers

NFL straight-up picks, Week 18: Unpacking a weekend with playoff stakes and meaningless games (5)

Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

I picked against the Packers on the road last week on vibes alone, thinking a loss to the Minnesota Vikings to fall out of playoff contention would be the most damaging way to end the season — and in line with the frustrating collapses that have marred the otherwise successful Matt LaFleur era (and, before him, most of Mike McCarthy’s run). What I didn’t consider is that Green Bay could climb higher before the letdown, finding a way to run back 2022’s finish by getting to a win-and-in Week 18, then losing to a surging NFC North rival.

Last year it was the Detroit Lions. This year it’s the Chicago Bears, who’ve fielded the league’s best defense since Week 10. This is a very different team than the one Jordan Love wrapped up in a neat little package in his season opener. Chicago can bring pressure without blitzing and keep the defensive backfield stable with a higher class of defensive backs than the Vikings did in Week 17. The open windows Love exploited last Sunday won’t be as wide, and while he’s capable of stepping up and making big throws he’s also liable to backslide without warning — like he did after getting the Packers into playoff position, then losing back-to-back games against the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Bears won’t bring a great offense to Wisconsin, but even their current below-average unit will be a step above the mess offensive coordinator Luke Getsy vomited up in Week 1. Justin Fields has been significantly better in a gameplan with more designed runs and an emphasis on DJ Moore — two things missing in that season opener. Since Week 10 the Green Bay defense ranks 25th in expected points added (EPA) per play, paving the way for Chicago to ruin their biggest rival’s season in its final game of the year.

Last week: 0-1 (.000)
Season to date: 12-6 (.667)

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NFL straight-up picks, Week 18: Unpacking a weekend with playoff stakes and meaningless games (2024)

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