While I appreciate that player safety and welfare should always be a major factor, if the extra weeks added to the NFL schedule are going to be like the one we witnessed on Sunday night; keep them coming!
The teams across the league were playing a 17th regular season game for the very first time and it proved to be an evening that will live long in the memory.
It was a crazy night that saw the Indianapolis Colts blow their chances of a wild card berth, the Pittsburgh Steelers hanging on until the final kick of Sunday Night Football to know if they had made it into the AFC dance and the San Francisco 49ers using crowd noise to their advantage – on the road – to come from behind and beat the Rams in Los Angeles. That sent San Francisco to the playoffs and New Orleans into the offseason.
My head was spinning from all the permutations as Baltimore also came into the equation in the early slate of games before falling to the Steelers in overtime. And that left a much clearer picture heading into the final game of the regular season.
A win for either the Las Vegas Raiders or the Los Angeles Chargers would see the victorious team heading to the postseason along with the Steelers. But if there was a tie, both the Raiders and Chargers would advance and Pittsburgh would miss out.
That led to some interesting and sometimes-mischievous conversations in our Sky Sports NFL studio. While Ryan Leaf and Jeff Reinebold half-joked that both teams might take knees for the entire 60 minutes, Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy did admit to me that the tie would factor into the late-game thinking for Brandon Staley, of the Chargers, and Rich Bisaccia, of the Las Vegas Raiders.
And the thinking that needed to be done, could not have gone any later into the night. The Chargers tied the game on the final play of regulation as the excellent Justin Herbert capped a 19-play, 83-yard drive with a touchdown strike to Mike Williams.
The 'play for a tie' whispers grew ever-so-slightly louder as the teams headed into overtime and became a cacophony of noise once the teams traded field goals in the extra period. It was now sudden death and there was four and a half minutes remaining. The Steelers were biting their nails and their receiver, Chase Claypool, was tweeting: "Nonononono not like this." Neither the Chargers nor the Raiders needed to push for the win.
Which makes it hard for me to understand why Staley called a time out with 38 seconds left in the contest. The Raiders had the ball and were facing a third-and-four at the LA 39-yard line. The taking of knees was now a very real possibility. There was no way the Silver and Black were risking a block on a 57-yard field goal attempt and they might not have risked a turnover on another play from scrimmage. Why risk a fumble or an interception when a simple kneel-down clinches your spot in the playoffs?
But Staley called his time out, Josh Jacobs rushed for 10 yards and Daniel Carlson landed the 47-yard field goal as time in the extra session ran out. The Raiders were in even if the kick had been missed. But it went through, meaning the Steelers were also in and the Chargers were cooked.
Why be the coach to take the initiative there? I get you might want certain run-defense personnel on the field, but hustle them on, don't stop the clock. Wait and see what the other guy does in that situation. There is no need to save time, either, as you're not getting the ball back if the Raiders score. It's sudden death. And if they miss, you take the knees, take the tie and advance.
Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said the time out "definitely changed our mindset" and that was a view shared by Bisaccia after the game. And go check out social media. Look at the conversation that took place on the field between Chargers running back Austin Ekeler and Raiders long-snapper Trent Sieg.
I'm no lip-reading expert, but it sure seems like Ekeler gets told something he doesn't want to hear. You can make out Ekeler saying, "Really?" and then exclaiming, "Man!"
It appears that there was a very real possibility of the Raiders running out the clock and the time out called by Staley changed their minds. We might never know for sure, but it was a crazy end to a crazy day and this craziest of NFL seasons. That we do know.
The San Francisco 49ers… The Niners trailed 17-0 against the Los Angeles Rams but they completed the largest comeback of the Kyle Shanahan era to record a 27-24 overtime win that booked the final spot in the NFC playoffs. And they did it with a complete effort. The Niners rushed for 135 yards and a touchdown, Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 316 yards and an overtime-forcing touchdown to Ja'Wuan Jennings with 26 seconds remaining. Brandon Aiyuk caught passes for more than 100 yards, the defense recorded two interceptions and five sacks against Matthew Stafford and Shanahan dialled up some wonderful plays to put his players in position to succeed. It was notable how loud the crowd was in San Francisco's favour and Stafford admitted it was a tough environment for the hometown Rams.
Deebo Samuel… You didn't think I would forget about San Francisco's best playmaker, did you? Is there nothing this guy can do? Samuel caught four big passes for 95 yards from his wide receiver position and produced 45 yards and a touchdown on eight bruising runs out of the backfield. He has the look of a genuine running back when pounding away between the tackles. It's not all end-arounds and razzle-dazzle with Samuel, although was some of that as he completed a banner day with a touchdown pass to Jennings. The mandate has to be clear as San Francisco head to Dallas in the first round of the playoffs… find ways to get the ball into Samuel's hands, no matter where he lines up.
Josh Jacobs… Back to the Raiders for just a moment and a notable from the box score was Josh Jacobs rushing for 132 yards and one touchdown on 26 carries. I'm a huge Jacobs fan but he has not been the same running back this season and injuries have taken their toll. But if the Raiders can be more balanced on offense (they rushed for 174 yards and a touchdown against the Chargers), they can give the Bengals a game in Cincinnati in the opening contest of the playoffs on Saturday night. It will be a tougher task against Cincinnati, for sure, as LA are not good at stopping the run. But that was an encouraging display from a player talented enough to be one of the best in the league.
The Indianapolis Colts… I put it to the likes of Gregg Rosenthal and Peter King that the Colts' 26-11 season-ending loss in Jacksonville was about as frustrating and disappointing as any suffered by any team across the league this year. I didn't get any kind of argument to the contrary and both men were quick to indict Carson Wentz and rightly so. The quarterback who Indianapolis have mortgaged their future for was not up to the task and that's not the first time I have said that this season. Wentz looked rattled and lost while throwing for just 185 yards against what had been one of the league's worst defenses. Indy turned the ball over twice with Wentz throwing a pick and losing a fumble against a team that had forced just seven takeaways in the previous 16 games. But Wentz was not alone. His offensive line was terrible, giving up six sacks, and Jonathan Taylor was a non-factor as he rushed for a paltry – by his standards – 77 yards. The Colts lacked intensity on defense and head coach Frank Reich was taken to school by Jags interim head coach Darrell Bevell. It was a miserable and pathetic showing with a season that had promised so much on the line.
The Arizona Cardinals… As the Los Angeles Rams were in the process of blowing their big lead against San Francisco, the Cardinals were taking a third quarter lead against Seattle. If the Rams had lost and the Cardinals had won, Arizona would have been champions of the NFC West. But, not for the first time down the stretch, the Cardinals slipped up and lost 38-30 to Seattle. That's now four losses from their final five games of the regular season. Not exactly the form you want to take into a third meeting of the season with the Rams when the first round of the playoffs kick off this weekend.
The Fast Five…
- There was a good chance that Sunday would be Ben Roethlisberger's final game in the NFL. He wanted to soak it all in and arrived for the contest in Baltimore four hours ahead of the kickoff and ahead of all his teammates. On a rainy day against his fiercest rival, Big Ben delivered a fourth down completion to Ray Ray McCloud in overtime to set up the game-winning field goal from Chris Boswell. Like much of Roethlisberger's and Pittsburgh's play in recent seasons, it wasn't pretty, but winners win. And that means Big Ben keeps playing… for at least one more week.
- It was a good day for the Jacksonville Jaguars as they got a glimpse into their future as Trevor Lawrence played the best game of his young career to date, throwing for 223 yards and two touchdowns. His game-clincher to Marvin Jones was a thing of beauty. Lawrence fielded a bad snap, rolled away from pressure and delivered an inch-perfect strike at the back of the end zone. A good day for the Jags got even better when Detroit beat Green Bay. It means the Jags hold the first pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and everything must be about building for Lawrence.
- I'll give some credit to the Kansas City Chiefs for digging deep to beat the Denver Broncos on Saturday night, but it took a great play from Melvin Ingram and a scoop-and-score from Nick Bolton to save the day. The Chiefs are going to need such turnovers in the postseason to thrive. In back-to-back weeks they have given up 415 passing yards to Cincinnati and 191 rushing yards to Denver. That's bad news considering the AFC playoff field features the likes of Josh Allen, Joe Burrow and Derek Carr; and Derrick Henry is about to return to lead Tennessee's ground attack.
- Under-fire NFL head coaches will be locking themselves in their offices and turning off their telephones on the day that has ominously become known as Black Monday. Broncos head coach Vic Fangio went on Sunday morning and there are reports out of the US that Matt Nagy (Chicago) and Mike Zimmer (Minnesota) have coached their final games. I have to wonder about Joe Judge, of the New York Giants, although prior reports said he was safe. His team has been a non-factor for the second half of the 2021 season. Matt Rhule, of the Carolina Panthers, may also be in for an uncomfortable day.
- It was interesting to hear Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott saying his offense had not played well enough to earn a rest. The Cowboys played their starters in a 51-26 romp over the Philadelphia Eagles, who were resting all their key stars. It might prove to be a good move as Dak Prescott found some form in throwing for a career-high five touchdowns. Let's see if Dak can do it again against a good San Francisco defense this weekend. Consistency has been lacking for him in the second half of this campaign.
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we so often did on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
From Simon Kirby (@simonpfc) The 2021 NFL regular season was… wild from start to finish, not just in Week 18. It's been the craziest, most unpredictable and most wide-open season I can ever remember covering. And I have covered a lot of them! The parity across the league has been incredible, as evidenced by Jacksonville rising up to blow up the Colts' season on the final day. I think when we get to the end of this season, we won't look at the Super Bowl champion as an all-time great, necessarily. We will just look at them as a talented and successful team who found a way to survive just that bit longer than everybody else. There are seven teams remaining in the AFC playoff field and I could make a serious case for five of them going all the way to the Super Bowl (sorry Raiders and Steelers fans). The NFC has three or four teams with serious class. If we thought the regular season was wild, wait until we get a load of these playoffs!
From Jenni Hill (@jennihill1211) The most surprising result this season has been…_ the Jaguars' win over the Colts this past Sunday. I know there is some recency bias involved and I am sure somebody will suggest another game and I will kick myself. But when I ask that question in my head, two results spring to mind and both involve the Jags. I did not expect the Jags to record a victory over the Josh Allen-led Buffalo Bills in November and I gave them no chance last night, especially having given up 50 points to New England the previous week. As last night's game rolled on and on, I expected the Colts to kick into gear. But Jacksonville never gave them so much as a breath. That was arguably the most shocking thing I have seen all year long. And now I will probably remember 101 other games that should get a mention!
From Steve Myatt (@KiwiositySteve) Who would have thought… that the playoffs are about to begin with some big-name quarterbacks on the outside looking in for a variety of reasons such as talent around them, results in close games, injuries and even legal issues. Justin Herbert, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Kirk Cousins, Baker Mayfield and Deshaun Watson will play no part in the postseason, with the final name mentioned not taking a single snap all year long due to his legal troubles that are still ongoing. It's a reminder that even those franchises who feel they have their answer at quarterback need injury luck and talent across the board in what is still the ultimate team game.
Fact of the Week
There were three games won in overtime on Sunday and all three winners (Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Las Vegas) booked playoff spots with those victories. Ironically, it was the first time multiple teams won overtime games on the final weekend of a season since Week 18 of 1993 – the only other Week 18 in NFL history when the league experimented with two bye weeks for one year.
As I mentioned above, this feels like a wide-open playoff race and I think there are a good eight or nine franchises who can consider themselves serious contenders. This feels like an appropriate time to return to my preseason predictions. When writing my season preview magazine this summer, I suggested that the Buffalo Bills would beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. The Bills have been flaky as hell in recent weeks and Tampa are banged up. While I am going to stick with that prediction and see if I can ride those horses all the way to the finish line, Kansas City-Green Bay would not surprise me, either. And I am fascinated to see what Cincinnati and San Francisco can do in the playoffs. Have I mentioned enough teams and hedged enough bets there! Enjoy the playoffs.