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The NFL Regular Season Ended As It Started: In Absolute Chaos

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The NFL’s 2021 season brought us pure, beautiful chaos from start to finish, and we concluded Sunday night with more of the same. We were on the cusp of the most amazing result in NFL history, in the win-and-you’re-in, tie-and-you’re-also-in matchup between the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders. I think Justin Herbert was all of us here:

But alas, it was not to be. Las Vegas refused to give America what it wanted, trotting out Daniel Carlson to kick a 47-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired. So the Raiders are in the playoffs, the Chargers are out, and the Pittsburgh Steelers collectively breathed the biggest sigh of relief in the country.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): What a terrific game. It had a bit of everything, and is among the best I’ve ever watched.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): And what an amazing real-time example of the prisoner’s dilemma

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): No one wants to see the Steelers in the postseason outside of Pittsburgh fans. So I think we were all rooting for the tie for the better tournament. 

It did seem to me that the Raiders were going to take it. But the prisoner’s dilemma was broken by Brandon Staley — not just by calling the first timeout, but by having the then-active threat of another timeout to force the Raiders to make a kick on fourth down with 30-something seconds left. We won’t know for sure. We can’t know. But when you run two plays in 1:22 from midfield with no urgency, I think you’re taking the tie even though you wanted to win probably just minutes before.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I agree we can’t know for sure. There were some pretty confident takes last night that Staley blew the season, and I just don’t see the evidence to support that — either in the plays, the way the players were lining up, the situation or in the post-game comments.

sara.ziegler: Right, I don’t understand why the internet is so sure that Staley blew it there.

Why does a timeout indicate “we should not tie”? That makes no sense to me.

Salfino: Staley gained nothing from the timeout at a minimum and definitely signaled that he wasn’t going to play along given his other timeout. And the Raiders did trade a 100 percent chance to make the playoffs for a less than 100 percent chance to make the playoffs. So weird all around.

neil: I wondered if Hunter Renfrow going in motion on that play spooked Staley. Made him think the Raiders weren’t going to just play for the tie.

And then the trust was irrevocably shattered.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think there was almost no doubt it was going to be a run. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: And so Staley’s explanation about wanting to get better run defenders in the game is perfectly reasonable. 

Salfino: I actually thought the Raiders were taking a delay of game. That’s what the motion signaled to me. 

neil: Either way, this is a tie if the Chargers don’t give up so many yards on the very next run by Josh Jacobs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Exactly.

sara.ziegler: Right, that was the key play!

neil: And that could have happened before the timeout as well.

Salfino: Well, the Raiders went from a passing formation to a running formation after the timeout, so what was gained by “better run personnel”? (As if the Chargers have better run defenders.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: The timeout changed the play call, but that’s about it.

I think Bill Barnwell’s piece on this timeout is very good, and he has this to say about the field goal: “Over the past five years, kickers have hit 47.1% of their field goals from 57 yards out, which is where the line of scrimmage was on third down. Reduce that to a 53-yarder, which is where the Raiders would have been if Jacobs had narrowly picked up a first down, and the chances of converting the field goal jump to 67.4%. A 47-yarder gets the Raiders up to 72.9%. The Chargers definitely wanted to keep Jacobs from gaining even the 4 yards for the first down.”

sara.ziegler: Carlson’s career long is 56 yards, which he hit earlier this season.

(Incidentally, do you guys remember when Carlson went 1-for-4 on field goals in his first two games for the Vikings before he was unceremoniously dumped? I sure do.)

neil: Carlson’s kick was probably the least pressure-packed clinching kick in NFL history. “So you’re telling me if I make it, we’re in … and if I miss it, we’re also in? Cool.”

Salfino: Why would the Raiders kick a 57-yard FG when they are in the playoffs without it?

joshua.hermsmeyer: For the Raiders, playing Patrick Mahomes again wasn’t particularly enticing.

neil: That’s a great point, Josh — one that we all kind of lost sight of in our thirst for a tie.

But one bigger picture takeaway for me from this ending is how much NFL players and coaches WANT TO WIN in the moment. This is probably why tanking in the NFL is just tough to pull off. Asking athletes and coaches who have been conditioned to go for the win their whole lives to ease up, even in service of some larger goal, is not practical.

sara.ziegler: Right, Neil. I think the big problem here for fans is that we were all rooting for the tie, but no one associated with either of these teams had been playing for a tie at any point during the game. The Chargers only wanted a tie at the end because that was their only option. The Raiders didn’t want a tie at all.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s 100 percent the case, Sara.

Salfino: If the Raiders weren’t playing for the tie, why did they run two plays from the two-minute warning in 1:22 and not use a timeout and not pass?

neil: I think they honestly changed their mind at different times mid-drive, Mike. Once it became clear a win was possible, they were like, why not?

sara.ziegler: And also, they didn’t want to give the ball back to the Chargers! There’s no upside to stopping the clock.

neil: The Raiders held all the cards in that situation.

Salfino: Staley’s additional timeout that he was threatening them with was the problem. It was a delicate dance.

joshua.hermsmeyer: What made that last series so exquisite was that it was so hard to balance the read on what the other team wanted to do in regards to the tie. I agree the thinking probably changed as the drive went on, and both teams did reasonable things given the state of the game.

Salfino: The Chargers made it clear they were not going to let the clock run out. Mistake, IMO.

sara.ziegler: I don’t think that’s true!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nah, not true at all. I think if the Raiders took a knee, or failed to convert the third down and did not run the field goal unit in, the Chargers do not stop the clock.

sara.ziegler: If they were going for a win, the Chargers would have been better off using their timeouts earlier to preserve some clock — that’s what signaled they were OK with the tie.

Salfino: How is it not true? They had another TO.

sara.ziegler: But that’s what I’m saying: The Chargers didn’t use their timeouts earlier in the Raiders’ final drive, in a game situation where using them could have helped maximize the chances for a win. So using one at a time when they don’t have many offensive options yet doesn’t automatically signal that they’re not going to let the clock run out.

Salfino: We don’t know but it made it possible that they wouldn’t.

sara.ziegler: They didn’t even take the timeout after Jacobs’s run! They could have tried to preserve clock there, too!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, it seemed to me that the Chargers were quite fine with a tie. In fact, they had absolutely nothing to gain by a win.

Unlike the Raiders.

neil: I wonder if, even then, the Chargers still thought the Raiders might bail them out and let the clock run out.

Salfino: Did the Raiders really want to go to Cincinnati over Kansas City that badly? They got their doors blown out by the Bengals, too, remember? Though I know we have the Chiefs winning the next seven Super Bowls in this chat.

sara.ziegler: 🙄

neil: LOL. Hey, you knew the risks to your replies when you antagonized those K.C. fans.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL, Mike, go yell at Vegas too while you’re at it.

Salfino: Oh, the infallible oddsmakers, Josh. The people who get top professional gamblers banned from all props and futures markets because their lines are such crap.

sara.ziegler: Mike, do you have the AFC representative in the Super Bowl just, like, blank? I think you’ve trashed every one of them at some point!

Salfino: The Chiefs could definitely win the conference. But they are a soft team, clearly. They were just in a dogfight against Drew Lock and the Broncos and gave up almost 200 yards rushing. They are not a juggernaut.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Chargers were a soft team when it counted most this season as well. And it cost them a playoff berth.

Salfino: That is true.

sara.ziegler: I don’t think I’ll ever get over this game.

And the way it ended overshadowed the Herculean effort from Herbert to bring the Chargers back from the brink. But dude was on fire. That final drive seemed like just a series of incredible plays on fourth downs.

Salfino: It’s really sad that Herbert is not in the postseason. He’s great.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think they faced seven opportunities in which failing to advance would’ve ended their season, and they converted each one on offense.

neil: To him, fourth-and-10 is like, ehhh, no big deal.

sara.ziegler: The pressure was getting to me, a person on her couch wholly unconnected to the game. I can’t imagine how he kept it together.

Salfino: I can’t imagine fourth-down pressure. It seems impossible.

sara.ziegler: Right???

Salfino: He’s just an amazing weapon. A perfect QB.

neil: Classic Chargers that they found a way to miss the playoffs with Herbert having the season he had. This franchise has a long history of going 9-7 to miss the playoffs despite incredible talent, so it’s nice that they’re starting a new tradition for the 17-game schedule era: going 9-8 to miss the playoffs despite incredible talent.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Herbert seemed unfazed. Reminded me a bit of Joe Montana to be honest, as far as his demeanor.

Chargers fans have a lot to be hopeful for.

Salfino: Yes. I can see him telling the huddle he saw John Candy, seriously.

neil: Well, except that Herbert was born four years after Candy died.

But I get your reference.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Bleak. Bleak, Neil!

neil: I wanted to make us all feel maximally old.

sara.ziegler: Before The Tie That Wasn’t, the biggest game of the weekend was an epic collapse by a team thought to be a serious Super Bowl contender to a team that might be the worst in football. Oh, sorry, I need to be more specific — not Green Bay and Detroit, but Indianapolis and Jacksonville.

The Indianapolis Colts had an 89 percent chance to make the playoffs going into the weekend, and all they had to do was beat the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. But the Jags played like a team on a mission: Trevor Lawrence threw for 223 yards and two touchdowns, recording his best completion percentage and third-best Total Quarterback Rating of the season, and the defense held Carson Wentz to 185 yards passing and Jonathan Taylor to 77 yards rushing. How surprised were you guys by this outcome?

neil: Obviously it was shocking. Although we all know Wentzening can happen at any time.

Salfino: Stunned. Though nothing Wentz does or doesn’t do should surprise us. The defense was just a disgrace. That shocked me against a Jacksonville offense and QB that had been so bad for so long.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Colts have been a team getting by on smoke and mirrors (in my view) all season so I wasn’t shocked to see them lay an egg when it mattered most. But I did not expect this. They were not even in this game.

Salfino: Exactly. Not for one minute did it seem like the Colts would win.

sara.ziegler:

neil: You say that now, but this Colts team looked much better most of the season than a bunch of AFC teams that made the playoffs.

Salfino: I agree, Neil — I thought the Colts could be a dangerous team in the postseason given how unsettled the AFC is.

neil: They’re still seventh in points-per-game differential.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d rather watch the Colts than the Steelers, that’s for sure. But Indy was just really lucky all season.

Salfino: Well, they lost that crazy game to the Ravens, didn’t they, when they lost every coin flip for a quarter and a half?

neil: Lucky that Wentz didn’t show his true colors earlier? Otherwise, they actually undershot their expected record according to Pythagoras

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, Wentz getting lots of defensive pass interference calls all season, tons of fumble luck, fewer interceptions than expected. Every time I looked at some measure of good fortune this year, the Colts popped up at the top. 

neil: Wentz knew he was running too hot and corrected for all of that at the end.

sara.ziegler: Maybe Wentz just wanted a tie between the Raiders and Chargers, too.

neil: “Let me just make sure we’re not relevant to this situation at all, just to avoid confusing Derek Carr and Justin Herbert.”

sara.ziegler: Was Wentz the jailer in the prisoner’s dilemma?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Also want to mention just what a crushing overtime loss this was for John Harbaugh and the Ravens. Had they beat the Steelers, they would have shot the moon and made the playoffs.

I think it was like a 2 percent shot.

neil: I was kind of rooting for the Colts to still make it in the back door despite the horrible loss. (And it might honestly be the worst loss in franchise history.) What’s funny is that, if the Ravens had won, I think the other necessary dominoes for that to happen did fall into place: The Dolphins beat the Patriots, and the Raiders beat the Chargers.

sara.ziegler: And the Ravens were so close to winning, too!

The worst part of all of this is one more week of Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement party. I hate long goodbyes: Just be done with it already.

Salfino: Roethlisberger retired 12 weeks ago.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s a bye week for the Chiefs after all!

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: I’ll eat a bug if the Chiefs lose to the Steelers.

sara.ziegler: Oooh, stakes for next week’s chat!

joshua.hermsmeyer: I ate some bugs in Mexico City. Delicious.

neil: I hate having to potentially hear this again:

sara.ziegler: I threw up a little in my mouth over that, Neil.

As a result of all this chaos, some of our hot-seat coaches have been relieved of their seats. Denver fired Vic Fangio on Sunday, and today, Chicago dumped Matt Nagy, Miami parted ways with Brian Flores, and Minnesota bid farewell to both Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman. I imagine we’ll see a few more as the day goes on, but does anyone want to reminisce about any of these guys?

Salfino: Joe Judge: still employed!

neil: I was actually sad about Flores.

Salfino: Sort of shocked by Flores.

neil: Yeah. I feel like he did a pretty good job with that team the past few seasons.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The league is ridding itself of almost all the Belichick head coaches. Nature is healing, and Judge can’t be far behind.

Salfino: But Miami underachieved — the offensive line was terrible, and offensive line is largely coaching.

neil: If you overachieve to go 10-6 one year, is it underachieving to go 9-8 the next?

sara.ziegler: The Flores situation seems like a coach-GM power struggle, no?

Salfino: What GM move has the Dolphins GM nailed? 

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, it smells like a blame game.

Some have said that it means that Jim Harbaugh is destined for Miami. I’m not sure about that, but it makes a certain amount of sense.

sara.ziegler: Reports are that this all centered on who should be the quarterback: The GM wanted to stick with Tua Tagovailoa, while Flores wanted to move on.

That’s a tough situation to be in for all of them, really.

Salfino: Passing on Herbert for Tua is a fireable offense.

joshua.hermsmeyer: No one knows anything about QBs, part XXXIV.

neil: I sort of place Flores and Fangio in the same boat. Defensive-pedigreed coaches whose defenses actually did well, but churned through QBs and couldn’t get the offense on track.

If, as a defensive-minded coach, your GM doesn’t get you a QB, is that your fault?

sara.ziegler: Or, in the case of Zimmer, your GM got you a QB, the QB sucks, everything else about the team also sucks, and the coach and GM are both out.

neil: And also, you suck. (“You” being Zimmer, that is, LOL.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Justin Jefferson’s dances do not suck, Sara.

sara.ziegler: OK, true. But Jefferson’s dances were not enough to save Zimmer’s job.

All right, we finally have the playoffs in front of us. To close today, which matchup are you each most excited for ?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Bills-Patriots!

neil: YES.

Also, Cardinals-Rams could go any of a million different directions.

Salfino: Easily Niners-Cowboys. I think the Cowboys are in trouble. Jimmy Garoppolo was great at the end of the 49ers-Rams game — he attacked the middle of the field somehow and scored, with no timeouts.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The 49ers vs. the Cowboys brings back all kinds of memories as well.

Salfino: Yes, Josh. Total nostalgia.

neil: Madden and Summerall, the golden days.

sara.ziegler: And I’ll say Chiefs-Steelers, just for the drama over whether Mike will eat a bug.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: Josh says it’s no big deal.

sara.ziegler: We’ll see if you find out.

May the chaos of the season continue into the postseason!

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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