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We Were So Close

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Part of the fun of watching sports is how many novel and unexpected results they can produce. These usually arrive as something of a surprise—nobody goes to a baseball game planning to see a no-hitter, nor a football game to see a receiver rack up 250 yards—but there are times when fate aligns to set the table for something truly wild to happen, something that you hope for, but that you dare not expect.

Such was the case heading into Sunday night's game between the Chargers and Raiders. Thanks to the results of the earlier games and the nuances of playoff seeding, both teams found themselves heading into a game that was more or less the NFL's version of the prisoner's dilemma. Either team could make the playoffs with a win (or miss them with a loss), but both could make it to the postseason if the game ended in a tie. Even better: A tie would eliminate the dreaded Steelers and zombified Ben Roethlisberger from the playoffs. Never in my life have I wanted so badly for a football game end in a tie.

Of course it would have been lame, though entirely rational, if both teams had simply spent the game exchanging kneel-downs for 70 minutes and then gone to their respective locker rooms to celebrate. (I have to admit that a small part of me was rooting for that outcome just to see what would happen to this guy.) The ideal outcome to hope for was a fun, competitive game in which both teams did their best to win, only for the proceedings to naturally end in a tie. What a treat that would be, to see both sidelines celebrating a playoff berth while Big Ben sulked at home. We almost had it. We almost had it.

The dream of the tie seemed dead by the fourth quarter, when the Raiders took a 15-point lead and left their opponents with quite a lot of work to do just to get back into the game. That's when Justin Herbert got to work, leading two long scoring drives (14 plays on the first, 16 on the second), that ended in touchdowns produced by little more than the sheer strength of Herbert's arm. The man was really throwing the hell out of the ball, most notably on a fourth-and-21 pass into the end zone:

And again on the final play of regulation:

The Chargers converted the extra point with no time left on the clock, and suddenly the game was headed to overtime with the score tied at 29. We were back in the tie zone! The Chargers' comeback and Herbert's rockets had already given us one of the best games of the regular season, and now both teams just had to tread water through 10 more minutes of football in order to give us one of the most memorable sporting events in history. Oh boy, did I want that tie. I wanted to see two teams run onto the field after the final whistle and simultaneously celebrate making the playoffs. You know how sometimes, while watching a particularly entertaining football game, you can't help but say something like, "Damn, this game rules. I wish both of these teams could win." It's always a stupid, silly thing to say, and yet here, at last, was a chance for that request to finally be fulfilled. Both teams could win! It could really happen!

It looked like we were going to get there, too, after the teams exchanged field goals to begin overtime. The Raiders got the ball back with 4:30 left to play, and they didn't seem all that eager to march down the field for another score. After the Chargers called timeout with 38 seconds left in order to get their defense set up to stop a run play, Raiders head coach Rich Bisaccia discussed letting the game end in a tie with his assistants on the sideline. With the ball at the Chargers' 39, Bisaccia decided to call one more run play, which turned into Josh Jacobs bursting through the line for a 10-yard gain. And that was that. The Raiders called a timeout with two seconds left, and Daniel Carlson banged in the game-winning field goal from 47 yards out.

It would have certainly been smarter for Bisaccia to have called for a kneel-down on that final play—there's always the chance of a field goal getting blocked and returned for a touchdown—but such a capitulation would have gone against the spirit of the game. What made the prospect of the tie so appealing, and so fun to root for, was the fact that both teams were playing so hard for the win. A tie produced by canny cooperation between the teams would have been remarkable in one way; one that was the result of each side playing at the highest level, and asking their opponent to meet them there, would have made the result something truly special. In the end, we had to settle for a great football game, which is a decent consolation prize. I really wish Carlson had shanked that kick, though.

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