The Professor’s NFL Week 18 Games of the Week Part One

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The Professor's NFL Week 18 Games of the Week Part One

The NFL playoff picture is largely set going into Week 18, but a few pieces of the puzzle still need to fall into place; The Professor’s Games of the Week will help you sort out the most likely scenarios in the NFL’s final week. This article will cover the Titans at the Texans, the Chiefs at the Broncos, the Colts at the Jaguars, and the Steelers at the Ravens, while Part Two of The Professor’s NFL Games of the Week will cover the Chargers at the Raiders, the Cowboys at the Eagles, the 49ers at the Rams, and the Saints at the Falcons. All spreads and totals are provided by DraftKings.

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans (TEN -10.5, Total 43)

Tennessee’s star-studded offense got most of the team’s offseason spotlight, but while dreams of the combination of Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones have not come to fruition, the once-maligned defense has improved dramatically this season. Tennessee’s defense is sixth in opponent yards per carry, 18th in opponent net yards per pass attempt, and most importantly, sixth in opponent third-down conversion rate, a critical area where the Titans had been historically bad during stretches of 2019 and 2020.

That defense shut the Jaguars out four weeks ago and held the Dolphins to three points last week, and now they get another matchup against a Houston team that they held to 190 total yards in their first matchup this season. The Texans were able to upset the Titans 22-13 in that game because of quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s four-interception performance, but Houston can’t count on that in the rematch. Davis Mills has replaced Tyrod Taylor at quarterback since that first game, so Houston will bring a different look this time around, but it will likely be tough sledding against the Tennessee defense, and if Tannehill performs to his usual standard, Tennessee should be able to win this game and secure the AFC’s top seed.

The first-round bye that would come with the top seed is particularly valuable given that most NFL analysts and sportsbooks still point to Kansas City as the AFC Favorite, with the Titans coming in third behind the Bills at many books. There are legitimate reasons that analysts have had reservations about the Titans throughout the NFL season, but Tennessee also beat the Chiefs and Bills earlier in the season, and from a basic probability standpoint, the difference between winning two and three playoff games in a league with as much parity as the NFL is massive. The Titans have had their share of doubters, but if they take care of business this week, they will be well-positioned for a Super Bowl run.


Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos (KC -10.5, Total 44.5)

Quarterback Joe Burrow and the Bengals picked up a comeback win against Kansas City on Sunday, but while the loss likely cost the Chiefs the AFC’s top seed, this team is far from lost. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes would have had an opportunity to either tie or win the game in regulation were it not for a bizarre sequence of penalties that allowed the Bengals to run the clock out at the end of the game, and while the Chiefs’ defense did allow a few breakdowns, a lot of the damage Burrow and receiver Ja’Marr Chase did was elite offensive play beating solid defense, which will happen in 2021’s NFL.

The Chiefs get a chance to rebound against a Broncos team that is set to start Drew Lock once again. Teddy Bridgewater has shown he is not the long-term solution at quarterback, but while this could be seen as another opportunity to evaluate Lock going into the NFL offseason, it is hard to imagine Lock playing well enough to offset his underwhelming track record. However, with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger set to retire and a lackluster draft class coming in, there are few ways to upgrade at quarterback this offseason, so it is in the realm of possibility that if Lock turns in a strong stat line this week, the decision-makers in the organization will convince themselves Lock could be the answer moving forward.

If that happens, Denver will find themselves in a similar situation at this time next year; in a division with Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and Derek Carr at quarterback for the other three teams, mediocre quarterback play is not going to get it done, and the combination of Bridgewater and Lock is not going to provide more than that. Problems often arise within an organization when the general manager and head coach are not on the same timetable, and that is the case in Denver, where George Paton passed on two talented quarterbacks (Justin Fields and Mac Jones) in his first NFL Draft to take cornerback Patrick Surtain, who fit in the win-now mentality of head coach Vic Fangio, who was on the hot seat entering the NFL season. Surtain is an outstanding player, but Denver is on the outside of the NFL playoffs ahead of an NFL Draft that does not have a quarterback who would have ranked in the top five prospects of last year’s draft.

Those are big-picture considerations; in the short term, the Chiefs have the opportunity to tee off on a dysfunctional Denver organization that had Peyton Manning at quarterback the last time they beat Kansas City. If the Titans stumble, the Chiefs are well-positioned to grab the AFC’s top seed, which would make them the overwhelming favorites to win the conference, given that they have the shortest odds at DraftKings despite the Titans holding the top seed.


Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars (IND -15, Total 44)

The Colts-Jaguars matchup is more notable for how the outcome will affect the rest of the puzzle than for the matchup itself, which pits one of the NFL’s better head coaches, Frank Reich, against a team that developed under the oversight of arguably the worst head coach in NFL history, Urban Meyer.

Reich’s ability to win with so many quarterbacks over the past half-decade is a testament to his coaching, as well as his synergy with general manager Chris Ballard, but the work Reich has done to rally his 2018 and 2021 teams from 1-5 and 1-4 starts to make the playoffs is even more remarkable. Quarterback Carson Wentz has not played at a particularly high level, and questions will remain about their viability as a playoff contender until we get to Wild Card Weekend, but running back Jonathan Taylor’s outstanding play has allowed Indianapolis to continue half-a-decade of quality play. The Colts may not feel like a championship contender with the way Wentz has played, but in a wide-open AFC, their combination of a strong run game and defense could allow them to surprise some people when the NFL’s tournament kicks off.

Indianapolis needs a win over Jacksonville to seal their spot in the playoffs, but while a resilient Raiders team was able to knock them off last week, it will be difficult for the Jaguars to match the feat. Granted, the Colts did have a blocked punt for a touchdown in a 23-17 win the first time these teams faced off, but the Jaguars got one of their two touchdowns on a 66-yard stretch play, and more importantly, the organization has hit times that could generously be called “rocky”; that loss to the Colts kicked off their current eight-game losing streak, and the losses are almost a side note alongside the organizational dysfunction. Steelers and Ravens’ fans will have their eye on the Colts-Jaguars score as the two games take place during Sunday’s morning slate, but it would be a shock if the winner of the AFC North matchup gets the help they need from a Jaguars team coming off a 50-10 loss to the Patriots.


Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens (BAL -5, Total 41.5)

It is far from the biggest stage the Steelers and Ravens have met on during quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame career, but these AFC North rivals each have a chance to make the playoffs with a win in this matchup combined with an Indianapolis loss, and that chance of getting into the NFL tournament should mean that both teams come ready to roll.

The Steelers emptied the tank in their Monday Night victory over the Browns, but while it is fair to be concerned about a letdown after an emotional night, Pittsburgh also gets to match up with a Ravens team that can’t buy a win right now, an issue that dates back to the Ravens’ failed two-point conversion that sealed their loss to the Steelers the first time around. Baltimore got blown out by the Bengals in a loss two weeks ago, but they have lost the other four games in their current five-game slide by a total of five points, an almost unbelievable number. The Ravens have been decimated by injuries since training camp, which makes the fact that they are in the NFL playoff race at all a remarkable accomplishment, and losing by such narrow margins only makes what head coach John Harbaugh and his staff have done throughout this difficult season more impressive.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson is still working back from an ankle injury; assuming the former NFL MVP is unable to go, it will be on Tyler Huntley to manage the pace of the offense in a way that disrupts Pittsburgh’s edge rusher T.J. Watt’s rhythm. Watt enters this game with an eye on Michael Strahan’s NFL sack record despite missing two games earlier this season; he will match up with right tackle Patrick Mekari, who has been surprisingly solid after moving from guard and center to tackle this season but also signed a recent extension for three years at roughly five million dollars per year, which is less than 25% of what the NFL’s best offensive tackles make. Hopefully, the Ravens give Mekari more help than the Browns gave their right tackle, rookie James Hudson, against Watt, or Watt could build off last Monday Night’s four-sack performance and flirt with 25 to smash Strahan’s mark.

Conclusion

This article previewed four prominent NFL matchups for the coming week. For more content from The Professor, including the rest of his game previews and his fantasy content, check out The Professor on BeerLife Sports!

About the author:

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Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.

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