NFL betting, odds: Beware of teams that are in must-win situations

LANDOVER, MARYLAND - JANUARY 01: Grant Delpit #22 of the Cleveland Browns celebrates after an interception during the fourth quarter against the Washington Commanders at FedExField on January 01, 2023 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
The Cleveland Browns are in prime position to play spoiler. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

There is nothing quite like the final week of the NFL season. The party is almost over, and we can't help but look ahead to all the incredible postseason matchups right around the corner. However, before we leave, the gambling gods bless us with the ultimate door prize: the most unpredictable slate of games imaginable. So regardless of how many question marks or how much variance packs this weekend's slate, we will survey the board and grab whatever edges we can spot.

One of the most valuable lessons when betting the final week in the regular season is not to overvalue teams in "must-win" situations. Of course, it makes sense to casual bettors that teams fighting for playoff spots would perform at their best, but those who have been burned year after year know that's a far cry from how the last week of the season unfolds. Per Clevanalytics, when teams needed a win to make the postseason and faced an opponent eliminated from contention, they were only 57-95 ATS (37%) over the past two years. So let's break down three "must-win" teams and see which ones are worth fading.

Cleveland Browns +2.5 at Pittsburgh Steelers

Anybody who follows me knows how low my expectations for the Steelers were this season and that Mike Tomlin deserves serious Coach of the Year consideration. But they are not 2.5 points better than the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers closed as 4.5-point dogs to Cleveland back in Week 3, and lost the game 29-17. Sure, instead of Jacoby Brissett and Mitchell Trubisky, we are getting Deshaun Watson and Kenny Pickett, but I'd argue that the matchup favors Cleveland even more this time.

You can beat the Steelers by attacking their secondary vertically (21st in EPA per drop-back) and getting after their quarterback. Amari Cooper had three receptions for 105 yards last week, including two touchdowns of 46 and 33 yards. The chemistry between Cooper and Watson is growing, and they should be able to exploit the backend of Pittsburgh's defense. Cleveland will play spoiler for the second week in a row. Browns +2.5 is one of the best bets on the board.

New York Jets -1 at Miami Dolphins

Skylar Thompson revenge game? Not with my money. The first time Mike McDaniel tossed the keys to his offense to his rookie quarterback, it ended with a 40-17 Jets win in Week 5. Good luck trying to guess which team will end its five-game losing streak, but it would be vintage Jets to play their best game of the year now that they have already squandered everything. There is nothing from a betting perspective you can sink your teeth into on either side. Still, I would be much more comfortable laying the point than betting on this Miami team delivering under pressure. It's possible we see Mike Glennon instead, but does it really matter? Miami is just not a team worth betting on without Tua under center. Jets -1 or pass.

Los Angeles Rams +6.5 at Seattle Seahawks

You can sell me on teasing Seattle down, but I am not laying 6.5 points with Pete Carroll in a big game. Say what you want about this Rams team, but despite the plethora of injuries, they show up despite being the less talented team on the field every week.

Carroll's play-calling makes you wonder if he is just a guy who likes close games and will lean hard on Kenneth Walker III. Since Mayfield arrived in Los Angeles, the Rams are 18th in EPA per play. Now, a big chunk of that is from the Christmas Day obliteration of the Broncos, but Seattle's defense is outside of the top 20 in DVOA and 24th against the run. It's reasonable to expect Los Angeles to stay competitive if the Rams can get production on the ground. Seattle only won the first meeting by four points (27-23) despite Rams QB John Wolford completing only 14 passes and throwing two interceptions. Sean McVay signed Baker Mayfield a few days later. I can't argue with Seattle as a teaser leg, but the Rams are the side if you are betting on the spread. Rams +6.5