MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The big sigh of relief you hear is from the folks down at The Confluence.
Because the impossible almost happened.
The final regular season game of 2021 will go down as one of the most exciting regular season games in recent NFL history. It pitted the Los Angeles Chargers against the Las Vegas Raiders (and if you just want to say San Diego versus Oakland, that’s more than okay by me), and it had enough playoff implications for the AFC to choke a pig.
The most simple scenario was “win and in” for both teams. But teams like the Patriots and the Steelers also stood to gain or lose from this result. Because of this, Patriot Nation had to wait until just after midnight to finally learn who they will play next weekend in the playoffs and what seed they will eventually wind up being.
The Steelers? They scored a big road win with a 16-13 overtime victory at Baltimore. With Indianapolis choking all over itself at Jacksonville, losing 26-11, the Steelers miraculously kept their playoff hopes alive. The win over the Ravens eliminated the Colts, and virtually sealed a playoff berth for themselves. Just as long as the Chargers and Raiders didn’t tie, they were in.
The Patriots also gagged, pulling their annual Miami stinker and winding up on the short end of a 33-24 score at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday. The Patriots could hold on to the five seed if the Chargers won and then head for Cincinnati the next weekend. But the Patriots would fall to the six seed if the Raiders won and thus the Patriots would make their second trip of the year to western New York.
Now, here’s the scenario everyone outside the Steel City was hoping for.
If the Chargers and Raiders should tie, both the Chargers and Raiders would make the playoffs, the Patriots would stay the five seed, and the Steelers would be eliminated from the playoffs. This raised many questions as to whether the Chargers and Raiders would simply play for a tie and secure a playoff berth for both of themselves, as Steeler fans everywhere would cry foul if they didn’t jump off the Fort Pitt Bridge instead.
It was 29-14 Las Vegas in the fourth quarter when the game took on mythical proportions. Justin Herbert hit Joshua Palmer for a touchdown, then hit Austin Ekeler for a 2-point conversion to make it 29-22. After a three and out, Los Angeles got the ball back at their own 17. Herbert then marched the Chargers 83 yards in an excruciating 19 plays, and threw the tying touchdown pass on the final play of regulation, a 12-yard pass to Mike Williams to force overtime at 29-29.
What must Steeler Nation have been thinking at this time?
It gets better. In overtime, each team traded field goals. It was 32-32 with 4:30 left in overtime. After a Derek Carr pass for 17 yards, Carr elected to mostly run the ball and run clock. The ball was at the Charger 46 yard line with 38 seconds left and Carr seemingly willing to run out the clock and take a tie which would send both teams to the playoffs.
At that point, for reasons known only to himself, Charger head coach Brandon Staley called time. The body language on the Raider bench no longer looked like “take a tie”. Josh Jacobs ran for ten yards, then the Raiders called time with two seconds left. Not needing to kick, Daniel Carlson came out and nailed a 47-yard field goal as time expired. Raiders win, Steelers in the playoffs, Patriots have to go to Buffalo and not Cincinnati, and it’s the Chargers who are crying and not the Steelers as it should have been.
And so, your Patriots have to go to Buffalo because of that timeout.
Based on what you have seen from your Patriots in the last four weeks, you perhaps would have preferred the Bengals, who lost their regular season finale at Cleveland, 21-16. The Bills didn’t need to win, but defeated the Jets, 27-10 who managed to hang around until the fourth quarter. The Bills won the division, took the third seed when Cincinnati lost, and now get the Patriots for the third time this season, and they get to host.
The Patriots once again played bad (at times) football and once again showed how much trouble they have winning in Miami. The old jinx from 1966 to 1985 was bad enough, but you’re talking about a six-time Super Bowl winning franchise who still has problems winning in this area. Mac Jones threw a pick-six and lost a fumble at the 10-yard line, and it just begins there.
Credit Jones for leading a fourth quarter comeback, but the defense once again let the Patriots down. Tua Tagovailoa (who is now 3-0 against the Patriots) rushed for a key first down on third and eight late in the game to seal the win. A late touchdown by Miami on a botched lateral play on the final play of the game skewed the final victory margin for the Dolphins.
As they head to Buffalo for next Saturday’s late afternoon Wild Card battle at Buffalo, the Patriots will have to deal with a huge lack of confidence in being able to beat a quality team and knowing that it is possible that they will know what is coming from Josh Allen but be totally unable to stop it. The Patriots cannot rely on having Jones throw only three times like the last time they were at Highmark Stadium in order to win the game. The defense cannot allow long drives and has to be more physical than Buffalo’s offensive line.
The Patriots did good to get this far this season. Jones overall had a good rookie season that now gets him into a postseason game. But if the Patriots are to advance beyond Buffalo, certain things have to happen which might not be within the realm of possibility this year.
Meanwhile, that was so tantalizing. Almost a tie. Pittsburgh was so close to the mother of all playoff denials. Why did Staley call that time out. Yeesh. Have a good cry, Charger fans, and I mean those of you in San Diego who remain the only loyal fans that franchise has.
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