Win and you're in. It's that simple for the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders as their Week 18 "Sunday Night Football" matchup concludes the 2021 NFL regular season. These two AFC West division rivals have fought through a year’s worth of adversity to get themselves to the precipice of the playoffs at 9-7.
"This is going to be an outstanding football game for the NFL," Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said this week. "It's kind of like a playoff game before the playoffs start."
Just don't expect either team to wave the white flag before kickoff despite a weird scenario where, if there's a tie, both clinch the AFC's final two postseason spots. It comes into play if the Colts lose to the two-win Jaguars earlier on Sunday, a result that can never be counted out in this year of parity.
The Chargers enter the game still licking their wounds three weeks removed from an overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs that would have given them control of the AFC West. A loss to the 4-12 Texans followed, the type of maddening inconsistency that's dogged Staley in his first season as a head coach after a strong 4-1 start. When at their best, L.A. can play with anyone, owning wins over playoff teams like the Chiefs, Bengals and Eagles while boasting one of the league's best young playmakers in quarterback Justin Herbert.
The Chargers cannot lose and make the playoffs while the Raiders have an out: they clinch if both the Colts and Steelers lose. But the fact we're even talking about the Raiders in contention is borderline remarkable. The team was left for dead after a 3-0 start turned sour with the firing of head coach Jon Gruden after an ugly email scandal that shook the NFL and Raider Nation.
Interim head coach Rich Bisaccia, who was never a head coach at any level, had a rocky start but righted the ship with three straight December wins over the Browns, Broncos and Colts. That’s tied for the longest active AFC win streak as his team attempts to avenge an earlier 28-14 Chargers loss under Gruden back on Oct. 4.
Can Bisaccia help the Raiders clinch their first playoff berth in Sin City (and first since 2016) with the support of their hometown fans? Or will the Chargers repeat the form they showed last week in a 34-13 thrashing of the Broncos to earn a spot?
Sunday Night Football: Los Angeles (9-7) at Las Vegas (9-7)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 9 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Chargers -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Which players will be unavailable due to injury and COVID-19 protocols?
For the most pivotal game of the NFL regular season, you can't get past COVID-19 and how it affects every 53-man roster. Luckily for both these teams, they're relatively illness-free. (Just two Raiders reserves remain under protocol).
That's a long uphill climb back for the Chargers after losing key players like former NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (linebacker Joey Bosa), running back Austin Ekeler, and two Pro Bowl offensive linemen (center Corey Linsley, tackle Rashawn Slater) ahead of their matchup against the Texans. Now, all those players have been removed from the Reserve/COVID-19 list and ready to contribute. Even tight end Jared Cook was activated this week, filling a key hole with the terrifying concussion suffered by Donald Parham Jr. last month.
On the injury front, just a handful of players are questionable besides Parham (injured reserve), with only one Chargers starter (linebacker Drue Tranquill) remaining in doubt after missing the Broncos game last week with a leg injury. Linsley remains bothered by a back injury but should be fine to start; fellow Pro Bowler, safety Derwin James Jr., will be on the field despite a sore hamstring. James' interception with three minutes left sealed the deal against the Raiders in October and he'll be needed for a secondary that's gone the last two games without a pick.
The Raiders are a different story, placing a whopping 17 players on this week's injury report. Among those limited are running back Josh Jacobs (ribs), defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins (back), wide receiver DeSean Jackson (not injury related), and tight end Darren Waller (knee). At least Waller's appearance is optimistic, seeking to play for the first time in over a month to open up another passing option for David Carr.
Just tread lightly on the Raiders and how much these injuries disrupt their rhythm. A lot of the key cogs hobbled are on offense, a discouraging sign for a team scoring just 18.7 points per game during their three-game win streak.
2. Can the Raiders' offense control the line of scrimmage?
Assuming Jacobs stays healthy, he's the key to a Raiders game plan focused on the Chargers' 30th-ranked rushing defense. During the last three weeks, Las Vegas hasn't done anything flashy. The Raiders have simply controlled time of possession (over 33 minutes, 40 seconds per game) while being able to extend drives at key moments (4-for-4 on fourth down).
Jacobs has been the focal point, carrying the ball 58 times. That's the most for their lead back over a three-game stretch all year. Will the Chargers' defense be able to step up? Against the Broncos, they limited the two-pronged rushing attack of Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams to just 73 yards on 24 carries. The week before? Rex Burkhead (yes, that Rex Burkhead of Patriots fame) ran for 189 yards, 6.8 yards a carry, and two touchdowns in an embarrassing performance for their D.
Back in October, the Chargers were successful in stopping Jacobs, limiting him to just 40 yards, no touchdowns, and just 3.1 yards per carry.
3. Which quarterback will step out of the shadows?
Superstars deliver in key moments, and Sunday night will be the biggest in second-year quarterback Herbert's career. The Chargers' Pro Bowl signal-caller already has set a team record with 35 touchdown passes; three of those coming in the first meeting against the Raiders. He's gone turnover-free against this team in three starts, passing for 862 yards and a QB Rating well above 100.
Herbert has plenty of weapons, from Ekeler to wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams (1,000 yards for both). The biggest difference this year is how he's learned how to use them, a growth spurt not lost on the Raiders.
"Not too many quarterbacks can go from a first, second and then third read," Raiders linebacker K.J. Wright said earlier this week. "[Herbert's] really good at that. He has a lot of poise. Has a ton of weapons… we can't just let him sit back there."
On the other sideline, Derek Carr has struggled to even have a third option with all the offensive changes: the Waller injury, loss of Henry Ruggs III, and disappointing play of Jackson. They've won this past month with Carr managing the game for them instead of winning it.
For that to change Sunday, wide receiver Hunter Renfrow has to get more involved. After 13 catches in a loss against the Chiefs, Renfrow's had 13 total during this three-game win streak despite being the Raiders' leading receiver. The presence of Waller might open up coverage, presenting more opportunities for one of the NFL's pleasant surprises this season.
ESPN’s Matt Bowen reports the plan is to use some Hi-Lo schemes for Renfrow on third down. But at the end of the day… Carr must execute. His Raiders tenure has included more Pro Bowl appearances (three) than playoff bids (one) and a disappointing 56-70 record as a starter. At age 30 and with a vibrant QB market this offseason, Sunday could mark his last best chance to prove his long-term worth as the starter.
How you feel about this game depends on how lucky you feel about the Raiders. On paper, they don't appear to be a playoff team; a minus-11 turnover margin would be the worst for a playoff team since Indianapolis in 2012. They rank 31st in red zone efficiency on offense and dead last in red zone defense. Only three AFC teams (the Jets, Texans and Jaguars) rank lower than their minus-68 point differential.
But isn't Vegas about getting lucky? Starting with their wild, season-opening overtime win over the Ravens, this team has set an NFL record with five victories on the final play of the game. That's created confidence around field goal kicker Daniel Carlson along with an unwavering belief they're never out of any game.
The Chargers have the greater upside and more talent. The Raiders? They just know how to win.
In a year filled with parity, that feels plenty good enough when the Silver and Black are playing at home.
Prediction: Raiders 24, Chargers 21
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.