Believe it or not, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent the past 3½ months trying to win football games. According to coach Lovie Smith, his team will be playing to win on the regular season’s final Sunday, too.
And that could be a costly mistake, if the Buccaneers actually do win.
Smith is just saying what a coach should say. Teams that tank games never admit to tanking. But Tampa Bay desperately needs to lose to the New Orleans Saints for one big reason.
The Buccaneers (2-13) control their destiny in the 2015 NFL Draft. If they lose, they get the No. 1 pick.
That pick should be Marcus Mariota, the Oregon quarterback who is spectacular on the field and a solid character off it. Mariota has accounted for 52 touchdowns (38 passing, 14 rushing) this season while throwing two interceptions.
Forget about Florida State’s Jameis Winston as a candidate for the top pick. Winston, who has thrown 17 interceptions this season, can show flashes of Joe Montana but is more likely to be JaMarcus Russell.
Mariota is an easy choice. Tampa Bay will win in the future by losing its finale to the Saints, who are 4-point road favorites. However, laying more than a field goal with a dead team such as the Saints is as smart as cuddling with a king cobra, so that makes it a tough game to handicap.
These types of scenarios turn Week 17 handicapping into a weird science. It’s a different kind of challenge — sort of like trying to maintain a normal dating relationship with a stripper — but it can be entertaining.
Home teams are favored in 13 of 16 games. By kickoff, it could be 12 of 16 if Kansas City, which just lost quarterback Alex Smith to a lacerated spleen, is bet into the home ’dog role against a San Diego team that needs a win to charge into the playoffs.
Chase Daniel is the Chiefs’ new starter. Houston, with Case Keenum at quarterback, is a 9½-point favorite. Cleveland is starting Connor Shaw, an undrafted rookie who spent 16 weeks on the practice squad. Arizona is trotting Ryan Lindley out there again. This is a weird week.
Tampa Bay, which has lost seven games by six points or fewer, probably will do just enough to lose another close one. The teams’ first meeting in New Orleans went to overtime. I’ll pass on Saints-Buccaneers.
Five opinions for Week 17 (home team in CAPS):
■ PACKERS (-7½) over Lions: Aaron Rodgers, who is OK to play after a calf injury, has 23 touchdown passes and no interceptions in Green Bay’s seven home wins. Detroit’s defense roughed up Rodgers and beat the Packers 19-7 in Week 3. With the NFC North title on the line, this will be a different story. The Lions have lost 23 in a row at Lambeau Field while going 4-18-1 against the spread.
■ STEELERS (-3½) over Bengals: Three weeks ago in Cincinnati, the Steelers rolled up 543 yards in a 42-21 win. Ben Roethlisberger passed for 350 yards and three touchdowns, and Le’Veon Bell rushed for 185 yards and two scores. The Bengals are off a satisfying victory over Denver on Monday. The Steelers are set to win the AFC North.
■ Jets (+6) over DOLPHINS: A legit New York defense put all kinds of pressure on Tom Brady in a one-point loss to New England. One week later, expect more of the same. The Jets will be determined to send coach Rex Ryan out with a win.
■ Panthers (+3½) over FALCONS: Carolina’s defense has been outstanding during a three-game win streak in December. The Panthers are also more dangerous now because Cam Newton is making more plays on the run and getting help from running back Jonathan Stewart. The NFC South title is up for grabs, and these teams rate as dead even.
■ Chargers (+1) over CHIEFS: Philip Rivers rallied San Diego from a 21-point deficit at San Francisco, and now he’s going to lose to a backup quarterback? It’s obviously possible. Kansas City is not going to play dead. But I’ll ride with a highly motivated Rivers. The Chargers won in their past two trips to Arrowhead Stadium.
Last week: 3-2 against the spread
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.