By Ben Morse, CNN
And so, it all comes down to this: the Los Angeles Chargers at the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday Night Football.
The winner qualifies for the NFL playoffs. The loser has a long off-season ahead, filled with questions to be answered.
And although there is a scenario where both teams can qualify for the business end of the 2021/22 season — it would require the in-form Indianapolis Colts losing to the moribund Jacksonville Jaguars — the likelihood is that Sunday’s clash is a win-or-go-home scenario.
The game was moved to the final primetime slot of the NFL regular season due to the playoff implications that ride on it.
While a tie could be beneficial to both sides to qualify for the playoffs, Chargers head coach Brandon Staley dismissed the idea that they would agree to something with the Raiders that would assure both of their progressions to the playoffs out of hand.
“I think we all respect the game and the NFL shield and the integrity of this game far too much to be complicit in something like that,” Staley told ‘The Rich Eisen Show’ on Tuesday.
“This game matters too much to too many people, and we want to play our best and be proud of the result one way or another. We’re going to do everything we can to go win this game and play the way we’re capable of playing. I hope all the fans and everybody who loves the NFL will be proud of the game on Sunday.”
Sunday’s game will be the final outing of Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert’s first full season as the starter. He took over in Week 2 of his rookie season last year, setting the league ablaze as a first-year player.
And in his second season, the 23-year-old has continued his meteoric rise, being voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time as well as breaking records for the most passing yards and total touchdowns for a quarterback in their first two seasons.
Combined with first-year head coach Staley, Herbert has helped lead the Chargers to the brink of the playoffs, something the team has not done since 2018.
And with a host of Pro Bowlers on the Chargers roster — six in total including rookie offensive lineman Rashawn Slater, defensive end Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James — Herbert and company head to Las Vegas off the back of an impressive 34-13 win over division rivals the Denver Broncos.
They will need an impressive victory against their other AFC West rivals, the Raiders, to qualify for the postseason, having already beaten them at SoFi Stadium in LA in October.
When asked what, if anything, he can learn from their clash in Week 4, Staley said both teams have evolved since then.
“You go back, there’s so many games that have happened between then and now,” Staley told the media. “I think you just go back to see what was similar to who they are now, and if there is, then maybe you can make some comparisons and maybe there’s some things you can activate in the plan.
“But both teams are so different. I think it’s going to be a different ball game, different plan of attack. But I definitely think you can go back from a match-up standpoint and how they were using some of their guys and if those themes have stayed the same or have they changed in that space in between. And again, I think it’s going to come down to who executes better on Sunday.”
Rounding off the season in style
It has been a topsy-turvy season for the Raiders.
The team won their opening three games, before back-to-back losses brought the team back down to earth.
The Raiders’ season was rocked in October when head coach Jon Gruden resigned after reports emerged of him using homophobic, racist and misogynistic language in emails while he worked as an ESPN analyst.
Under interim head coach Rich Bisaccia, the team won its next two games, before going 1-5 in their next six.
With their season fading away, the steady head of Derek Carr at quarterback led the Raiders to wins in their last three games, leaving them with a chance at claiming an unlikely playoff spot.
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