A must win game in the NFL is one of the most overused phrases

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As part of the race to the NFL playoffs we will hear repeatedly about “must win” games. It is important to note that not all “must win” games are created equal and they do not necessarily equate with “will win. Thus there are different types of so-called “must win” games.

In strict terms a “must win” game means that the failure to do so results in a team’s inability to achieve whatever the “must win” was referring to. In the case of a team needing to win to stay alive for a Wild Card berth not much emphasis should be given to that factor in handicapping that game.

A 7-7 team that needs a win to remain alive is a pretty average team and one that is in such a position because of earlier losses. Such a team may not be able to be trusted to win such a game and that certainly is the approach to be taken when assessing that team’s chances.

On the other hand a 10-3 team that needs a win to lock up a Division title or, having previously done so, assure itself of a Bye into the Divisional round of the Playoffs is much more trustworthy, having demonstrated the ability to have already won 10 games and establish itself as a legitimate contender come Playoffs time.

Often there are premiums built into the line for many perceived “must win” contests.

Keep in mind that under most circumstances a team’s primary goal heading into a season is to qualify for the Playoffs. Once you are in, even as a Wild Card, you have a chance to win the Super Bowl with those chances varying depending upon where that team is seeded.

Thus secondary goals are to win a Division title and then to secure a 1 or 2 seed to earn a Bye for the Wild Card round which carries with it a week of rest and a home game against a team that has already faced and succeeded in a “must win” situation by winning a Wild Card game and advancing to meet a rested team off a Bye.

This past week was not particularly good for the folks behind the counter, especially on Thanksgiving Day when all three favored teams won and covered – Minnesota, the LA Chargers and Washington. The damage was mitigated somewhat by the fact that after the Minnesota/Detroit game went OVER the Total and the next two games stayed UNDER. The damage was also limited because the middle team, Dallas, was a very popular albeit small home underdog to the Chargers.

But then came Sunday and Favorites went 9-3 ATS including a 3-1 mark posted by double digit chalk. New England, Philadelphia and Atlanta all won and covered while on Sunday night Pittsburgh won but failed to cover.

In fact, the Steelers failed to cover in a Teaser which helped out the books as did the straight up loss by Kansas City which, at -9, just missed being a double digit favorite. That loss by the Chiefs helped to bust multiple straight parlays, money line parlays and Teasers.

Only two underdogs won outright with Buffalo upsetting the Chiefs and Arizona upsetting Jacksonville.

Through Sunday Totals were nearly evenly split for the week with 7 games going OVER and 8 staying UNDER. For the season there have been just 4 more OVERS (89) than UNDERS (85) with 1 game pushing the closing Total using the lines from the Westgate.

For the season there have been 175 games played through Sunday with 7 games resulting in pointspread pushes and one other game closed as a pick ‘em. Of the other 167 games the poinstspread did not matter in 143 of them with the favorite winning and covering in 90 games and the underdog winning outright 53 times.

 The line has mattered in only 24 games such that the favorite has won and covered in 53.9 percent of the non-push, non-pick ‘em games; the underdog has won 31.7 percent of those games and the points have mattered (i.e. the favored team won straight up but lost to the pointspread) in 14.4 percent of the games which is roughly 1 game in 7 or about twice per week.

For this past week, prior to the Monday night game, only Sunday night’s game resulted in the line not mattering when Pittsburgh, a 14 point favorite, defeated Green Bay 31-28 cashing money line tickets for Steeler backers but paying off pointspread plays to Packer backers.

Here are previews of the 16 games on the Week 13 schedule.


Washington -1 at Dallas (44): Dallas’ recent woes have revolved around key injuries that have some suggesting QB Dak Prescott’s success last season was more a result of his surrounding talent and that his status as a mid round draft choice was a correct evaluation. Washington has also had injuries at RB and along the offensive line but QB Kirk Cousins has performed well even with those issues. And QB play might be the difference in this game. WASHINGTON


Detroit +3 at Baltimore (NT): Baltimore has the established pedigree with QB Joe Flacco and coach John Harbaugh having spent a decade together. And the Ravens have a top flight defense that had shutout three teams prior to Monday night. And the Ravens have the better rushing game. BALTIMORE

San Francisco +3.5 at Chicago (39.5): The 49ers are 1-10 and the Bears have lost 4 in a row. The Niners have scored 13 points or less in 4 of their last 5 games. Chicago has scored 17 points or less in 8 of its 10 games. Both teams are middle of the pack defensively so there is little reason to expect offensive fireworks. UNDER

Minnesota +3 at Atlanta (47): The Vikes have extra rest after playing on Thanksgiving. They also have the better rushing game, the better defense and have been better at avoiding turning over the football. Those characteristics make taking a FG or more a very attractive option in a game they clearly can win outright. MINNESOTA

New England -8 at Buffalo (49): These Divisional rivals will meet twice over the final 5 weeks and the Pats will be prepared to avoid a repeat of last season’s first meeting when the Bills upset the Pats 16-0 in the fourth game of QB Tom Brady’s suspension. The Pats won the rematch a few weeks later by 16 points. NEW ENGLAND

Denver (pick ‘em) at Miami (38): Two of the league’s most disappointing teams match with little on the line. After starting 4-2 the Dolphins have lost 5 straight (0-4-1 ATS). Denver is on a 7 game losing streak (0-7 ATS). This line suggests the Broncos are the better team but this is a long trip for them and there appears to be a greater disharmony with them than with the Dolphins. MIAMI

Houston +7 at Tennessee (NT): It comes down to whether the Titans are good enough to win by a convincing margin. They are 4-6-1 ATS. Despite the motivational edge and the overall performance of favorites in recent weeks the preference is to side with the underdog. Tennessee has scored 24 points or less in 7 of its last 8 games including 17 or less in 4 of them. HOUSTON

Indianapolis +9.5 at Jacksonville (40.5): The Jaguars defense remains top flight, with 6 of 11 opponents scoring under 10 points. This is the first of 3 straight home games and considering the ease with which they won at Indianapolis, outgaining the Colts 518 to 232, this is a prime spot for another big effort against a foe that has been overmatched when stepping up in class. JACKSONVILLE

Tampa Bay NL at Green Bay: Perhaps it was just a matter of time for Brett Hundley and the GB offense to find a chemistry as Hundley was highly thought of in the organization. Tampa continues to have a porous defense and a very weak running game. The Packers likely come a small favorite in this game and any inclement weather, now a factor at this time of the season, would work against the visitors. GREEN BAY

Kansas City -3.5 at NY Jets (43.5): The Chiefs are 1-5 following their 5-0 start. The running game’s decline over the past month and a half has been significant, rushing for under 100 yards in 5 of its last 6 games after topping 110 in each of its first 5. This has placed added pressure on QB Alex Smith who, despite not turning over the football, remains more of a game manager than a big play QB. Still, theirs is the better roster compared to the Jets. KANSAS CITY

Carolina +4 at New Orleans (48): A solid case can be made for the Panthers and if the Saints still had a one game lead over Carolina that case would be even stronger. But with the Saints now tied with Carolina this game has the same meaning for both and the preference is to back the team with arguably both the better QB and coaching combination. NEW ORLEANS

Cleveland +13.5 at LA Chargers (42.5): LA fans have been slow to show support but they do come out in droves to support a winner. And the Chargers have been winners over the past two months, going 5-2 following an 0-4 start. Regardless of how small this week’s crowd in Carson might be, the team is playing with extreme confidence and is facing a foe that continues to struggle. LA CHARGERS

LA Rams -7 at Arizona (45.5): The Rams could be a bit flat after expending much energy in more important games against the Vikes and Saints and perhaps having overconfidence after handling the Cards with ease in their first meeting. Laying a TD on the road to a Division rival with a team just getting accustomed to winning is a bit risky. The Cards should perform better than in their first meeting. ARIZONA

NY Giants +7.5 at Oakland (42.5): Giants’ QB Eli Manning has struggled all season and the defense has been a sieve. Oakland has more firepower and the preference is to back the team with something to play for facing a team with nothing at stake. The pride argument went out the window weeks ago for the Giants. OAKLAND

Philadelphia -4 at Seattle (47): After starting 3-0 at home the Seahawks have dropped their last two, both by a FG (to Washington and Atlanta). QB Russell Wilson should present some problems for the Eagles defense and getting the veteran Seahawks as home underdogs, especially at more than a FG and given their late season success over the past several seasons, is too much to pass up. SEATTLE


Pittsburgh -6 at Cincinnati (43): The Bengals have won 2 straight and should continue to play hard with a shot at the Playoffs now at least a real possibility (they already own a tiebreaker edge over Buffalo and will face Baltimore in Week 17). Sure, it’s a long shot but players don’t think that way. And there is plenty of room in this line for the Steelers to win while Bengal backers collect at the windows. CINCINNATI

Last week: 6-9

Season: 86-86-3

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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