What if they tie? It was a question spoken in subtle whispers to open the week leading up to the final game of the final Sunday of the 2021 NFL regular season, a divisional matchup between the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders.
It grew louder over the course of the week, evolving into a fun, harmless theory -- the ultimate far-fetched possible playoff clinching scenarios for both teams should the ideal conditions align. A tie game, in the right situation, would mean both the Chargers and Raiders would make the playoffs.
What if they tie? The question got louder as Sunday's action progressed with a series of unlikely, unbelievable outcomes that brought the exact conditions to pave the way for the tie-game scenario.
In the early window of Sunday's games, the Jacksonville Jaguars went out and absolutely dominated the Indianapolis Colts, opening the door for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, teams who entered Sunday’s matchup with less than a 10 per cent chance of making the playoffs.
But after a thrilling overtime victory for Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers over the Ravens, Pittsburgh's hopes skyrocket to a whopping 99 per cent. At this point, all that stood between Big Ben and the playoffs was one game: Chargers versus Raiders. And the only outcome that would lock out the Steelers? A tie.
What if they actually tie? The stage was set for both the Chargers and Raiders to simply take a knee and walk hand-in-hand into the post-season so long as neither team went for the win. The situation still felt extremely unlikely, considering the Chargers were down 29-14 with just five minutes remaining in regulation.
Then the unlikely happened. A wild run of fourth-down conversions had the Chargers back in the game and tying things up with mere seconds to spare to send things to overtime.
It was chaos, and it was beautiful.
Justin Herbert generated +18.8 pass EPA on fourth down, the most in a game in the NGS era (since 2016).
Herbert on 4th Down (Week 18)
6/6, 106 yards, TD
+18.8 pass EPA
+40.5% CPOE#LACvsLV | #BoltUp pic.twitter.com/G9LJxpvTdf
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 10, 2022
Wait, they could really tie? As we entered overtime deadlocked at 29-29, Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert's fourth-down heroics were the story of the game, leaving those watching the game and those involved in it thinking that the most chaotic ending possible may just come to pass.
"Yeah, it was a conversation,” Raiders coach Rich Basaccia said after the game, when asked about the tie scenario. “We ran the ball there [on second down of the Raiders' final possession] and they didn't call a timeout. So, I think they were probably thinking the same thing. And then we had the big run in there, and when we got the big run it got us into advantageous field goal position for us, we were going to take the field goal and try to win it.
“But we certainly talked about it on the sideline.”
That's when Chargers head coach Brandon Staley called a timeout, and all hell broke loose.
“We wanted to see if they were going to call a timeout or not on that run,” Basaccia said. “They didn't, so we thought they were thinking the same thing, and then we popped the run in there which gave us a chance to kick the field goal to win it.”
The timeout call came with 38 seconds to go in an overtime period that had escalated into a next-score-wins situation after both team scored a field goal on their first OT possessions. Staley's timeout came as the Raiders were looking like they were going for another third-down run. The timeout call prompted the Raiders to then switch up their formation before successfully running the ball into more comfortable field-goal territory.
"We needed to get in the right grouping. We felt like they were going to run the ball, so we wanted to get our best 11-personnel run defence in, make that substitution so that we could get a play where we could deepen the field goal," Staley said.
"I don't think it changed their mindset because they were going to run the ball on the play before and then they ran the ball on the very next play," he continued after a follow-up question. "So we wanted to make sure that we got our run defence in there and we obviously didn't execute well enough but we wanted to get our premium one-back run defence in here and that's what we did."
Asked if any part of his motivation was to conserve time on the clock in case the Raiders missed their field goal attempt, thus giving the Chargers the ball, Staley said: "My mindset was to make the field goal as long as possible."
We know now, of course, that Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson went on to split the uprights from 47 yards out with two seconds to go, winning the game for Vegas and sending Chargers fans packing -- and questioning everything.
And while we may never know for sure exactly how that timeout call altered the outcome of the game -- were the Raiders content to let the clock run out for a tie? -- the post-game comments, beyond just Staley’s, were revealing.
Asked post-game by NBC's Michele Tafoya how the timeout shifted Vegas' strategy, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said "it definitely did, obviously," before making it clear that the team did not want to end the game with a tie:
"But we knew, no matter what, we didn't want a tie. We wanted to win the football game. Obviously, if you tie you're in and I think all those things, but my mindset all day ... was to make sure that we were the only team moving on after this," he said.
As for Herbert? Well, he was all of us:
Justin Herbert: "I've never wanted a tie so bad."pic.twitter.com/Q8MmPt70kL
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 10, 2022
In a season filled with parity and wild plays and walk-off wins, the Chargers and Raiders gave us a grand finale that was certainly worthy of its title.