Football is a zero-sum game. This is obvious in most matchups, when a touchdown brings the scoring team closer to winning and simultaneously pushes the opponent away from victory. Every action in the NFL has an equal and opposite reaction—what is good for one team is always bad for another.
Yet despite this reality, there are occasionally moments where cooperation makes sense. Such a scenario presented itself Sunday, when the Raiders and Jets clashed in New York. At 6-5, Las Vegas came into the day needing a win to stay afloat in a tough AFC playoff race. The Jets, at 0-11, needed a loss to continue their march toward the no. 1 overall pick and the franchise quarterback—almost certainly Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence—that comes with it.
For much of the game, it seemed like things would work out in both teams’ favors. The Jets trailed by 11 in the fourth quarter, and the Raiders looked prepared to hang on until the end. But then, after a Vegas turnover and quick Jets score, the situation flipped on its head. Now, no one is expecting NFL players to pull something like the Disgrace of Gijón. But with the Jets up four and the clock rapidly approaching zero, their coverage on the play that ultimately gave the Raiders a 31-28 win was certainly curious.
The Jets blitzed seven players—cover zero—on a play in which their opponent needed a touchdown to win. That came just one snap after the Jets let Nelson Agholor break free downfield, too, but quarterback Derek Carr missed the receiver by more than 5 yards. On the second attempt, Carr hit Henry Ruggs III to give the Raiders the win and, perhaps even more crucially, keep the Jets in pole position for the top draft pick.
That game-winning score came after the Jets had scored touchdowns on back-to-back possessions, forced a Raiders fumble, and forced a turnover on downs on what looked like it would be Las Vegas’s last possession. After trailing 24-13 in the fourth quarter, the Jets suddenly played a stretch of perfect football to take the lead and throw their tank into jeopardy. Luckily for the New York fans who are pining for Lawrence, though, these are the Jets. And no one is better at losing than them.
After forcing a turnover on downs, the Jets got the ball with 1:37 left. The Raiders had two timeouts, meaning New York needed to pick up just one first down to put the game away. Instead, they gained 5 yards on three plays—all handoffs to Ty Johnson—and punted with 42 seconds remaining. That’s when the Raiders mounted their furious comeback attempt, and when the Jets decided to send an all-out blitz when they only needed to defend their end zone.
As all of this was unfolding, the race for the no. 1 pick was also taking some twists and turns in Minnesota, where the Vikings were playing the Jaguars. At 1-11, Jacksonville is the Jets’ top competition for the no. 1 overall pick. The Jags had taken a 16-6 lead early in the third quarter, but promptly gave away their advantage by letting up a safety and three unanswered scoring drives. With 3:50 left, Jacksonville got the ball back down 24-16. But like the Jets and Raiders, the Vikings and Jaguars could have benefited from a little cooperation. Coming into the day, the 5-6 Vikings were desperate for a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Meanwhile the Jags were the only one-win team in the league, in line for the second overall pick.
So what happened? The Jags put together a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Then they got the two-point conversion to tie the game up at 24. Both teams also missed field goals in the final two minutes of regulation, sending the game to overtime. But the Jaguars did not think to send an ill-advised cover-zero blitz at the Vikings. In fact, they actually stopped Minnesota on the team’s first drive in overtime. Luckily for the Vikings, though, Mike Glennon threw a pick to end the Jags’ only OT drive, and on Minnesota’s final possession, Dan Bailey kicked a 23-yard field goal to win the game, 27-24.
For a moment there, it looked like the Jaguars could jump into a tie with the Jets for last place. Instead, after all that drama, the tankathon remains where it was previously, with the winless Jets ahead of the one-win Jaguars. Sunday showed us how quickly things can change in this race to the bottom—and also why these teams are in this position in the first place.