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The first 17-game season in the 102-year history of pro football is over, and we have our 14-team playoff bracket. And we have a few other items of note.
But I am still trying to process the end of game 272—Raiders 35, Chargers 32, in overtime, sending Vegas to the playoffs, sending befuddled L.A. home, and sending the rest of us to Harvard to study Tieology.
Truth in columnizing: I talked to Roethlisberger around 8 ET Sunday night, then finished the above chunk of the column about 10:20, then caught up with the SNF game while finishing the Awards section and a few other things. Around 11, the game sucked me in, and I was transfixed, and Justin Herbert gave the Chargers adrenalin, and then it was in overtime, and I started to get this feeling that all the Roethlisberger stuff above could be naught. This damn thing could end in a tie. A tie, incredibly, would leave the AFC with three 9-7-1 teams fighting for the last two AFC playoff spots, and the Steelers would be out by tiebreaker.
I imagined the Steelers sitting home watching this game, stomachs sinking. We were just celebrating making the playoffs! You can’t just take back Mike Tomlin dancing on Instagram! Sure enough, I looked at Twitter as the clock wound down below a minute. “Nonononono not like this,” tweeted Chase Claypool.
More truth in columnizing: I think it’s impossible to say anything with certainty about how this game should have been played at the end, and what split-second decisions should have been made. No NFL coach has ever had to consider the options that L.A.’s Brandon Staley and Vegas’ Rich Bisacchia had to consider. No coach ever got to the final seconds of the last game and thought about whether to play for the tie or the win, with playoff berths for both on the line, on the edge of a cliff.
One spot in the final minute is particularly vexing to figure. The Raiders had the ball, third-and-four at the Chargers’ 39, clock ticking below one minute to play. Both teams had both overtime timeouts left. Would both teams just let the clock run and not try to score, putting both in the playoffs? Would they play it safe and avoid risking a turnover or, in the Raiders’ case, a blocked field goal?
Or would the Raiders, at least, try to score? A win would send them to Cincinnati, a tie to Kansas City. I doubt Bisaccia would purposely do what he could to tie; surely he’d rather win, to avoid playing a team he lost to by 27 and 39 points this year.
As the clock wound down on the third-and-four play, Derek Carr prepped to take a snap in the shotgun. So he wasn’t planning to kneel. At the 38-second mark, Staley called a timeout. He posited that the Raiders were going to run, and he wanted time to put his best run-defenders in the game. He said later he wanted to put the Raiders back as far as possible in case they were going to try a field goal. The best run defense came in the game … and running back Josh Jacobs still ran for 10 yards. Now Bisaccia let the clock wind down to two seconds, and kicker Daniel Carlson came to try a 47-yard field goal. It was good, and the Raiders won by three.
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) January 10, 2022
A hundred questions, but if Staley hadn’t called time, I find it hard to believe the Raiders wouldn’t have tried to convert the third down against the personnel Staley had on the field. If they made the four yards, would they have use a timeout and tried one more run to get closer for a Carlson field goal? Would they have tried a longer Carlson field goal than the 47-yarder he made? We don’t know. It depended, I think, on how many yards Jacobs gained on third-and-four. The 10-yard gain made the field-goal choice pretty easy.
The Las Vegas win let the Steelers breathe. It set up Staley for an offseason of second-guessing. I don’t think that’s fair. We just don’t know what would have happened if the Raiders ran the third-and-four against a different defense. As it is, Roethlisberger and the Steelers, not the Raiders, take the trip to Kansas City. Vegas gets the Bengals.
The playoff timetable:
Las Vegas (10-7, AFC 5 seed) at Cincinnati (10-7, AFC 4 seed), 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC/Peacock. Derek Carr’s 128th NFL start will be his first in the playoffs. Joe Burrow will also make his first playoff start, and he’ll treat it like a trip to the grocery store. The man just doesn’t know what pressure is.
New England (10-7, AFC 6 seed) at Buffalo (11-6, AFC 3 seed), 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS. The league is euphoric with this golden matchup for primetime. Not sure the Bills—losers to New England in Orchard Park 35 days ago—are so thrilled. Long-range forecast for the gamesite Saturday night: 17 degrees, 50 percent chance of snow. Yippee!
Philadelphia (9-8, NFC 7 seed) at Tampa Bay (13-4, NFC 2 seed), 1:05 p.m. ET, FOX. Eagles beat one team with a winning record this year (9-8 New Orleans), which seems like an issue. Bucs had to go on the road for all three NFC playoff games last year. This year, they could be home for two.
San Francisco (10-7, NFC 6 seed) at Dallas (12-5, NFC 3 seed), 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS. Niners are 7-2 in the last two months, but their high-water mark for points in that run is 31. They may have to exceed that to have a shot at beating the Cowboys.
Pittsburgh (9-7-1, AFC 7 seed) at Kansas City (12-5, AFC 2 seed) 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC. Fifteen days ago, one of the most embarrassing losses of the Tomlin Era—KC 36, Pittsburgh 10—happened. Not exactly sure, after all the Roethlisberger emotion, how the Steelers will be able to clean that up.
Arizona (11-6, NFC 5 seed) at L.A. Rams (12-5, NFC 4 seed), 8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN. The NFL chose this game for the first Monday night playoff game ever, and I suppose it could be sexier/more competitive than Pats-Bills or Steelers-KC. Cards enter the playoffs in a bad (1-4) stretch, so we’ll see if they can recover against a team they beat by 17 at SoFi three months ago.