Only one game remains Sunday when the afternoon slate of games is complete. The league can unofficially welcome the start of the playoffs, when the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders put the cap on the 2021 regular season in the nighttime finale.
A meeting of 9-7 AFC West rivals in the final game of the league’s first 17-game regular season includes this kicker: the winner earns a spot in the NFL playoffs.
“We know what’s at stake,” Chargers defensive lineman Justin Jones said.
Los Angeles arrives feeling fortunate to still be kicking on the heels of a humbling 41-29 defeat at lowly Houston in Week 16. The Chargers bounced back last week with a convincing 34-13 victory over the Denver Broncos.
Drama has met the Raiders at multiple turns this season and they, too, appeared to be left for dead following a 48-9 thrashing by the Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 12. The Raiders were 6-7 with a schedule dominated by likely playoff teams. But they closed with three consecutive victories, including a 23-20 nail-biter last week at favored Indianapolis.
Aside from playoff implications, the quarterback showdown has its own intrigue. The Chargers’ Justin Herbert got the best of the more experienced Derek Carr of the Raiders in Week 4.
Herbert threw three first-half touchdowns against the Raiders but the Chargers had to scramble late to secure a 28-14 victory. Carr had two TD passes in the third quarter to make it interesting.
Yet all signs point to the Chargers running the ball Sunday. Austin Ekeler had a career-high 117 yards in the victory over the Raiders and the Los Angeles rushing attack has been improved of late with an average of 134.3 yards over the last four games.
“I feel like we’ve been able to establish some continuity here in the second half of the season,” Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said. “I think you’ve seen that in how we’ve run the football the last three, four games. That has been a strength of ours. It makes us a much more difficult offense to defend.”
Ekeler has rushed for at least 50 yards in 12 games this season. The Chargers are 9-3 in those contests.
In a tumultuous season, the Raiders have shown staying power. The last-second 33-yard field goal last week to give the Raiders a 23-20 victory over the Colts was Daniel Carlson’s fifth game-ending kick for a victory this season.
Through it all, the Raiders have overcome the resignation of head coach Jon Gruden, the tragedy of a deadly car crash involving former wide receiver Henry Ruggs III and the release of cornerback Damon Arnette following a video that included death threats. Cornerback Nate Hobbs was arrested on a misdemeanor DUI charge.
And last week, former Raiders head coaching legend John Madden passed away.
All eyes will be focused toward Carr on Sunday to see if he can get the Raiders through a win-or-go-home challenge.
After the Chargers’ victory over the Raiders earlier this season, star Los Angeles defensive end Joey Bosa said of the Raiders’ QB: “Great dude, great player … but we know once you get pressure on him, he kind of shuts down.”
Carr’s chance at a retort has arrived. He is just 72 passing yards away from breaking Rich Gannon’s single-season franchise record of 4,689 set in 2002.
“To be completely honest, I feel like that’s kind of been the feeling around our team and around my heart the last month,” Carr said about the do-or-die scenario. “… It’s exciting, it’s against a division team but nothing changes. I always say, if you have to change something in your preparation, you’re not playing the right way.”
Raiders running back Josh Jacobs (ribs) and tight end Darren Waller were limited in practice Wednesday, while defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins did not participate. Waller, defensive end Carl Nassib and guard Jordan Simmons were activated off the reserve/COVID list.
Chargers defensive lineman Joe Gaziano (ankle) and center Corey Linsley (back) did not participate, while linebacker Drue Tranquill (ankle) was limited.
–Field Level Media