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The Tie Game That Wasn’t Meant to Be

The fourth quarter and overtime of the Chargers-Raiders playoff play-in game was pure chaos. An improbable scenario suddenly seemed plausible. Should both teams have just taken a knee?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Despite all the fever-pitched internet clamoring, the Raiders and Chargers did not play for a tie in a win-or-go-home-but-if-we-tie-we-both-make-the-playoffs scenario. The stakes were clear Sunday night: a winner between Las Vegas and Los Angeles would advance to the playoffs, along with the Steelers. If the Raiders and Chargers tied, both teams would make it, leaving the Steelers out. Win-or-tie-and-in.

The circumstances that unfolded late in the game were anything but simple. The Chargers erased a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit, with Mike Williams catching the game-tying touchdown as regulation ended to cap off a 19-play, 83-yard drive during which Los Angeles converted three fourth downs. In overtime, the seemingly unthinkable scenario of both teams playing for a tie suddenly seemed not only plausible but strategically sound. However, Las Vegas followed an old coaching adage: “Control what you can control.” And despite the Chargers’ heroic efforts down the stretch, the Raiders walked off the regular season with a game-winning Daniel Carlson field goal. Las Vegas won 35-32 to clinch its first postseason appearance since the 2016 season. The Raiders will visit the Bengals on Saturday in a wild-card matchup.

Sunday night’s fourth quarter and overtime were pure chaos. In overtime, the Raiders knocked in a field goal on the opening possession to go up 32-29. The Chargers survived another fourth-and-9 scare—thanks to another Justin Herbert–Williams connection—before settling for a game-tying field goal of their own. That left 4:30 remaining until the game could end in a tie and both teams could advance.

The Raiders methodically worked their way down the field. They reached L.A.’s 39-yard line and faced a third-and-4 with a minute left. The clock was rolling, getting down to 38 seconds—and five seconds left on the play clock—when Chargers coach Brandon Staley suddenly called a timeout.

Watch the clip below. This is the entire sequence preceding Staley’s timeout decision:

Many found it a questionable move, but Staley’s reasoning is pretty clear. The Chargers defense ranked 32nd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rush defense ratings and ranked 32nd in rush defense success rate. It had given up 122 rushing yards to Josh Jacobs, who was averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Vegas needed only about 5 yards to be safely within Carlson’s kicking range; the Chargers needed at least a tie to advance to the postseason. That made getting a stop on third-and-4 critical, and it’s clear that when the Raiders broke their huddle, the Chargers defense was not set. And with the play clock down to five seconds, Staley decided to call a timeout, choosing to set his defense rather than risk giving up a first down or a game-clinching play. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Jacobs plunged for a 10-yard gain to convert, setting up Carlson’s kick.

“We got our run defense in there,” Staley told reporters about his timeout decision after the game. “We obviously didn’t execute well enough, but we wanted to get our premium one-back run defense in there, and that’s what we did. … My mindset was to make the field goal as long as possible.”

Derek Carr said after the game that Vegas was playing to win the game on the final drive. However, Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia said Vegas considered a tie, noting that the Chargers didn’t elect to call a timeout on one of Vegas’s early running plays.

“[Running the clock out] was a conversation; we were talking about it,” Bisaccia told reporters. “We ran the ball there, and they didn’t call a timeout, so I think they were probably thinking the same thing. Then we had the big run. When we got the big run and got us into what we thought was advantageous field goal position for us, we were gonna take the field goal and try to win it.”

But the incentive for the Raiders to put themselves in field goal position to try to win the game was clear: Win and face the Bengals or tie and face the Chiefs.

Carlson, who entered Week 18 ranked fifth in field goal percentage this season, left no doubt about his 47-yard game-winner. This season, he went an impressive 9-for-9 on lead-changing attempts with less than two minutes in the fourth quarter or OT. It’s the most in a single season in NFL history.

Carlson’s steadiness in the clutch speaks to the resolve of this Raiders team. Calling Las Vegas’s 2021 season tumultuous is an understatement because so much went wrong. But somehow, the Raiders stand three wins from reaching the Super Bowl.

“It’s probably the coolest accomplishment I think I’ve ever had in my life, football-wise,” Carr told reporters. “To see where we were at, everything we went through, and to still make it … this was the coolest thing.”

Let’s recap just how chaotic the Raiders’ season—which followed an offseason of heavy scrutiny concerning Jon Gruden’s tenure—has been:

  • October 11: Gruden resigned as the Raiders’ coach in Week 6 after a New York Times report revealed he made racist, homophobic, and misogynistic remarks in emails exchanged with Bruce Allen, former general manager of the Washington Football Team. Special teams coordinator Bisaccia was named interim head coach.
  • November 2: The team released 2020 first-round wide receiver Henry Ruggs III after he was arrested on felony DUI charges. Police said that the vehicle Ruggs was driving reached 156 mph, crashed into a car, and killed a woman and her dog.
  • November 8: The team released 2020 first-round cornerback Damon Arnette after a video in which he brandishes a firearm and makes death threats surfaced.
  • December 12: After starting 5-2, the Raiders dropped to 6-7.
  • January 3: Raiders rookie cornerback Nate Hobbs was arrested on a DUI charge.

“I don’t think any team has been through what we’ve been through in 10 years, let alone one year,” Carr told reporters after the game. “Pick a story. There’s so much emotion with everything that we’ve done. My brother said it best: ‘This team was forged in fire.’ I kinda like that.”

The Raiders are the first team since 1961 to make a midseason coaching change and reach the playoffs. Considering how much of a gauntlet the AFC West is, getting into the playoffs has to feel special.

The Raiders’ triumph might mean more to Carr than any other Raider. He’s arguably the most polarizing signal-caller in franchise history, despite holding several team records. He was at the heart of the Raiders’ playoff push in 2016 but didn’t appear in the postseason after suffering a broken leg in a Week 16 blowout win against the Colts. Now, the 30-year-old gets the chance to lead his team in its new era into the playoffs, and he’s determined to make Vegas’s presence meaningful.

“Maybe it will hit me in the morning,” Carr said. “But the job is not done.”