- Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
Pure, unadulterated chaos. The final game of the 2021 NFL regular season was arguably the most dramatic of the entire league year. We’ve seen nail-biting finishes in this game before, like the 49ers-Seahawks matchup that decided a division by an inch two seasons ago. Leaving aside the elephant in the room that I’m about to discuss, this was a fabulously entertaining football game that the Raiders won in overtime 35-32. The Chargers converted seven consecutive opportunities on plays in which a failure would have ended their season with an average of more than 11 yards to go. There were moments in which it felt like each team was holding on for dear life.
Of course, there was an added factor making this even more dramatic. Both the Chargers and Raiders knew they would make it into the postseason with a win, but the third scenario made this endgame unique in recent NFL history: A tie would have pushed each into the postseason at the expense of the Steelers, who won earlier in the afternoon. The chances of both teams taking a knee were always nil, but it was fair to wonder whether they would be upset about settling for a tie if they got into a sticky situation late in overtime.
If you fell asleep late Sunday night, I’m here to tell you that you missed that very sticky situation. The Chargers and Raiders were clearly trying to win, but when we got to the two-minute warning and Las Vegas was at midfield, it felt like the competitiveness dam in the stadium burst. Everything was on the table, and after the game, I’ve seen conspiracy theories for what each team wanted to do on both sides.
After watching closely and listening to what was said after the game, it’s pretty clear what happened and what each team wanted to happen. I’m not sure it’s a conspiracy theory or some grand mistake by either side, but I do think it’s worth breaking down. Let’s run through the last offensive series for the Raiders and see what happened with the game on the line:
At the two-minute warning in overtime
Let’s start by setting the scene. After Derek Carr hit Zay Jones on a third-and-8 pass to pick up a first down, the Raiders crossed over into Chargers territory. At the two-minute warning, Vegas was facing a first-and-10 from the Chargers’ 45-yard line. At this point, it was not in anything resembling comfortable field-goal range, given that a kick from this distance would have been a 63-yarder.
From the conspiracy perspective, if the Raiders really wanted to just end the game safely, this would have been the perfect time to give up. Inside two minutes, they could have kneeled three times and run out the clock. The Chargers had two timeouts and could have stopped the clock, but there would have been no reason for them to push the envelope, given that a tie would get them into the postseason. Indeed, when the Raiders ran the ball twice in reality, the Chargers happily let the clock run afterward. They didn’t care about getting the ball back.
From Raiders coach Rich Bisaccia’s perspective, his team did have a reason to try to win, though: playoff positioning. If the Raiders tied the Chargers, they would be heading into the postseason as the No. 7 seed and travel to play the Chiefs. Andy Reid’s team beat the Raiders by a combined score of 99-23 across their two matchups this season. I don’t think they wanted to play the Chiefs a third time.
By winning, the Raiders would get to face the Bengals. Granted, their regular-season matchup against Cincinnati wasn’t much better, as they lost 32-13 when these two teams met in late November. I don’t want to disrespect the Bengals, who have had an impressive season in winning the AFC North, but the Chiefs have a more imposing playoff résumé than Cincinnati. Going in as the 7-seed means a team has to beat the top two seeds in the conference in the first two playoff games. The Raiders didn’t want to miss out altogether, but they had some meaningful motivation to try to win in overtime.
First and second downs
The Raiders didn’t kneel. Instead, they ran the ball on first down. I have to admit that in real time that it didn’t feel like they were running at maximum intensity. Granted, there are a few factors that come into play. There’s the confirmation bias in thinking about the “tie” scenario, given that it had been discussed ad nauseum all week and then throughout Sunday. This was after 68 minutes of football, when everybody on the field was probably exhausted and playing at less than full speed. We also know that the Raiders’ primary goal was to not lose, which might have meant safer run calls and a focus on protecting the football while still trying to advance the ball.
Josh Jacobs lost 1 yard. The Chargers let the clock run after the play. So did the Raiders. This makes sense for both sides. The Raiders don’t want to give the Chargers any chance at scoring, since running the clock down prevents the Chargers from getting back on offense and ensures that the Raiders can do no worse than a tie. Chargers coach Brandon Staley doesn’t want to push the Raiders to try to get into easier field goal range and score, either.
On second down, Jacobs runs outside for 7 yards. I don’t think that this looks like a play in which the Raiders were giving up. Jacobs actually has a chance to hit the C-gap for a decent gain, one in which he could have gone down at the first sign of danger without having to worry about anybody accusing the Raiders of just trying to kneel without kneeling. Instead, he cut outside and picked up a couple of extra yards in the process. If anything, the Chargers were the ones playing it relatively safe on defense, with nobody attempting to shoot a gap or get out of position and allow a big gain.
Again, the clock ran immediately after the play. The Raiders now have the ball on the opposing 39-yard line for a third-and-4. If they get stuffed altogether or throw an incomplete pass on third down, they would be facing a 57-yard field goal. Missing that field goal would have given the Chargers the ball back with a short field and at least one timeout, opening up a possibility for the Raiders to lose. I don’t think there’s a real chance that they would have attempted a 57-yard field goal. They would have punted if the clock had been stopped or let the clock run down to zero if it had continued to run after third down.
The Raiders were also not about to kneel on third down to end the game. As Will Brinson noted, Vegas initially lined up in shotgun on third down, just as it had on second down when it ran the ball. You don’t kneel out of shotgun. And as Mitchell Schwartz mentioned, Kolton Miller’s stance made it clear that the Raiders were not going to throw the ball. This was 100% going to be a run, probably one similar to the play we saw on the prior down.
Well, until the Chargers called timeout. Here’s where the conspiracy grows. The easiest scenario is to believe that the Raiders were about to hand the Chargers a trip to the playoffs, only for the Chargers and their analytics-addled coach to outthink themselves and call a timeout. Suitably chastened, the Raiders suddenly tried to win the game and knock the Chargers out of the postseason.
This theory was also aided by a quote immediately after the game from Carr, which was taken out of context. Asked by sideline reporter Michele Tafoya whether the timeout changed the Raiders’ strategy, he said “Yeah, it definitely did, obviously.” That’s great evidence for the conspiracy until you get to the next thing Carr said. “But we knew no matter what we didn’t want a tie,” the quarterback said. “My mindset was to make sure we were the only team moving on after this.” Carr could just be talking like a competitive football player, but we’ve established that the Raiders had meaningful motivation to win throughout the game and were trying to get in field goal range on the prior down.
Did the timeout change anything for the Raiders? In terms of their situation, not really. The timeout came with 38 seconds left in the game and about five seconds left on the game clock. If the Raiders’ plan was to essentially run out the clock on third down and play for the tie, the Chargers calling a timeout makes absolutely no difference in terms of the timing of the next play. The Raiders were either going to run a play with 38 seconds to go in the game (with this timeout) or 34 seconds to go in the game (if there hadn’t been a timeout). With a 40-second play clock, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s run with 38 or 34 seconds; if they run and the ball stays in bounds, they can let the clock run down to zero after the play in either scenario.
Were the Chargers trying to force the Raiders to run a play to get the ball back? Absolutely not. For one, if that had been the case, Los Angeles would have called a timeout immediately after the second-down run. It did not. Furthermore, it had nothing to gain by getting the ball back. Staley’s team is in a vulnerable position given the field position and doesn’t want to incentivize the Raiders to try to score.
Unlike the Raiders, who had motivation in terms of choosing their playoff opponent with a victory, the Chargers would have been the 6-seed regardless of whether they had tied or won outright. Their chances of moving into field goal range after a Raiders punt would have been low and offered no improvement in their win expectancy. They would have kneeled if the Raiders had punted. They would have happily let the clock run down, and I would bet they deliberately waited until the clock was inside of 40 seconds before calling a timeout.
Did the Chargers panic because the Raiders were in a passing formation? Probably not, given that they were in a similar look on second down. Some screenshots floating around Twitter after the game suggested that the Chargers had only nine men on the field, but they were misleading shots from the television broadcast; pictures taken a few frames later made it clear that the Chargers had a full complement of players.
Instead, Staley’s postgame news conference made his intentions clear. The Chargers called timeout because they wanted to get their best run defenders on the field to stop the run they knew was coming. Given that it was going to be a short-yardage run, they swapped struggling 240-pound linebacker Kenneth Murray for 323-pound defensive tackle Linval Joseph. The goal was pretty clearly to try to stop the Raiders for a short gain and force them into either attempting the most difficult field goal possible or letting the clock run out. I think the Raiders would have tried a 57-yarder with a second left if they had been stuffed on third down, but you only have to think back to the 2013 Iron Bowl to remember how an extremely long field goal attempt could go wrong for the kicking team.
Did this suddenly invigorate and incentivize the Raiders? If you extrapolate from Carr’s first line in his reply, probably! If you read anything else — or look at what the Raiders did on second down — probably not. The Chargers weren’t going to get the ball back and score, and the timing of when they called their timeout confirms as much. If the Chargers stuffed the Raiders for a loss, the Raiders would have punted and the Chargers would have been in a hopeless situation, again with no incentive to try to win the game beyond knocking the Raiders out of the postseason for the Steelers.
Again, here’s where Bisaccia’s thoughts have been taken out of context. It’s clear that the Raiders were talking about the possibility of a tie on the sideline. I have no doubt that’s true. He also talked about the Chargers not calling timeouts as the Raiders were running the ball, which is also true early on the drive, on first down of the fateful series, and for the first 35 seconds of the game clock after second down. I think the Raiders felt pretty comfortable that the Chargers were interested in a draw, and Bisaccia’s comments suggest that the Raiders were at least thinking about that possibility.
Then, third down changed everything. If there’s one definite impact the timeout had on how the game played out, it’s in the play the Raiders chose to run. Before third down, they were lining up in the shotgun and were likely going to run inside zone or something similar. Instead, after the timeout, they brought Carr under center, lined up in the I-formation and ran split zone. Kyzir White lined up Jacobs in the hole for no gain, but Jacobs cut outside, turned upfield and ran through an Asante Samuel Jr. tackle at the sticks.
Jacobs picked up 10 yards, turning the field goal into a 49-yard attempt. That’s a much easier lift for Daniel Carlson. The Raiders still could have kneeled if they wanted to avoid the possibility of a blocked field goal being returned for a touchdown, but at that point, the chances of a miss being returned for a score are off the table. A 57-yarder is probably just risky enough for the Raiders to forgo the chances of avoiding the Chiefs and Titans to start the postseason. A 49-yarder is well within Carlson’s range, as you saw from the final play.
Over the past five years, kickers have hit 47.1% of their field goals from 57 yards out, which is where the line of scrimmage was on third down. Reduce that to a 53-yarder, which is where the Raiders would have been if Jacobs had narrowly picked up a first down, and the chances of converting the field goal jump to 67.4%. A 47-yarder gets the Raiders up to 72.9%. The Chargers definitely wanted to keep Jacobs from gaining even the 4 yards for the first down.
If you want to blame the timeout for getting the Raiders into a better run play, that’s fair. I’m also going to suggest that the Chargers could just as easily have given up a significant gain without the timeout, as we saw the Raiders pick up 23 yards on a third-and-23 draw out of shotgun earlier in the game. Stopping them in the backfield for no gain or a loss is really valuable for the Chargers.
I suspect Staley thought his chances of keeping the Raiders from picking up the first down in short yardage were better with Joseph on the field than Murray, which was also supported by what happened earlier in the game, when the Chargers took Murray off the field and inserted Joseph and stopped the Raiders twice in short yardage near the goal line. Taking Murray out against 11 personnel and using motion forced Samuel to become part of the run fit by matching up against tight end Foster Moreau; Jacobs was able to stretch Samuel before turning upfield for the biggest gain of his career.
The Chargers didn’t give up 10 yards because the Raiders were suddenly upset; they gave up 10 yards because they’re a terrible run defense and the Raiders out-executed them on the biggest snap of the season. We’ll never know if things would have turned out differently without the timeout, but given how much Murray struggled during this game and has struggled since the Chargers took him in the first round in 2020, I don’t think his presence on the field would have saved Los Angeles’ season.
I also don’t think the timeout changed Vegas’ interest or motivation in trying to get into field goal range whatsoever. The Raiders would have accepted a tie if a field goal didn’t make sense after third down, but they were almost definitely going to try a field goal if it was feasible on fourth down, timeout or no timeout. You can disagree with Staley’s aggressiveness on fourth downs in this game or throughout the season, but there’s a logic (and often data) underpinning his decisions. There would be no reason for the Chargers to try to get the ball back in this game, and Staley’s lack of interest in stopping the clock until the game was inside 40 seconds makes it clear that doing so wasn’t a priority.
The conspiracy theory is more fun than the reality. If you spin the coachspeak and playerspeak one way, trust your eyes without skepticism in assuming that the Raiders were giving up on first and second down, and subscribe to the idea that Staley’s decision-making is too aggressive for his own good, you’re probably going to come out of that season-ending tilt thinking that the Chargers cost themselves a playoff berth with a horrific timeout. If the Chargers had come up with a stop for no gain or a short loss on third down, the Raiders very well might have let the clock run out and called it a day, much to the chagrin of Steelers fans.
Taking a closer look, though, what happened at the end of this game is reasonable and hardly controversial. The Raiders wanted to win given their playoff seeding possibilities, but they wanted to not lose more than anything. They got in a position in which it would have been virtually impossible to lose and then slowed things down to ensure that they would be the only team with a chance to win. The Chargers’ only motivation was to avoid losing. When the game came down to one play, the Raiders overwhelmed the league’s worst run defense to set up a season-ending field goal. The Chargers didn’t lose because they poked the bear with a too-cute timeout. They lost because they got overpowered by a more physical team with their season on the line. For all the modern external factors surrounding this game, that’s the oldest, simplest football story in the book.
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