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Eleven of the fourteen invites to the NFL postseason have been secured, while seven different teams will lay everything on the line Sunday in an effort to qualify for the final three spots. Not every team controls its destination, but it all starts with focusing on what it can control — winning. Handicapping how teams will respond to these critical games can be challenging due to the small sample size of their past experiences. It's not every season coaches and players get the opportunity to play in high-stakes regular-season finales.
I targeted two games that bookend the final Sunday of the season. They each bring a different dynamic. The Steelers and Ravens battling in Baltimore will be another chapter in one of the NFL's best rivalries. On Sunday night, two first-time head coaches get their first taste of "win-or-go-home" football in Las Vegas. Betting favorites can be an easy trap to fall into, but it's only a trap if they don't deliver. Here is how I bet these two pivotal games that will each shape the playoff picture.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens (-5.5)
Getting this Steelers' roster to eight wins might be the single greatest accomplishment of any coach this season. Mike Tomlin has unquestionably squeezed everything out of a team that ranks 28th in yards per play and 29th in offensive success rate. After an incredibly emotional win on Monday Night Football, is there anything left for Tomlin to squeeze out of Pittsburgh?
The Steelers rank 12th of 16 AFC teams in point differential and take their 2-5 road record to Baltimore to face their biggest rivals with a short week to prepare. If Lamar Jackson gets cleared, this is a smash spot for the Ravens. However, I am still comfortable laying the points with Huntley at the helm. Even though the Ravens will likely suffer the same fate and miss the playoffs, there is no better way John Harbaugh would like to end the season than knocking the Steelers out of playoff contention.
L.A. Chargers (-3) at Las Vegas Raiders
I wonder if letting it all ride in Vegas was how Brandon Staley imagined his first season as L.A.'s head coach would go? Staley put the league on notice early with his relentless aggression on fourth downs. It's only fitting he finds himself in this situation. Despite the scrutiny, L.A. is top 10 in fourth-down conversion rate, giving me confidence that Staley will continue to let the season rest on the arm of Justin Herbert.
That brings me to the biggest reason why I am backing the Bolts in this prime-time playoff eliminator: Herbert. Under the spotlight of a national audience, the second-year quarterback has delivered in a big way. In three prime-time games this year, L.A. averaged 32 points per game while Herbert racked up eight touchdowns and only two interceptions. His only loss was to Kansas City in overtime in which he didn't get a chance to take the field to answer Patrick Mahomes' touchdown drive.
I have the Chargers rated as the better team. It speaks volumes that L.A. jumped out to a 21-0 lead in a 14-point victory against the Raiders in Week 4. In a critical game with a playoff atmosphere, red-zone execution will be critical. It's an area where L.A. holds a strong advantage with the Raiders ranked 29th on offense and 32nd on defense. If they can't stop Herbert from getting seven points each time down the field, it's going to be a long night in Las Vegas. I'm betting Derek Carr blinks first in this battle of the quarterbacks. Lay the short number with the Bolts.
Stats provided by teamrankings.com and Ben Baldwin (based off 10/90 WP).