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Red Zone Returns – Week 18

While the NFL regular season is coming to an end and much of the playoff picture is clear, there are still winners to be found in Week 18.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers have been relatively tough to pick throughout the NFL season. They’ve been a lot better at home than playing away but are still the worst team in the league against the spread at 4-10-2. Here, they play at home against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that can finish on top of the NFC South with a win.

Pushing the numbers and form aside for a second, we’ve got a Panthers team playing for nothing and for an owner they surely don’t want to play for…

…and a Buccaneers team led by a much-improved Baker Mayfield with a divisional title at stake.

The Bucs laid an egg against the New Orleans Saints last week. That isn’t all that surprising, though. They’ve been relatively inconsistent all year and are just as likely to catch fire in this game only a week later. Meanwhile, a decidedly average Jacksonville Jaguars team shut out the Panthers in Week 17. Whatever fight they’d shown with the worst record in the NFL up to that point seems to have gone.

Christmas has come a couple of weeks late for Tampa Bay. This is a gift and they should take it with relative ease.

Best Bet TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS -4.5 @ $1.89*

Dallas Cowboys @ Washington Commanders

We’re playing the number and hoping Jacoby Brissett is made available for this one.

Originally named to start before being ruled out with a hamstring injury last week, the Washington Commanders +12.5 appeals with Brissett under centre. The Sam Howell experiment is over. At least, is should be. An erratic and inconsistent quarterback who couldn’t stop himself from being sacked doesn’t have an immediate future in the NFL if one at all. Brissett might not be a world-beater, but he offers a lot more stability. Regardless of the quarterback, though, the big number appeals at home.

The Dallas Cowboys are a different team on the road. Going back to after Week 16:

” Dallas has scored 39.9 points per game while only giving up 15.4 points per game. That home offence is on another level. One that wouldn’t be maintained in the offseason even if they did manage to play at home. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are 3-5 overall on the road scoring only 21.5 points per game and conceding 22.3 points per game.”

Still with a chance to win the division, the Cowboys are unlikely to rest their starters. They will want to play themselves into playoff form, too. While a win over the Commanders on the road won’t do a lot to ease the concerns about their ability to do it on the road, it would be a start. We’re not seeing a straight-up loss here.

However, the Dallas defence has struggled of late. They’re 29th in success rate allowed since Week 12. Whether it be Brissett or Howell, the Commanders should be able to get the ball up the field. Add in Dallas’ poor running game and there is the recipe for a close game.

Best Bet WASHINGTON COMMANDERS +12.5 @ $1.94*

Minnesota Vikings @ Detroit Lions

Jared Goff indoors is always something to get excited about.

He’s 33-16 against the spread with a roof over his head and 34-35-2 without one.

The expectation is for the Detroit Lions to play their starters, too.

Perhaps it isn’t the whole game, but as long as it’s close, the starters will likely be out on the field for Detroit.

While the Lions fell to the Cowboys last week, they’re 4-0 against the spread following a defeat this season. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings were thrashed 33-10 by a Green Bay Packers team inept in defence and have covered in only two of their eight games after a loss.

These two teams met only a fortnight ago. The 30-24 scoreline suggests a closer game than what as the Lions clinched their first divisional title since 1993. In reality, Detroit controlled the game and did so via Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery combining for 169 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns.

There is the risk of the Lions taking it easy but it isn’t in Dan Campbell’s nature. He is still fuming after a wild post-game press conference last week and will be trying to instil that fire in his players to start this one, at least. We’re relying on the Lions starting strong and building an early lead. From what we’ve seen of the offence this season, they’re more than capable of sitting down at halftime with a 20-point lead before starting to rest a handful of key players.

Best Bet DETROIT LIONS -3.5 @ $1.90*

Chicago Bears @ Green Bay Packers

The Green Bay Packers hung 38 points on the Chicago Bears in Week 1 and the offence is playing even better now. That seems to be a popular starting point for discussions around this game. However, the Chicago Bears have also made improvements. Justin Fields is playing well enough that the Bears will have a genuinely difficult decision to make come NFL Draft time. The Bears defence has been one of the best in the league in recent weeks, too.

They have played with the best defence in the NFL in EPA per play since Week 11.

Their 18 turnovers since Week 9 are the second-most in the league.

This is a very good Bears defence with an improving offence, and while their season is over from a playoff perspective, there is a ‘playing for next season’ feel whether it is as a group or at an individual level.

Meanwhile, the Packers defence is still bad. While they rank 9th in offensive DVOA, the Packers are 28th defensively. It has been their handbrake all season and is enough to be cautious of them as favourites in this spot.

The Packers are playing for a spot in the playoffs, but the Bears would love nothing more to end the season with a win over their rival.

Anticipating an intense and close game all the way through, the Bears defence could be the deciding factor late.

Best Bet CHICAGO BEARS TO WIN @ $2.26*

Buffalo Bills @ Miami Dolphins

We have to have something on this one…

It’s arguably the biggest game of the NFL season so far given what is at stake for the Buffalo Bills, in particular.

On the cusp of a season-saving run to the playoffs, a win here locks them in. A good win all of a sudden puts them in the conversation to win Super Bowl LVIII as they get healthy at the right time.

The Miami Dolphins, on the other hand, are turning the opposite corner. Their historically good early-season form is a distant memory and the injury report seems to be growing every day.

Jaylen Waddle remains a chance to play in Week 18 but neither Tyreek Hill nor Raheem Mostert practiced on Friday. Even if they are able to suit up for this one, the Dolphins defence remains a significant cause for concern. Flaffered by the offence earlier in the NFL season, the defence has become exposed as the Dolphins slow down with the ball in hand.

It’s difficult to imagine the busted coverages from last week against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens being cleaned up in time for Josh Allen and the Bills in Week 18. Especially given they lost Bradley Chubb during the week. With everything to play for and in fine form, the Bills look good to officially enter the playoffs as ‘the team nobody wants to play’.

Best Bet BUFFALO BILLS -2.5 @ $1.90*

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