NFL Week 18 picks: Dolphins-Patriots, a big upset and who’s winning last 3 playoff spots

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GREG COTE’S NFL WEEK 18 PICKS

DOLPHINS THIS WEEK

PATRIOTS (10-6) at DOLPHINS (8-8)

Line: NE by 6 1/2.

Cote’s pick: NE, 23-20.

TV: 4:25 p.m., CBS.

Playoff-qualified New England doesn’t have a ton at stake here. Patriots can win AFC East with a win but only if Bills lose at home to Jets. Pats can win No. 1 seed with a win but only if Bills, Chiefs and Titans all lose. Bill Belichick’s biggest incentive might actually be avenging his season-opening 17-16 home loss to Miami on a late lost fumble, so our assumption here is that he’ll play to win. (As opposed to starting Brian Hoyer over Mac Jones). As for Miami’s incentive? Only pride and a winning season record, after last week’s rout-loss at Tennessee derailed the seven-game win streak and the playoff chase. Subplots: Brian Flores vs. his former boss and mentor Belichick. And Jones vs. Tua Tagovailoa in a duel of former Alabama teammates. The Dolphins actually have won eight of past 10 home games vs. Patriots, which alone makes the point spread seem to flatter New England. The Pats’ mighty defense, especially against the pass, isn’t conducive to a feelgood kind of game from Tagovailoa, but still like the Fins getting a touchdown to cover in a defense-first struggle.

GAME OF THE WEEK

CHARGERS (9-7) at RAIDERS (9-7)

Line: LAC by 3.

Cote’s pick: LAC, 30-24.

TV: 8:20 p.m., NBC.

A little scheduling massage has put the perfect bow on the NFL regular season: The only Week 18 game that is winner-take-all for the very last of 14 playoff spots. Win = In. Lose = Begin your offseason. There is one possible exception to that, and it is why a conspiracy theory surrounds this game. See, if Pittsburgh beats Baltimore and Jacksonville upsets Indy earlier Sunday -- then the Chargers and Raiders both would make the playoffs if their game ended in a tie. Two teams in cahoots for an intentional tie. Imagine! Las Vegas is home and hotter, off three straight wins, and could catch a break if TE Darren Waller plays for first time since Thanksgiving, as they hope. But L.A. has won past two meetings including 28-14 in Week 4. Vegas hasn’t been great at home (4-4), and I’m riding with Justin Herbert to outpitch Derek Carr for the final playoff ticket.

UPSET OF THE WEEK

BENGALS (10-6) at BROWNS (7-9)

Line: CLE by 6.

Cote’s pick: CIN, 20-17.

TV: 1 p.m., Fox.

“AAAWWWK!” bellows the Upset Bird. “Cincinnaaawwwk!” Yes, I am quite aware. (I follow current events in this regard). I know that Cincinnati, with the division title locked up and no realistic shot at the No. 1 seed, plans to rest its starters here. Including Joe Burrow. Joe Mixon (COVID list) also will sit. That’s a whole lotta no-Joe. (But if Broncos upset Kansas City Saturday to give Cincy’s shot at No. 1 some new life, might that change the thinking on sitting Burrow? Hmm). Bengals also face a letdown after upsetting Kansas City last week -- although they’ll surely be up for their biggest rival. In any case, I’m betting a depleted Cincy with Brandon Allen is still better than a disappointing Cleveland land with Case Keenum. A strong season for us on Upset of the Week picks -- we’re 11-6 outright and 12-4-1 against the spread -- is on the line! “Well good luck and Happy New Year, if it isn’t too late to still say that,” adds U-Bird. “Happy New Yaaawwwk!”

THE REST OF WEEK 18:

Chiefs (11-5, -10) over @Broncos (7-9), 24-16: The first of two Saturday games finds KC able to secure the No. 1 AFC seed by winning -- if Titans then lose at Houston on Sunday. Denver is starting lousy Drew Lock again and is on 1-8 skid within division, including 22-9 loss to Chiefs in Week 13. But chance Stallions getting double digits.

Cowboys (11-5, -7) over @Eagles (9-7), 23-20: Dallas has won NFC East and Philly has locked up wild card spot, so low stakes for nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader. Jerry Jones says Cowboy starters will play (but how much?), while Eagles could rest Jalen Hurts (ankle) and have been hit hard this week by COVID designations. Still like Birds plus a touchdown in the home nest.

Packers (13-3, -4) over @Lions (2-13-1), 23-17: Green Bay has sewn up NFC’s lone No. 1 seed, and hints from coach Matt La Fleur suggest Pack starters -- including MVP frontrunner Aaron Rodgers -- should be expected to play very little. Still, feels like a small number for even semi-Packers to cover, especially with Motown QB Jared Goff (knee) iffy to play.

@Vikings (7-9, -3 1/2) over Bears (6-10), 26-21: One of only two Week 18 games with no team either in the playoffs or still in contention, as Mike Zimmer and Matt Nagy fight to remain employed. Watchable matchup, though, with Kirk Cousins back from COVID and Justin Fields returning from injury. Give us Minny’s edge in offensive firepower at home.

Washington (6-10, -7) over @Giants (4-12), 19-16: Here’s the other of two final-week games with no playoff bearing. The Washington Admirals -- that’s betting fave for new nickname to be announced soon -- expect to have RB Antonio Gibson back. But betting line seems fat for matchup of comparably bad squads with a combined nine losses in a row.

Colts (9-7, -15 1/2) over @Jaguars (2-14), 37-10: Indy grabs a playoff spot by winning here, or if Chargers lose Sunday night, or with other results falling just right. But they’ll need no outside help. Jax is all-ways awful, and Colts, with everything to play for, are primed for big rebound from last week’s stumble vs. Vegas.

@Ravens (8-8, -5 1/2) over Steelers (8-7-1), 27-16: Both rivals are alive in playoff hunt but on life support, each needing a win plus a very unlikely confluence of other results. Retirement-headed Ben Roethisberger enjoyed a love-in at his home finale Monday night; this crowd won’t be as friendly. Pitt has struggled on road, and Crows could finally get Lamar Jackson back. Baltimore’s five-game skid has included losses by by 1, 2, 1 and 1 point. Ravens have a lot of frustration and luckless anger to get rid of.

Titans (11-5, -10 1/2) over @Texans (4-12), 31-17: Tennessee, the bunch that crushed Dolphins hopes last week, clinches AFC’s coveted No. 1 seed (and lone playoff bye) with a win. Now there’s talk star RB Derrick Henry may be back from injury at some point in postseason. Houston is bad but intermittently dangerous (including a 22-13 win over Titans in a four-pick November nightmare for Ryan Tannehill), but don’t see a problem here.

Saints (8-8, -4) over @Falcons (7-9), 23-20: Big stakes for N’Awlins, which will sneak into playoffs with a win here and if Niners lose at Rams, a good possibility. Atlanta, out of the running, would love to play spoiler and eliminate its rival, but could be missing star TE Kyle Pitts (hamstring). Still like Falcs to cover, with an outright upset majorly in play.

@Bills (10-6, -16) over Jets (4-12), 38-13: Buffalo wins AFC East with a win, or if Patriots lose in Miami. NYJ has scored upsets over Titans and Bengals this season and almost beat the Bucs last week, but don’t sense much of a threat here. Jets are awful on road, and said road doesn’t get much tougher than Buffalo In January.

@Rams (12-4, -4 1/2) over 49ers (9-7), 27-20: Large playoff bearing in this one. Rams clinch NFC West crown with win or loss by Arizona. Niners clinch playoff spot with a win or if New Orleans loses. Bonus: LAR’s Cooper Kupp needs 136 catch-yards to break Calvin Johnson’s NFL record of 1,964, and 12 receptions to break Michael Thomas’ season record of 149. San Fran has been a Rams nemesis with five wins in a row in series, and now could get Jimmy Garoppolo back from a thumb injury. But Rams enter on a 5-0 run and are too good to keep not solving this vexatious rival.

@Cardinals (11-5, -6 1/2) over Seahawks (6-10), 27-23: Arizona enters playoffs as NFC West champ with a win if Rams lose. But few opponents are better-suited to play spoiler than Russell Wilson and a Seattle team not used to being a postseason spectator. Seahawks just dropped 51 points on Detroit, and could catch ‘Zona in letdown mode after last week’s big win over Dallas. Also: Cardbirds have lost four straight at home, and Seattle has won three of past four trips to the desert. High alert for outright upset.

@Buccaneers (12-4, -8) over Panthers (5-11), 31-10: After barely beating Jets last week amid all the Antonio Brown mid-game walkout drama, it’s been a distracting week for Tom Brady and the fellas. But they’ll marshal focus, knowing a win can get Bucs the No. 2 playoff seed if Rams lose. Bruce Arians wants that and says he won’t rest starters against Carolina, which has already called it a season, losing six straight games by a combined 88 points.

[Note: Betting lines are courtesy Caesars Sportsbook as of mid-afternoon Thursday].

HOW THE DARTS LANDED

A record 32 games have been decided on the final play this season, results swinging like Tarzan on a vine, the attempted predicting of games even more exasperating than usual. The COVID spike (110 players leaguewide added to the list just this week) hasn’t made things any easier. But we’ve kept our beak above water with solid numbers both outright and against the point spread entering the final week of the regular season. We went a solid 12-4 overall (again) in Week 17, and an even 8-8 against the spread. Finished strong with Steelers (+3) over Browns Monday night in our Upset of the Week. We’ve had a great year on featured upset picks: 11-6 outright and 12-4-1 ATS. Also nailed covers by ‘dog Ravens and Bengals last week. Time for a big finish and a clean dismount into the postseason!

Week 17: 12-4, .750 overall; 8-8, .500 vs. spread.

Season: 164-91-1, .643 overall; 133-121-2, .524 vs. spread.

Final 2020: 166-89-1, .651 overall; 130-120-6, .520 vs. spread.