The Vegas Report: Week 17

I want to spend some time today talking about motivation.

We’d all love to believe that professional football players — who cash weekly checks that amount to more than most of us make in five years — will show up and play their guts out each and every week. After all, that’s what they’re being paid to do.

But sadly, this is not the world we live in. Professional athletes are human beings and like some of us, when the going gets tough, the tough occasionally mail it in and begin planning their offseason vacations.

We’re talking about motivation today because Week 17 offers up 16 football games that feature several teams with absolutely no reason to perform at their absolute best. With the No. 1 seed in the NFC locked up, why should the Packers put forth their best effort against the Lions? With a dreadful season ready to come to a close, why should the Buccaneers bother caring about Sunday’s game at Atlanta?

Motivation plays a massive role in college bowl games, as well. Before we get to this week’s analysis, here are two games I’m targeting before the calendar flips to 2012:

NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS (+10.5) vs. Texas A&M Aggies: I’ve heard through the grapevine that Texas A&M has been practicing like crap ever since head coach Mike Sherman was shown the door after a disappointing 6-6 season. On the other side of the ball sits a Northwestern team that has never won a bowl game. I love the Wildcats in this one and wouldn’t be shocked if they won the game outright.

IOWA HAWKEYES (+14) vs. Oklahoma Sooners: No coach in college football has his team better prepared for college bowl season than Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. In fact, Ferentz’s Hawkeyes are 6-1 against the spread in their last seven bowl games as underdogs. Meanwhile, the Sooners couldn’t care less about playing in a December 30 bowl game after setting their sights on the National Championship back in August. Oh yeah, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops is just 2-6 against the spread in his last eight bowl games as a favorite.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (2-13, 0-7 road) at JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (4-11, 3-4 home)

Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening line: Jacksonville -5
Current line: Jacksonville -3.5
Current betting trends: 50% of the public is backing the Jaguars.

Indianapolis Colts: 6-9 against the spread in 15 games played this season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: 6-8-1 against the spread in 15 games played this season.

Interesting trends: The Colts are 1-10 ATS in their last 11 games against teams with a losing record while the Jaguars are 6-1 ATS in their last seven games as a favorite.

Analysis: Did you know that Peyton Manning is 14-5 in his career against the Jacksonville Jaguars? Even if you weren’t aware of that little tidbit, you can bet the boys in Jacksonville are well versed in their decade-long shortcomings against one of the game’s all time greatest quarterbacks.

So with that in mind, why would Jacksonville want to beat the Colts this weekend? Doing so would not only worsen their draft position, but it would put Indianapolis in a spot where they could select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck first overall in next April’s draft. I’m not saying Luck is the next Peyton Manning, but he’s got all the tools necessary to give the Jaguars hell for another 10 years.

The Colts have won each of their last two outings and have covered the number in four straight contests. Not only that, but reports have surfaced out of Indianapolis over the last few days that this team is actively trying to win Sunday’s finale at Jacksonville.

This game could very well come down to a battle of which team wants it less. If that’s the case, don’t be shocked if Indianapolis passes on an opportunity to land the top overall pick and opts instead to finish the 2011 season on a high note.

TENNESSEE TITANS (8-7, 3-4 road) at HOUSTON TEXANS (10-5, 5-2 home)

Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening line: Tennessee -1.5
Current line: Tennessee -3
Current betting trends: 58% of the public is backing the Titans.

Tennessee Titans: 7-8 against the spread in 15 games played this season.
Houston Texans: 9-5-1 against the spread in 15 games played this season.

Interesting trends: The Titans are 1-4 ATS in their last five games against teams from the AFC South while the Texans are 4-0-1 ATS in their last five games against teams from the AFC South.

Analysis: Tennessee is playing for a spot in the postseason. Houston is already locked into the No. 3 seed in the AFC and has absolutely nothing to gain by winning this football game.

Take a look at what the Texans have done since clinching their first postseason berth in franchise history. With an opportunity to lock down a first-round bye, Houston went out and laid an egg against the lowly Carolina Panthers and then followed that up with a stinker against the hapless Indianapolis Colts. With plenty to play for, Gary Kubiak’s team couldn’t have cared less. So why would they bother to show up for a meaningless Week 17 game against the Titans?

Meanwhile, Tennessee has an opportunity to make the playoffs if they can win at 1:00 ET and then get some help at 4:00 ET. No matter what shakes down later in the day, the Titans have to come out of Sunday’s matchup with a win if they want any chance of advancing to the postseason.

This line opened at Tennessee -1.5 and was quickly bet up to the key number of -3 for all of the reasons I just laid out.

In a game that pits a highly-motivated team against a squad with nothing left to play for, I’ll side with the guys who actually want to win.

CHICAGO BEARS (7-8, 2-5 road) at MINNESOTA VIKINGS (3-12, 1-6 home)

Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening line: O/U 39
Current line: O/U 41
Current betting trends: 68% of the public is backing the OVER.

Chicago Bears: The OVER is 9-6 in 15 games played this season.
Minnesota Vikings: The OVER is 10-5 in 15 games played this season.

Interesting trends: The OVER is 20-9 in the Bears’ last 29 games following an ATS loss and 4-0 in the Vikings’ last four home games.

Analysis: On its surface, this game appears to feature two teams with absolutely nothing left to play for.

However, keep in mind that both of the starting quarterbacks in this matchup do have something left to play for: jobs in 2012.

Since making the switch from the dreadful Caleb Hanie to journeyman Josh McCown, here’s how the Chicago offense has fared:

4 games with Hanie: 11.8 pts/gm, 3.0 turnovers/gm, 262.0 total yds/gm

1 game with McCown: 21 points, 2.0 turnovers, 441 total yards

The Bears offense has clearly seen an uptick in production since moving to McCown. Throw in the fact that this game will be played indoors and it comes as no surprise that the early bettors steamed this total from 39 to 41 soon after it was posted in Las Vegas.