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 more likely scenarios in the NFL’s final week. This first article in this series covered the Titans at the Texans, the Chiefs at the Broncos, the Colts at the Jaguars, and the Steelers at the Ravens, while this article 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.
Los Angeles Chargers at Las Vegas Raiders (LAC -3, Total 49)
When these teams met on Monday Night Football in Week Four, the Raiders were 3-0, the Chargers 2-1, and Los Angeles quarterback Justin Herbert turned in a three-touchdown, zero interception performance to lead the Chargers to a 28-14 victory. Fast-forward fourteen weeks and these teams will close out Week 18 and the NFL regular season with a playoff berth on the line. The Chargers and Raiders could both make the NFL playoffs if they tie, but while Chargers head coach Brandon Staley seemed amused by the potential of a complicit tie, he dismissed the possibility out of hand.
If Las Vegas can win this game to complete their late-season playoff run, the Raiders could end up moving forward with quarterback Derek Carr and head coach Rich Bisaccia in the 2022 NFL season, a scenario that seemed implausible a month ago. This organization seemed set for a full reset after a long series of disasters headlined (at least from a football standpoint) by the departure of head coach/football czar Jon Gruden, but with the way that Carr has rallied the team, it would be a surprise to see Las Vegas move on from their veteran signal-caller given the dearth of options available at the position this offseason.
Carr is set up with a favorable matchup against a Chargers defense that has struggled throughout the season, but it would also go a long way if the Raiders’ defense can continue their recent success. That might not happen, however; while the Raiders have held four of their past six opponents to 20 points or less, the Cowboys scored 33 and the Chiefs scored 48 in the other two games in that stretch, and the quarterbacks they held in check include Carson Wentz (IND), Drew Lock (DEN), Nick Mullens (CLE), and Taylor Heinicke (WSH), who are not on the same level as Justin Herbert. Herbert’s talent has been on display all season, and the rest of the AFC Playoff field would probably prefer to see Carr and the Raiders get in, and given the Chargers’ inconsistencies this season, it could certainly play out that way.
Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles (DAL -5.5, Total 43.5)
This NFC East matchup may disappoint, as both teams have little to gain with their playoff positions close to locked in, but the Eagles do have the potential to shake up the matchups in the NFC bracket if they defeat the Cowboys and the 49ers lose to the Rams. Given the way the Cowboys blew the doors off the Eagles earlier this season, Philadelphia head coach Nick Sirianni and his staff may also want to even the score in this critical rivalry, rather than risking another loss that would hang over this organization throughout the NFL offseason.
The first game between these teams came during the period earlier this season when Philadelphia’s offense used a pass-heavy approach, and in retrospect, that approach made the least sense against the Cowboys of any team the Eagles faced. Dallas has an explosive, talented defense, but defensive coordinator Dan Quinn prefers to operate out of sub-packages that leave the Cowboys susceptible to getting overpowered when they face a run-heavy offense like the one the Eagles have turned into, which features some massive bodies (left tackle Jordan Mailata, left guard Landon Dickerson, right tackle Lane Johnson) along the offensive line.
If Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts is available to operate the quarterback-centric run game he can orchestrate, the Cowboys would be in particular trouble, but they could struggle against Philadelphia’s starting offensive line even if Gardner Minshew is at quarterback and running back Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, and Jordan Howard are all unavailable. It’s all a moot point if Philadelphia rests their line, but if the Eagles can come out and play bully ball on offense, they will tighten up the 2022 odds for the NFC East and create questions about whether the Cowboys need to tweak this defense in the offseason.
San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams (LAR -4.5, Total 44)
San Francisco comes into this game in control of their own destiny for the NFL playoffs; given that quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo’s thumb injury in the Titans game contributed to him throwing two back-breaking interceptions, and that backup quarterback Trey Lance led a second-half rally to secure last week’s win against the Texans, it would be a surprise to see Garoppolo return unless he is fully healthy.
The 49ers have shown they feel Garoppolo is ahead of Lance at this point, but given the resources they devoted to acquiring Lance, it would not be the worst thing in the world if Garoppolo isn’t available for this game. San Francisco is talented enough to go on another Super Bowl run this season, but a lot would have to break their way, and unless Garoppolo is set to lead them to the promised land, which seems unlikely, the 49ers are better off riding with Lance. If Lance falters and the 49ers lose, then their prized rookie will go into the NFL offseason with that much more knowledge of what he needs to do to improve, not to mention a live game against Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and the rest of a Rams defense Lance will see a lot of over the next few seasons.
Los Angeles currently has the NFC’s second seed; given the team’s shaky performances in their last two wins and the fact that they have lost five straight games to the 49ers, this is a critical moment for quarterback Matthew Stafford. Stafford’s recent string of pick-sixes hasn’t cost the Rams yet, but those mistakes will catch up to his team sooner or later, and given that Stafford started the first 49ers game with a deep interception on his first drive and a pick-six on his second, it is critical that he gets things straightened out this week. The Rams opened as a 6.5 point favorite on the look-ahead lines, a number that has dropped after the Rams’ near-loss to the Ravens, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 49ers win this game outright regardless of who they have under center.
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons (NO -4.5, Total 39.5)
Somehow, someway, head coach Sean Payton and the Saints still have an opportunity to make the NFL Playoffs. In a season where New Orleans has started Jameis Winston, Trevor Siemian, Taysom Hill, and Ian Book at quarterback, that is remarkable.
The Saints need to beat the Falcons and get help from the Rams to keep their hopes alive, but the Atlanta game may not be as easy as some think. While New Orleans has had Tampa Bay’s number on offense this season, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan went 23 of 30 for 343 yards in Atlanta’s victory the first time these teams faced off. The Saints were able to eliminate the Falcons’ ground game, as Falcons running back Mike Davis racked up a team-leading 13 yards on nine carries in that game, which will make it difficult for Ryan to repeat his performance, but the quarterback has shown he has the tools to succeed even in those circumstances. Even so, if Cam Jordan, Demario Davis, and the rest of the New Orleans defense snuff out the run again in this game, Ryan will be hard-pressed to post another zero-interception performance.
New Orleans will bring a different offensive look into this game with Hill at quarterback, though that may not be a significant boost from the last matchup, given that Siemian played one of his better games. One thing that is unlikely to change is running back Alvin Kamara leading the Saints in both rushing and receiving, as he did the first teams these teams faced off. Kamara has already posted 16 more carries than any other season in his NFL career despite only playing 12 games, but that increased workload on the ground is balanced out by Kamara’s reduced volume in the passing game. In a win-or-go-home situation, look for the Saints to lean heavily on their star running back throughout this game.
This article previewed four prominent NFL matchups for the coming week and talked about how to bet them. For more content from The Professor, including the rest of his game previews and his fantasy content, check out The Professor on BeerLife Sports!