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Drama Filled End Of Season Sets Up NFL Playoffs

Win-and-in shootouts and upsets make NFL's first Week 18 a stunner
By Gary Jordan
Published on January 10, 2022

Las Vegas Raiders' QB Derek Carr Las Vegas Raiders' QB Derek Carr celebrates the win over the Los Angeles Chargers PHOTO: LAS VEGAS RAIDERS

When the National Football League announced an extra week of games in the regular season, it was met with some raised eyebrows, but for many it was a long time coming. The shortening of the tedious preseason games would allow for an extra slate of regular season action. It meant an odd number of games for each team, 17, spread over the 18 weeks with teams still getting a bye week at a given stage. An expanded season also meant that the playoffs would start later than usual, pushing the Super Bowl further back into February. This year’s edition, Super Bowl LVI, will be played on the second Sunday, February 13th.

What the competition committee did not expect was the sheer level of drama that would be served up in the Week 18 schedule. A lot of teams had guaranteed their playoff berth and claimed a division title, but those that were up for grabs, along with a jostling for seedings, would cause an extreme in entertainment and some intense action.

On Saturday January 8th the Kansas City Chiefs, the current AFC Champions, moved themselves into the conference's number one slot with a hard-fought win over the Denver Broncos. This put pressure on the Tennessee Titans, who had entered the week in the top slot. They raced out to a commanding lead only to be pegged back by the Houston Texans. The Titans however would not be denied and now the path to the Super Bowl runs through Nashville. The second Saturday game saw the Dallas Cowboys put up 51 points against playoff bound Philadelphia Eagles. With the division already wrapped up Dallas were looking to move up the seedings ladder but would have to wait until the following day to see if their big win would push them up.

The next day will be talked about as one of the best day's action in a long time. Any other time, the results would not look any different but, with playoff permutations fluctuating by the minute, fans had to stay fully on their wits to work out what was happening. The key to it all was a hugely unexpected loss by the Indianapolis Colts to the Jacksonville Jaguars, a game that before the weekend many had put down as their banker which would make the picture a lot clearer. However, as the Jaguars produced their best game of the season, everyone looked towards Baltimore. The game the Ravens were playing against seasoned rivals Pittsburgh was not just a stereotypical game between the two - it turned into an elimination game. The Steelers prevailed and all but booked their place in the postseason, barring an unlikely tied game in the last matchup of the season. More on that later.

The AFC East was still to be claimed, and the Buffalo Bills were looking to retain while the New England Patriots were looking to steal. The Miami Dolphins had been knocked out of playoff contention the week before, but they were to play spoilers and handily beat the Patriots to hand the title to the Bills. Buffalo won anyway so the result mattered little, other than slipping New England down the seedings.

Over in the NFC the Green Bay Packers had already planted their flag in the number one position, a good job as they slipped up to the Detroit Lions after benching most of their starters. It was the wild West division, though, that took centre stage. The Los Angeles Rams shot out to a sizeable lead against San Francisco and looked good to win the division, as their challengers Arizona were finding the going heavy against Seattle. The 49ers had their own playoff fight entering the week, and had to win to stand a chance, and so it was when they staged a remarkable comeback to stun the Rams and put themselves in the January tournament. Los Angeles are hosting this years Super Bowl and could still have a home representative as, despite losing, they won the West division as the Cardinals could not keep pace with the Seahawks. This meant that the Cowboys' win on Saturday had some meaning as they jumped up to the three spot.

One more game left, and the old cliché of saving the best to last could not be any truer. The schedulers had already flexed the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers game to Sunday Night Football as it was a win-and-in shootout. The bonus was that if the game was a tie - and we know they are rare - then Pittsburgh, who had won their own overtime game earlier in the day, would not be in the playoffs. Instead, a tie would mean the two participants would be in. Should we be worried about a fixed game? Surely not as the teams are far too professional. It was a concern though, should the game go into overtime - which it did. It was a classic with the Chargers converting several fourth downs, keeping their shot alive. Both teams converted field goals with their opening drives in the extra period, but there was enough time on the clock for the Raiders to fashion one last drive. A drive that would determine three teams' destinies, in one of the most unpredictable seasons for many a year.

The Raiders got into field goal range with just seconds remaining. Miss and they would still be in, and take the Chargers with them, leaving the Steelers outside in the cold. It was one of those moments in sport that will always have a “what if?” attached to it. The kick was true and sailed through, and it was the Chargers that missed out in advancing further.

The NFL scored a winner on the final day. Fans across the league were talking about what had happened, social media channels were buzzing, and the media were lapping it all up. For the 14 teams that remain the playoff journey starts now, and after such a tense finale to the season they all have a lot to live up to.

Trevor Lawrence and Carson Wentz Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence commiserates with Colts counterpart Carson Wentz after an unlikely Jax victory.

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