Week 18 Football Pick’em Contest Strategy & Advice (2023)

Week 18 closes out the 2023 NFL season, and gives us several value opportunities playing against public biases as teams have different motivations.

Pittsburgh will try to get you over the finish line in value picks (Oliver McKenna/Icon Sportswire)

The end of the regular season is here, and Week 18 is usually an opportunity to close with some information edge against the public. You will often see pick rates based on team perception and full-year performance, but several teams will have different motivations. We identify which games you might see differing motivations below.

In these columns, we explore strategies to maximize your edge in NFL and college football pick’em contests. We also provide some of the rationale behind picks potentially recommended by our premium product.

We plan to periodically update to this post through Sunday of Week 18, so check back for updates. Here’s what’s available now:

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Tuesday 1/2

NFL Week 18 Early Value Picks

The Week 18 pick rates could swing drastically. After all, some teams are not favored who would be if this was a normal week. We have a Week 18 Playoff Motivation Breakdown where we identify the games that could be impacted by playoff motivations and resting starters.

Those play heavily into the early value picks we are seeing.

Pittsburgh Steelers (at Baltimore Ravens)

Spread: +3.5
Win Odds: 63%
Pick Popularity: 26%

The Steelers are playing for a potential playoff spot (They need to win, and then have either Buffalo or Jacksonville lose). Baltimore, meanwhile, has locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The team is likely not to risk Lamar Jackson playing much, if at all, and could rest starters. This line, with Pittsburgh favored, assumes that Baltimore will do so.

Meanwhile, the public is picking Baltimore at a high rate.

Cincinnati Bengals (vs. Cleveland Browns)

Spread: -6
Win Odds: 71%
Pick Popularity: 40%

The Browns have an even stronger incentive to rest key starters. Notably, their fourth QB to start this year, Joe Flacco, has been a revelation. They know they will play on the road as a wildcard, probably in the Saturday game against the AFC South winner. Key starters like WR Amari Cooper missed the last game.

This line reflects that the Browns are likely to rest their stars and get ready for the Wildcard Round game, but the public is still taking the playoff-bound Browns at a higher rate.

LA Chargers (vs. Kansas City Chiefs)

Spread: -2
Win Odds: 54%
Pick Popularity: 17%

The Kansas City Chiefs clinched the No. 3 seed in the AFC and will be preparing for a tough matchup, potentially against someone like the Bills or Dolphins. If the starters play, it will be only for a brief period (Travis Kelce, for example, is just a few yards shy of another 1,000 yard season).

Yes, the Chargers have been bad, but Kansas City will not be particularly trying to play key players in this one and will more likely treat it like a preseason game. With over 80% of the public on the Chiefs, this is a clear value opportunity.

Buffalo Bills (at Miami Dolphins)

Spread: -3
Win Odds: 59%
Pick Popularity: 48%

The Bills and Dolphins will face off in the season finale with plenty on the line. The winner gets the AFC #2 seed and wins the division. Buffalo, depending on other results, might not even make the playoffs if they lose.

The public is split here, but the Bills power rate as the better team overall, and Miami’s injury issues are mounting at the end of the season. Bradley Chubb tore his ACL late in the loss to the Ravens, and WR Jaylen Waddle and RB Raheem Mostert missed the last game.

Atlanta Falcons (at New Orleans Saints)

Spread: +3
Win Odds: 44%
Pick Popularity: 9%

Finally, Atlanta is a really unpopular underdog pick in a must-win game between the Falcons and Saints, with only 9% picking them. But they are only a three-point underdog here, so taking the Falcons in a “maximum chaos NFC South pick” has a lot of value (Atlanta wins the division at 8-9 if  the Bucs also lose).

Tuesday 1/2

Week 17 Results Summary

In Week 16, we had one big upset with Philadelphia losing at home to Arizona as a double-digit favorite. Otherwise, it was a week for favorites when it came to wins, as they went 12-3 (Green Bay/Minnesota closed as a pick’em). However, there were several non-covers for favorites, as they went 8-7 against closing spreads.

Game-Winner Pools

In game-winner pools, the public averaged 11.0 wins in Week 17, out of 16 possible games. Our “Max Profit” selections averaged 11.5 wins, slightly above the public, while the Weekly Top Options averaged 12.3 wins, finishing with a strong result thanks to the Packers win as well as the Saints winning as a value upset.

Overall 2023 averages: Season-long Max Profit 168.5 wins, Weekly top option 152.8 wins, Public 155.9 wins

Spread Pools

The public put up an averaged of 8.3 win against the spread, just above .500.

Our top model picks were on Philadelphia (ugh), Baltimore, Buffalo, LA Rams, and Carolina, going only 1-4. That contributed to a subpar week. Our season-long picks finished with 6.9 wins on average, as did the weekly picks.

Overall 2023 averages: Season-long Max Profit 133.8 wins, Weekly top option 128.5 wins, Public 131.0 wins

Tuesday 1/2

Week 18 Playoffs Motivation Breakdown

Here’s a breakdown of the potential motivations for teams as we go into the final week, in terms of competing to make the playoffs, improve positioning, or rest starters.

Both Teams Playing for Playoffs

  • Miami vs. Buffalo (winner wins AFC East and gets #2 seed in AFC, Buffalo hasn’t clinched playoffs yet)
  • Indianapolis vs. Houston (winner gets a AFC wildcard and could win AFC South)
  • New Orleans vs. Atlanta (winner could still win NFC South if Tampa loses, and also has outside shot at wildcard)

One Team Playing for Playoffs

  • Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore (Pittsburgh needs win to have a chance at playoffs, Baltimore locked into #1 seed and could rest starters)
  • Green Bay vs. Chicago (Packers are win and in to a wildcard spot, Bears eliminated)
  • Minnesota vs. Detroit (Vikings have slim chance of playoffs, need win and help, Lions appear locked into #3 seed)
  • Tennessee vs. Jacksonville (Jaguars win AFC South with a win)
  • Seattle vs. Arizona (Seahawks needs win and GB loss to make playoffs)
  • Carolina vs. Tampa Bay (Bucs wins NFC South with a win)
  • Washington vs. Dallas (Cowboys clinches NFC East and #2 seed with a win)
  • NY Giants vs. Philadelphia (Eagles need a win and Cowboys loss to win NFC East)

Neither Team Likely Playing for Playoffs

  • Kansas City vs. LA Chargers (Chiefs have clinched #3 seed)
  • Las Vegas vs. Denver (both eliminated)
  • Cleveland vs. Cincinnati (Browns locked into #5 seed, Bengals eliminated)
  • New England vs. NY Jets (both eliminated)
  • San Francisco vs. LA Rams (49ers locked into #1 seed, Rams will be either #6 or #7 seed)


Important Notes About Picks We Highlight

Keep in mind three things about picks we highlight in this article:

  1. Optimal pick’em contest strategy balances risk and potential reward.
    Maximizing your odds to win a pick’em pool generally requires exploiting the best opportunities to differentiate your picks from your opponents’ picks. Ideally, you want to fade the public while taking on minimal additional pick risk to do so. For example, taking a betting market favorite being picked by less than 50% of your opponents is usually a great opportunity.
  2. Not all of the picks we highlight are suitable for all pools.
    Don’t be surprised if our Football Pick’em Picks product doesn’t recommend several of the picks we mention in this post for your pool specifically—especially the upset picks. The best pick strategy for you depends on a number of factors such as your pool’s size, rules, and prize structure (a concept that’s covered in part by our article on season vs. weekly prize strategy).
  3. Picks we highlight may no longer look compelling by game day.
    We analyze and write about picks using data (e.g. win odds and pick popularity) current at the time we publish this article, but that data can change before kickoff. For example, a key player being ruled out or a shift in public sentiment about a team can erase the differentiation value that a pick initially offered.

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