For three straight weeks, the Las Vegas Raiders needed to win in order to keep any realistic playoff hopes alive.
Three nail-biters later, and the Raiders can get into the postseason for the second time in the past 19 seasons with another win against the fellow AFC West playoff hopeful Los Angeles Chargers.
The Raiders (9-7) host the Chargers (9-7) in the final regular season game of the NFL season with a playoff berth the prize for the winner.
“If you look back to the last three games, they’ve all been the biggest games of our career,” said quarterback Derek Carr, who missed the Raiders’ only playoff trip in the past 19 years with a broken ankle in 2016.
“Everyone wants to keep talking about one game. But if we lost any of these other ones, we wouldn’t be talking about this one. So, again, no one likes that because it doesn’t sound good, but it’s just the truth.”
The Raiders, who have won three straight by four points or fewer, also can sneak into the playoffs if Indianapolis and Pittsburgh both lose.
The Chargers will be eliminated with a loss after dropping games to Kansas City and Houston in Weeks 15 and 16. They responded by beating Denver last week to set up this Week 18 showdown.
“We know what’s at stake here,” Chargers defensive lineman Justin Jones said. “We knew what was at stake last week as well, so it’s the same type of preparation and same type of mindset going into this game. Every week is a playoff game for us. … The guys on the team know the gravity of this game. You win, you’re in. If you lose, you’re going home. We’ve known that since last week. It’s all the same for us.”
FIT TO BE TIED
While the winner is assured of getting into the playoffs and the Chargers can’t advance with a loss, there is one other scenario. If the Colts lose at Jacksonville earlier Sunday, both the Raiders and Chargers could advance with a tie.
That could lead to some perverse incentives that Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia said he hasn’t even considered.
“I don’t think I ever passed math, so I don’t even know what the hell you just talked about,” he said when told the scenario. “All I know is we’re really excited about our opportunity in front of us on Sunday night, and we’re going to look to put our best foot forward and look to put a product on the field that all the Raider Nation can be proud of.”
The Chargers special teams units, which have vastly improved compared to the beginning of the season due to the signings of kicker Dustin Hopkins and kickoff/punt returner Andre Roberts during the bye week in October.
Hopkins is 17 of 18 on field goals as well as generating touchbacks on 71.4% of his kickoffs. Roberts is averaging a league-best 34 yards per kick return with the Bolts, and had a 101-yard TD last week in the win over Denver.
The Raiders could get a boost on offense with the return of star tight end Darren Waller. Las Vegas lost Waller to a knee injury on Thanksgiving and hoped to get him back last week before he tested positive for COVID-19. Waller has caught more passes from Carr (243) than any other player in the QB’s career.
Justin Herbert is the AFC’s starting quarterback for the Pro Bowl and has already set a franchise record with 35 touchdown passes. But for as well as Herbert has played this season, he has taken it to another level in prime-time games.
In his five career night starts, Herbert has thrown 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions. His 109.5 passer rating is sixth, including two 300-yard games.
“We have to have a good week of preparation. Everyone has to be focused, dialed in this entire week because it is a big game,” Herbert said. “The Raiders are a really good team. They’re playing really good football right now.”
Whether the Raiders make the playoffs could be a determining factor in whether Bisaccia is able to keep the job on a full-time basis after replacing Jon Gruden in October following an email scandal. General manager Mike Mayock’s fate also could be up in the air as owner Mark Davis could look for a fresh start if the Raiders miss the playoffs for a fifth straight season.
“I haven’t thought one second about it,” Bisaccia said. “All I thought about was today’s practice and can we improve a little bit throughout the meetings, throughout the walkthrough. What did practice look like and what will the afternoon meetings look like? Then our focus is on playing a home game Sunday night in front of a Raider nation and hopefully a blackout crowd.”
AP Sports Writer Joe Reedy contributed to this report.
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