Raiders-Chargers loom, Bengals uprising, NFL playoff pictures and more

Raiders-Chargers loom, Bengals uprising, NFL playoff pictures and more

On Sunday night, we get an extra playoff game with the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers battling for an AFC wild card spot.

For once, we’re truly waiting all day for Sunday night.

With a slate of mostly meaningless games — there are a few impactful ones sprinkled in — next Sunday will have us kicking back before an AFC West clash of mammoth implications.

The Las Vegas Raiders hosting the Los Angeles Chargers.

The winner, playoff-bound. The loser, going home.

The Raiders, left for dead at 6-7, have staggered back with three consecutive wins including a last-second 23-20 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday afternoon. No team has endured more this year, with head coach Jon Gruden resigning in disgrace following disgraceful emails, followed by the tragic DUI accident involving receiver Henry Ruggs III.

Now, with a home win on Sunday Night Football, the Raiders would be in the playoffs for only the second time since 2002.

Los Angeles has been confounding all year. The Chargers have beaten the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals. They’ve also lost to the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans. At 9-7, quarterback Justin Herbert has a chance to reach his first postseason and captain a high-flying offense deep into January. Or, Los Angeles could fall apart in Las Vegas and call it a campaign.

As typical with these types of games, the narratives will be about the coaches and quarterbacks.

For Derek Carr, it’s a chance to shine amidst the chaos. As aforementioned, the Raiders have gone through it all this season. They started hot, went on a skid and dealt with an unfathomable amount of disarray through it all.

If Las Vegas gets into the playoffs, it is a credit to Carr and his ability to lead, as he did so well for months. Barring injury to him in Week 18, it’ll also be the first time Carr has started a postseason game. In 2016, the only other time the Raiders reached the playoffs with Carr, he was sidelined with a broken leg.

Then there’s interim head coach Rich Basaccia. For the 61-year-old New Yorker, you can almost certainly remove the prefacing label if Las Vegas beats the Chargers. How could owner Mark Davis go another direction should the Raiders send Allegiant Stadium into bedlam with a victory in front of the nation on Sunday night?

As for the Chargers, the stakes are a bit different.

Los Angeles was expected to reach the playoffs after a hot 4-1 start, with some believing they were the AFC’s best after wins over the Chiefs and Cleveland Browns. Then they swooned before a massive Week 15 showdown against Kansas City, essentially for the AFC West. The Chiefs won in overtime, and the Chargers’ malaise cost them the following weekend with a shocking loss to the Houston Texans.

Should Los Angeles lose to Las Vegas, it’ll start the round of questions — fair or not — about Justin Herbert. For all his numbers, where are the wins? Two seasons, no playoffs. No signature victories. And with draft classmate Joe Burrow becoming a superstar, some of the luster Herbert has enjoyed will transfer to southern Ohio. It’s the way of the 24/7/365 NFL world.

Entering Week 18, the Raiders are the feel-good story. Counted out and forgotten, the Silver and Black has risen to mount a late rally, hoping they have another win in them. The Chargers are trying to avoid the embarrassment of a horrid end to a promising season, punctuated by a trio of losses in four weeks.

Come Sunday, we’ll be waiting all day for the Raiders and Chargers to get going.

It’s an extra playoff game before the postseason begins in full force.

Power rankings

Top 10 quarterback playoff victory totals in NFL history

1. Tom Brady – 34
2. Joe Montana – 16
3. Terry Bradshaw – 14*
4. John Elway – 14
5. Peyton Manning – 14
6. Ben Roethlisberger – 13
7. Brett Favre – 13
8. Troy Aikman – 11
9. Roger Staubach – 11
10. Aaron Rodgers – 11

*Ties broken by win percentage

Quotable

But look, I’m not asking them to be patient. Trust me guys. I’m not the most patient guy myself. I’m committed. I’m committed. But I’m not the most patient guy myself. But I am proud of the way these guys continue to fight, the effort they play with, the way they grind it out. But again, the toughest thing to turnover in a program, the toughest thing to change, is how people think, OK? How people think. Making sure guys are wired the right way.

– New York Giants head coach Joe Judge, finishing off an 11-minute comment after losing 29-3 to the Chicago Bears

If the Giants retain Judge, good luck getting a quality general manager to take the job. Go read the entire quote. It’s 11 minutes of word salad.

Podcast

Random stat

Brandon Scherff is the only Washington player to be a First-Team All-Pro in the last 25 seasons.

Info learned this week

1. Antonio Brown has tantrum, and Bucs are in trouble

And with that, we’ve seen the last of Antonio Brown in the NFL.

During an uninspired 28-24 victory over the New York Jets, Brown refused to enter the game and after being told to leave the sideline, the mercurial receiver stripped, left the field and then, literally, left the building. In the postgame, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians confirmed the obvious and told media members Brown is no longer with the club.

In three weeks, Tampa Bay went from clear contender to murky situation. At 12-4, the Buccaneers are the NFC’s No. 3 seed but are dealing with injuries to receiver Mike Evans and running back Leonard Fournette. More troubling, they’re without Brown and fellow receiver Chris Godwin (torn ACL) for the duration. Suddenly, defenses won’t be as daunted with the ability to double Evans and bracket tight end Rob Gronkowski on key downs.

Back to Brown, though, for a second. Few players leave a more bizarre legacy for history to sort out. He’s a seven-time Pro Bowler and four-time First-Team All-Pro who won a Super Bowl last season. Brown led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards twice apiece, and may finish his career with 12,265 yards.

And yet, it all may be overshadowed by his circus of a tenure with the Raiders, his ugly two-week stay with the New England Patriots and now this blight of a performance with Tampa Bay.

Brown was once one of the greats, but he’s descended into a carnival.

2. Bengals clinch AFC North behind unstoppable duo

The Cincinnati Bengals are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2015. Thank LSU.

The former Bayou Tigers of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase led an improbable 34-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, giving Cincinnati its first AFC North crown since 2015. Burrow, a week after throwing for 525 yards against the Baltimore Ravens, went for 446 yards and four touchdowns. Chase, having one of the all-time great rookie seasons, had 11 catches for 266 yards and three scores.

For the Bengals, it’s an announcement of their arrival. Yes, anybody who watched the game understands the role the officiating played in it. Kansas City certainly has gripes. Yet Cincinnati dropped two Patrick Mahomes would-be interceptions and still won, getting its 10th win and earning at least one home playoff game.

As for the Chiefs, it’s a bitter loss. Kansas City held a trio of 14-point leads and couldn’t hold on, with the defeat dropping it to the No. 2 seed in the AFC. Unless the Houston Texans can beat the Tennessee Titans in Week 18, Kansas City will play on Wild Card weekend for the first time since 2018.

3. Cardinals prove they’re still alive, handling the Cowboys in Dallas

Maybe the obit written for the Arizona Cardinals was premature.

On Sunday, the Cardinals went into JerryWorld and escaped with a 25-22 win. Kyler Murray led the way with 307 total yards and two touchdowns, helping Arizona earn its first win in nearly a month after dropping three straight.

While the victory keeps hold alive for an NFC West crown, it’s almost more important for morale. The Cardinals were sinking quick, but beating a quality team on the road should do wonders for them should they play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams or Cowboys on the road in two weeks. With star receiver DeAndre Hopkins slated for return in the postseason, Arizona is back to looking dangerous.

For Dallas, the defeat doesn’t change much. The Cowboys weren’t getting the NFC’s top seed, but they do drop from the second spot. The big difference is going from two guaranteed home games to one, but the NFC East has long been secured and Dallas will still have friendly confines in the Wild Card round. The big issue has been beating good teams. The Cowboys have only three victories over teams with winning records.

4. NFC playoff picture only waiting on 49ers, Saints

We’re about ready to start announcing the NFC playoff matchups. Well, almost.

Six of the seven spots have been clinched, with three divisions wrapped up. The NFC West remains the outlier but with a win, the Rams take the division with Arizona settling for the fifth seed. If the Cardinals win and the Rams lose, Arizona wins the West with Los Angeles going to No. 5.

But let’s move to the Rams’ opponent in the 49ers. For San Francisco, it’s win and in. However, the Niners can still make the playoffs if they lose but the Falcons handle the New Orleans Saints in Atlanta. However, if the Saints win and San Francisco doesn’t, the tiebreaker goes to New Orleans and the Niners miss the postseason.

If San Francisco gets into the playoffs, it’ll be the sixth seed. If it’s the Saints moving on, they’ll be the No. 7 seed.

5. Steelers-Browns has little impact, but swan song for Big Ben

For Ben Roethlisberger, it’s almost over. After 18 years in the arena, Roethlisberger will play what’s almost certainly his final game in front of the Pittsburgh Steelers fans at Heinz Field.

Over his career, Roethlisberger has put together a Hall-of-Fame resume. He’s thrown for 63,721 yards and 416 touchdowns. The former 2004 first-round pick is a six-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champ, posting a 13-9 playoff record. The iconic moments are many, but none more so than his touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes in the final minute of Super Bowl XLIII to slay the Cardinals.

On Monday night, the fans get a chance to say goodbye against a hated rival in the Cleveland Browns. It’s not to stay in serious contention for a playoff spot, but rather to win and send out Roethlisberger on a high note in what has been a turbulent last two seasons.

Once Roethlisberger announces his retirement, it’ll be interesting to see how many years it takes him to get into Canton. He’ll certainly make it eventually, with the only eligible quarterbacks to have multiple rings and not be in are Jim Plunkett and Phil Simms. With due respect to both, neither were the caliber of Roethlisberger.

For now, though, another game and one more ovation.

Gambler’s game

The Bills are a 17-point favorite over the Jets in Orchard Park, according to WynnBet. The line can’t get high enough with Buffalo trying to clinch the AFC East. Lay the points, enjoy the blowout.

Two cents

This is the most underrated weekend of the NFL year.

For yours truly, the best football weekend is the Divisional round. You get eight teams, typically the league’s best, going after it. The second-best weekend is Championship Sunday. Who is going to the Super Bowl? The legacies and ambitions of so many are on the line.

After that, it’s the final week of the regular season. Yes, ahead of even the Super Bowl, because while Super Sunday is the culmination of what we’ve watched for six months, it’s so commercialized. It’s such a human circus.

Yet the final regular season games involves so much drama. There’s nothing better than watching fates rise and fall on a minute-by-minute basis as teams clinch spots, upsets take out likely scenarios and ultimately, we see the playoff brackets fall into place.

This year, there’s a litany of races going in both the AFC and NFC with so much undecided.

I can’t wait.

Inside the league

Wild Card weekend is still a bit in the distance, but it’s worth examining the new format. Instead of having three games each on Saturday and Sunday like last season, the NFL is experimenting with a Monday night tilt.

Frankly, there’s good and bad for the two teams stuck playing the first Monday night game in postseason history. The good? If players go on the COVID list, they have extra time to get back. The bad? Obviously, it means less rest, even if the winner will undoubtedly be playing on Sunday instead of an absurd Saturday turnaround.

As with any scheduling move, the NFL is hoping to get bigger ratings. Perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked the league made a change, after last year’s Wild Card games did poorly compared to prior seasons.

Without question, teams would rather play Saturday and Sunday and stick to a normal schedule, but the NFL wants to dominate any day of the calendar it can. If that means Monday nights in the playoffs and jumbled schedules for the participants, so be it.

History lesson

The Jets and Giants have shared a stadium since 1984. Incredibly, they’ve only each hosted playoff games in the same season on two occasions, coming in ’85 and ’86.

It was especially wild in 1985, when both teams hosted games on Wild Card weekend. On Saturday, the Jets hosted the Patriots and lost. Less than 24 hours later, the Giants welcomed in the 49ers and won before being shut out by the Chicago Bears the following weekend.

Parting shot

A Happy New Year to all of you.

I hope you’re enjoying the start of 2022, and despite the world’s struggles, had a quality 2021.

For me, I’m glad it’s over. The pandemic is becoming an intolerable emotional burden. My wife and I lost our son, Ben, on April 14 during an emergency, life-saving surgery for her. He was 18 weeks in utero. We decided to try for another child a few months later, and we’re blessed to have a baby girl on the way. She’s due almost exactly one year to the day we lost Ben.

With that great news, comes anxiety. The worry is my wife, who is vaccinated and boosted, will be infected by COVID. She’s in healthcare, and so she’s always at risk. I, also vaccinated and boosted, am doing all I reasonably can to avoid exposure as well, although upcoming work trips to the Senior Bowl, Super Bowl and Scouting Combine are certainly anything but ideal in that regard.

It’s become fashionable to say everyone has a right to make the best choice for them, and that’s true at its core. This is a country founded on freedom. Yet this is also a country founded on great personal sacrifice, and doing what’s best for the common good. Read a history book about the Civil War period. Ask any remaining members of the Greatest Generation, a World War II America which saw production of automobiles slow to a crawl in an effort to pump out combat materials.

I don’t use this column as a soapbox, but in this small space I’m using it as a platform you can choose to read or click out of.

I’m tired. Millions of others are as well. If you’re doing your part to make sure this is the last year of this godawful pandemic, thank you. If you haven’t gotten vaccinated but can, please consider it.

Maybe taking the vaccine isn’t for you, but it’s for your neighbor. Maybe it’s for the elderly woman down the street. Maybe it’s for your cousin who has an autoimmune disease, or an aunt who is battling cancer and finds herself susceptible. Maybe it’s for the peace of mind of people like me, who just want my 4-year-old daughter to live without a mask at daycare, and for my unborn daughter to make it here safely.

And for those who say the vaccine doesn’t stop the spread, you’re right. It doesn’t. But it slows it down, because the vaccinated are statistically far less likely to contract, and therefore less likely to pass on. Also, you’d be doing those like my wife and sister-in-law — a nurse — a huge favor. They’re exhausted. Hospitals and clinics are dealing with record numbers of COVID patients, and almost all who are in serious condition or worse are unvaccinated.

Lastly, this isn’t some political stance. In full transparency, I’m an independent. I don’t care about Republican or Democratic ideals. I care, and stand for, what I believe makes us the best society we can be.

Anyway, that’s been on my mind. The topic keeps me up at night. I wanted to talk about it.

Thanks for hearing me out, and sincerely, Happy New Year. May it be the best of your life.

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