LAS VEGAS — On a night when they honored the memory of the late John Madden, their iconic and Hall of Fame coach who passed away a couple of weeks ago, the Raiders played a football game reminiscent of the mantra of his halcyon days of the 1970s:
Just Win, Baby!
Despite squandering a 15-point lead in the final five minutes of regulation, allowing the Chargers to convert on six of seven fourth-down attempts and all four of their red-zone opportunities, and misfiring on what could have been several big pass plays, the Raiders still found a way to prevail, earning their first playoff berth in five years with a 35-32 victory in overtime at Allegiant Stadium.
In hindsight, it was a fitting end for a team that has taken one haymaker after another — from the resignation of its coach, to the dismissal of its top deep threat, to the release of a starting cornerback, to dropping five of six games after the calendar flipped to November, the last an embarrassing 48-9 spanking that left the outside world believing their season was over.
But like any true competitor, the Raiders repeatedly made their way back to their feet, found strength in their legs and began delivering shots of their own, capping four consecutive wins by outlasting a Chargers squad that could have earned a trip to the postseason with a win.
“It was ugly,” said defensive end Maxx Crosby. “One of the most stressful games I’ve ever been a part of. But we got the win.”
And yet, the circumstances were not completely foreign to him or the Raiders, who won for the sixth time this season on the final play. Five of the victories were on field goals by Daniel Carlson, whose 47-yarder as time expired Sunday advanced Las Vegas into a first-round playoff game at Cincinnati on Saturday afternoon.
Strangely, the Raiders could have have assured themselves of a playoff spot without the field goal. If the game had ended in a tie, both they and the Chargers would have advanced and left the Steelers on the outside looking in. And for a moment it appeared that might happen.
The scene: With two minutes to go in overtime, the Raiders had the ball at the Chargers 45-yard line. Running back Josh Jacobs lost a yard on first down, then gained seven on second down. The Chargers did not call timeout after the first run, leading Raiders coaches to believe Los Angeles might be content to take the tie.
“We were certainly talking about it on the sideline,” interim coach Rich Bisaccia said.
After the Chargers decided to call timeout and stop the clock with 38 seconds remaining, Jacobs then popped free off left tackle for 10 yards, putting the Raiders within field-goal range. While a conversion seemed a fait accompli considering Carlson has not missed at Allegiant Stadium this season, there was risk to kicking it because Los Angeles could have blocked it and returned it for a score, which would have knocked the Raiders out of the playoffs.
Would the Raiders have punted or taken a knee without the third-down run?
“Don’t know,” Bisaccia said. “Didn’t happen.”
The veteran coach then smiled and walked to the locker room. Truth is, he had every right to play coy and bring some levity to the room after a regular season that never really allowed him to breathe. First he was named interim coach after Jon Gruden resigned in the wake of racist and homophobic emails surfaced. Then wideout Henry Ruggs III was released following a DUI incident which resulted in the death of a young woman. Then cornerback Damon Arnette was released for making threats on social media while holding a rifle. And finally the losses kept stacking on top of each other, with the 39-point defeat to the Chiefs appearing to be the final piece that would bring their Jenga-like season toppling.
But the reverse happened. With four games remaining against teams still fighting for playoff spots, they beat the Browns by two points, the Broncos by four, the Colts by three, and the Chargers by a field goal. It’s the type of run that only happens in after-school specials, or in the minds of those on a powerful hallucinogen.
“We have a group of guys that genuinely care about each other,” said Jacobs. “With all the outside noise, with all the things that are going on, I feel like all the guys collectively put their head down and worked. On the inside of the building it was almost like almost every distraction didn’t happen. You see guys come in and work every day and give their all and believe in the things we want to achieve and believe in the coaches. It’s just starting to click — and click at the right time.”
Like with the season in general, there were reasons to doubt in the fourth quarter. After taking a 29-14 lead with 8:23 to go in regulation, the Raiders appeared to be in full control. They had held the Chargers to 50 yards of total offense to that point in the second half, allowing just one first down on four possessions.
But then the unthinkable began to unfold. Second-year Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert drove his unit 75 yards in 14 plays, the last a 23-yard touchdown pass to Joshua Palmer. The two-point conversion pass to running back Austin Ekeler made it a one-possession game with 4:28 to go.
The Raiders went three-and-out, leaving Herbert and the Chargers 2:06 and 83 yards to go for the tying touchdown. On three separate occasions it appeared they would not get to the end zone, but Herbert converted on fourth-and-10 three different times before getting the tying score as time expired, with a 12-yard strike to Mike Williams.
It was an amazing drive, not only in terms of distance and fourth-down conversions, but also in the fact that it required 19 plays. Think about that for a moment. Some teams don’t get 19 plays in a quarter; the Chargers got that many on a drive.
“There were so many opportunities to get them off the field, we were just stressed out,” said Crosby, who finished with two sacks, four QB hits and three tackles for loss. “Guys were cramping up, hurting, and we just had to make our minds up: At the end of the day we had to dig deep. Somebody just told me we played 90 plays, which is not ideal. But it doesn’t matter. We’ve got guys who love the game and we just had to keep going.”
Fortunately for the Raiders, they won the overtime coin toss and took possession of the ball. From that point it was the Jacobs show. The third-year pro was questionable during the week because of a rib injury, but he didn’t play like it. He carried for 28 and 18 yards on consecutive plays, advancing the Raiders from their 25 to the Chargers 29 to help position them for a 40-yard field goal.
Herbert, whose 64 pass attempts were 17 more than his previous high, continued his hot hand with a drive that tied the score. Once more, he excelled on fourth down, finding Williams on a crossing route for 47 yards. He finished the night with 34 completions for 383 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception, and surely would have had much more but the Raiders never allowed him to touch the football after that possession.
With Derek Carr finding Zay Jones and Bryan Edwards for gains of 17 and 11 yards, and Jacobs adding short runs before breaking off the 10-yarder, Las Vegas made sure there would be no more Herbert-led rallies. And while Raiders coaches might have been discussing whether to play for the tie, Jacobs was not. He went to coordinator Greg Olsen down the stretch and told him he wanted the ball.
“Before the 4-minute mark in regulation, I told him, ‘I’m the closer. That’s what y’all brought me here for. Let me close,'” said Jacobs, who carried 26 times for 132 yards and a touchdown. “When they tied the game in OT, I looked at Olly and said, ‘It’s time.’ We collectively came together — offensive line, (Carr), everybody. We just made it happen.”
The same can be said for Bisaccia, who was put in an extremely difficult situation. Owner Mark Davis has not said whether he plans to remove the “interim” label from Bisaccia’s job description — and there have been rumors that Davis has interest in Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who had close ties with the Davis’ father — but it’s hard to fathom anyone else handling the situation as well as Bisaccia did.
“I told people when he got the job he was the right man for the job for multiple reasons,” said Jacobs. “Every guy in the room respects him — even before he was the head coach. He’s one of those guys you go talk to about life, if you’ve got things going on. When you got a coach that you respect and you genuinely care for and love, you’ll do whatever he asks you to do.”
Bisaccia is a football lifer, a 20-year veteran of the NFL sidelines who has always dreamed of being a head coach. Whatever happens, Sunday was special for him, just as it was for his quarterback. Carr has been unfairly maligned for much of his career, the focus routinely being on the things he might not do well as opposed to those he excels at. He led the team to the playoffs in 2016 but never got to play after breaking a leg late in the year. So Saturday will mean a lot to him from a personal perspective — it will be the first time he suits up in the playoffs — and be equally significant from a team standpoint.
“Once I think I can get some sleep and wake up in the morning, maybe it’ll hit me then,” he said. “But I just have this weird feeling in my heart like the job is not done. It does feel good. It’s exciting. But I don’t set out to just make the playoffs. … There is more after that, too.”
It seems fitting, in some respects, that the Raiders advance by winning a game that didn’t earn them style points. It was similar to how they won so many big games under Madden, whose family lit the Al Davis Memorial Torch before the game. Perhaps it was their way of honoring his spirit, which definitely seemed to fill the building considering that on this day in 1977 his Raiders beat the Vikings to win Super Bowl XI.
Nothing ugly about that.
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