8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Chargers -3, Over/Under: 49.5
Finally, the longest regular season in the history of the National Football League comes to its conclusion as the Los Angeles Chargers travel to Sin City to face the Las Vegas Raiders with a playoff spot on the line tonight for both teams in this division matchup from Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada. In his first season as the Head Coach of the Chargers (9-7, 2nd in AFC West), Brandon Staley has them on the precipice of returning to the postseason for the first time since 2018, and in order to do it they’ll need to sweep the season series with the Raiders, whom they bested in another primetime encounter back in early October. Los Angeles overwhelmed Las Vegas in the first half of that affair, outscoring (21-0) and outgaining (263-26) them convincingly heading into intermission, before eventually earning a 28-14 victory. As the season has played out, it’s fitting that this particular matchup served as the perfect encapsulation of their campaign to this point. Simply put, that victory was littered with peaks and valleys, for apart from an impressive quartet of touchdown drives, the Lightning Bolts struggled to find much consistency. (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Justin Herbert (67.3%, 4,631 YDS, 6.99 NY/A, 35 TD, 14 INT, 66.5 QBR) set the tone early with a 12-play, 75-yard drive culminating in a 4-yard touchdown toss to (Tight End) Donald Parham (20 REC, 190 YDS, 9.5 Y/R, 3 TD), before going three and out on three of their next four possessions, with a turnover on downs mixed in there as well. However, the hosts would catch fire with a 5-play, 80-yard touchdown drive followed immediately by a 9-play, 69-yard scoring drive with Herbert finding (veteran Tight End) Jared Cook (44 REC, 484 YDS, 11.0 Y/R, 4 TD) and (versatile Tailback) Austin Ekeler (255 TCH, 1,459 YDS, 5.7 Y/T, 18 TD) for six on each possession to establish that commanding halftime advantage. Post intermission, the Chargers would punt on their first two drives before a 10-play, 58-yard series ending with an Ekeler jaunt into the end zone wrestled momentum back into their corner as Vegas imploded down the stretch. In the end, the offense amassed 380 total yards on twenty-five first downs, rushing for 168 yards and a score on thirty-four carries, while Herbert completed 25-of-38 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns en route to owning a commanding advantage in time of possession (34:42). Defensively, they relegated the visitors to just 213 total yards on thirteen first downs, with four sacks, a pair of forced fumbles and an interception. With that said, the game was still maddeningly close in the second half, which again embodies who this team has been in 2021. Make no mistake, Los Angeles is a fun team to watch, ranking sixth in points (27.6) and fourth in total yards (398.7), with Herbert making a sizable leap in his second year as the starter, setting a franchise record with thirty-five passing touchdowns and being voted in as the Starting Quarterback for the AFC in this year’s Pro-Bowl. Armed with a plethora of weapons including (Receivers) Kennan Allen (100 REC, 1,086 YDS, 10.9 Y/R, 6 TD) and Mike Williams (67 REC, 1,027 YDS, 15.3 Y/R, 8 TD), along with Ekeler who accounted for EIGHTEEN total touchdowns this season, Herbert has flourished within (Offensive Coordinator) Joe Lombardi’s scheme, moving the chains with regularity at 47.3% on third down (3rd Overall) and doing work in the red zone at 62.0% (8th Overall). Unfortunately, they’ve developed a penchant for pushing the envelope a bit too much at times, committing twenty turnovers (11th Overall) with thirteen of them coming in their seven losses and fourteen coming after their bye week. Posting a torrid 13-3 touchdown-interception ratio during their 4-1 start, Herbert has a 2-1 ratio over the last eleven games with twenty-two touchdowns in comparison to eleven interceptions. The other issue is that defensively, they’ve had a terrible time of getting their opponents off the field, particularly after that bye; no defense has been worse on third down this year than the Bolts (49.7%), and over the last ten games have capitulated on an alarming 52.6% of their third downs, as opposing teams have taken advantage of a unit that has been very susceptible to the run; Staley’s troops have relinquished 136.7 rushing yards (30th Overall) on 4.6 yards per carry (27th Overall) in 2021, with the former figure rising to 150.2 yards per contest in their seven losses. As a result, they’ve found themselves in many close games, with seven of their first nine outings decided by one possession. So, coming into this all-important finale, what Chargers side will we get tonight? Will it be the one that was embarrassed by the lowly Texans in a listless 41-29 loss two weeks ago, or the one that dominated the Broncos in a 34-13 drubbing last Sunday afternoon? This franchise has been notorious for fielding some of the most talented teams in the NFL over the last two decades, though have rarely met their lofty potential thanks in large part to self-inflicted wounds. Credit to Staley and his staff for beefing up the Offensive Line and vastly improving the Special Teams unit, for those respective areas had been eye sores for Los Angeles for years. Two of their most underrated signings have been (veteran Kicker) Dustin Hopkins and (Kick/Punt Returner) Andre Roberts, with the former burying all but one of his eighteen field goal attempts since arriving from Washington in late October, while the latter has averaged a league-best 33.9 yards per kick return since joining the club at the same time, breaking off a 101-yard touchdown return against Denver last weekend. The all-time series between these charter members of the AFL has been characterized by streaks, with both teams putting together runs of three or more straight victories over the last decade, as Los Angeles has won each of the past two meetings, including their only trip to Allegiant Stadium, a 30-27 overtime win last December. In three encounters with the Silver & Black, Herbert is 2-1 with a completion percentage of 66.9% for 287.3 yards per game on 7.4 net yards per attempt, with eight total touchdowns and zero turnovers. Tonight’s matchup is only the second in which these bitter rivals have met in a season finale with a trip to the postseason on the line, with the Chargers besting the Raiders back in 2011, a 38-26 romp at the old Oakland Coliseum. Will history repeat itself? The oddsmakers seem to think so.
Meanwhile, has there been a team in recent memory that has been forced to overcome more adversity in a single season than these Raiders (9-7, 3rd in AFC West)? After (former Head Coach) Jon Gruden abruptly resigned from his post following an email scandal unearthed during a federal investigation into the Washington Football Team back in early October, Las Vegas was left to pick up the pieces, elevating (longtime Special Teams Coach) Rich Bisaccia as the interim, which led to a pair of victories and a hopeful 5-2 record heading into their bye week. Unfortunately, tragedy would strike as (2020 First Round Pick) Henry Ruggs (24 REC, 469 YDS, 19.5 Y/R, 2 TD) was involved in a deadly car accident that killed a woman and her dog, with the emerging Receiver found to have been driving his vehicle while under the influence and carrying a weapon, leading to the franchise cutting all ties with him shortly thereafter. A week later, their other First Rounder from that Draft, (Cornerback) Damon Arnette (4 TKL, 1 PD) would be featured in an expletive-laden video in which he was brandishing a firearm and making a series of threats. Unsurprisingly, he too would be released from the organization. Needless to say, that’s an awful lot for any team to deal with, and as expected they fell into a malaise, losing five of their next six games. Prior to Gruden’s ousting, the Raiders had developed a troubling penchant for collapsing late in the season, having limped to a 7-9 finish despite a 6-3 start in 2019, before ultimately ending 2020 at 8-8 following a 6-4 start. Languishing at 6-7 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season, it appeared that the emotional weight from all of those events had finally gotten to this team, with a third consecutive late collapse set to seal the fate of Bisaccia, his staff, and most of all, (General Manager) Mike Mayock. And to the surprise of many, Las Vegas managed to flip the script and author a shocking three-game winning streak placing them in tonight’s “win and they’re in” matchup with bitter rivals, Los Angeles. So, what in the name of John Madden has changed for the Silver & Black, you ask? Well, despite losing the turnover battle 7-0 in these three games, the run game has finally developed, and the defense has taken an impressive turn, while (veteran Quarterback) Derek Carr (69.2%, 4,618 YDS, 7.01 Y/A, 21 TD, 14 INT, 54.3 QBR) has led them on a pair of game-winning drives. After dismantling their Offensive Line in the offseason, the Raiders instituted a youth movement in the trenches and as a result have struggled mightily to gain any traction on the ground in 2021, ranking twenty-ninth overall in rushing yards (90.2) and yards per carry (3.8). (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Josh Jacobs (191 CAR, 740 YDS, 3.9 Y/A, 8 TD) has been hampered by lower leg injuries throughout the campaign, while (fellow Tailback) Kenyan Drake (93 TCH, 545 YDS, 5.9 Y/T, 3 TD) was lost for the season with a broken leg a month ago. However, during this recent stretch the ground game has churned out 114.3 yards per game with Jacobs finally healthy totaling 244 yards on 4.2 yards per carry, including a season-high 129 in a 17-13 victory over the Broncos two weeks ago. It’s amazing what running the ball successfully can do for a team, with Las Vegas able to control time of possession, and afford Carr the luxury of taking his shots downfield, while the defense hasn’t been fatigued from spending too much time on the gridiron. And speaking of the defense, they have also been a major factor in their success of late, with (Defensive Coordinator) Gus Bradley’s troops suddenly rounding into the unit that many hoped they’d be at the beginning of the season. Make no mistake, this group was HORRENDOUS during that 1-5 stretch, yielding 32.3 points per game (including 89 total points in two encounters with the Chiefs) on 359.6 total yards and a 51.2% success rate on third down. In these last three outings though, they’ve performed a complete about-face, in permitting just 15.6 points on 218.6 total yards and a 28.7% success rate on third down. (Edge-Rushers) Yannick Ngakoue (28 TKL, 8 TFL, 23 QBH, 10.0 SK, 2 FF, 3 PD) and Maxx Crosby (49 TKL, 10 TFL, 26 QBH, 6.0 SK, 4 PD) have been relentless off the edge, while unheralded youngsters such as (Rookie Linebacker) Divine Deablo (39 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 PD) and (Cornerback) Brandon Facyson (48 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 INT, 11 PD) have forced their way into the starting lineup. Just look how they handled the surging Colts in last weekend’s 23-20 victory for proof of their growth; the Raiders relegated Indianapolis to just 262 total yards, limiting (MVP candidate) Jonathan Taylor to a respectable 108 yards on twenty carries. This was a team that hammered them in last year’s meeting, 44-27, and they managed to go into Lucas Oil Stadium with the hosts fighting for a division title and shut them down despite losing the turnover battle 0-2. Then again, Carr has had a lot of say in this turnaround too, with the 30-year-old steering his team to the precipice of what would be the first postseason appearance of his career (he missed their lone 2016 outing with a broken leg). With Gruden, who served as the offense’s chief playcaller, along with his favored deep threat (Ruggs) both gone, Carr has been the lone constant on this side of the football for Las Vegas, and even with a limited supporting cast has managed to grind out three straight wins. Keep in mind that this unit has been without (Pro-Bowl Tight End) Darren Waller (53 REC, 643 YDS, 12.1 Y/R, 2 TD) since a shocking 36-33 Thanksgiving triumph over the Cowboys, with the playmaker sidelined with a sprained knee and COVID for the past five weeks. (Slot Receiver) Hunter Renfrow (99 REC, 1,025 YDS, 10.4 Y/R, 7 TD) has stepped up in a major way during this run, reeling in thirty-five catches for 367 yards and three touchdowns in Waller’s absence, including a key late 24-yarder to set up (Kicker) Daniel Carlson’s game-winning field goal at Indianapolis. With Waller expecting to return to the starting lineup tonight, it appears that Carr will have his complete complement of weapons for the first time in months, which should be a boon for a Quarterback who has routinely proven himself cool under fire; with five game-winning drives in 2021, the Pro-Bowler has added to his career total of twenty-nine, which is coincidentally the most in the league since he was drafted back in 2014. And how essential has he been to what little success that this team has enjoyed during that period, you ask? Carr is 56-70 as the starter in eight years in Oakland/Las Vegas, with over half of his wins featuring game-winning drives (51.7%). In fifteen meetings with the Chargers, Carr is 7-8 with a completion percentage of 64.8% for 221.7 yards on 6.7 net yards per attempt with twenty-one total touchdowns opposed to thirteen turnovers. In their previous encounter this season, he and the Raiders got off to a dreadfully slow start, punting on all but two of their seven possessions of the first half, with a quartet of three and outs and a turnover on downs punctuating a scoreless thirty minutes of play. However, they would kick things into high gear in the third quarter, stringing together back-to-back touchdown drives after intermission, including an 11-play, 78-yard drive followed by a 6-play, 81-yard series, highlighted by touchdown passes to both Renfrow and Waller to cut the deficit to one possession. Unfortunately, the visiting side couldn’t maintain the momentum, as Carlson missed a 52-yard field goal before Carr was intercepted on a pass deep downfield to Waller by (Chargers Safety) Derwin James. Needless to say, there is A LOT riding on the outcome of tonight’s affair in Sin City, for the jobs of Bisaccia, Mayock, Bradley, and a host of others are literally hanging in the balance, as Mark Davis waits to initiate what would be the second major coaching search since he became Principal Owner of the franchise following the passing of his father, Al, back in 2011.