The Pittsburgh Steelers' overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday left the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers with one playoff spot to play for on Sunday night — or two, if they tie.
At least one of the two AFC West rivals will join Pittsburgh in the NFL playoffs. If the Chargers win, they're in. If the Raiders win, they're in.
But in the NFL's nightmare scenario, enabled by Pittsburgh's win and the Colts' stunning loss to Jacksonville, the Chargers and Raiders could play for a tie and both get in as the AFC's final two wild card teams — at the expense of the Steelers.
Will Chargers, Raiders play for tie?
Both head coaches have said they won't partake in any game-fixing. "I think we all respect the game and the integrity of the game far too much to be complicit in something like that," Chargers coach Brandon Staley said on the Rich Eisen show Tuesday. "We're going to do everything we can to win this game."
Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia was asked about the scenario later in the week. "I don't think I ever passed math, so I don't even know what the hell you just talked about," he said in response. "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. We're going to look to put a product on the field that all of Raider Nation can be proud of."
Raiders QB Derek Carr added: "Someone said we could just take knees and tie ... I was like, 'Well, that sounds good to you, but I don't want to tie these guys either.' To me, it will be full focus on beating the Chargers, and I'm pretty confident that's how our whole team feels, no matter what. You know, they beat us last time. We kind of just want to play this game."
Carr also said that he wouldn't even watch the Sunday afternoon games, and would remain unaware if the tie scenario was in play. "I hope the TVs are all off," he said. "I hope no one's watching, and I hope our complete focus is on winning the football game. And if we can keep it to that and someone comes up to me and says, 'Hey, we're in'? Oh, OK, great. I still want to go out there and still want to beat the Chargers."
After Sunday afternoon's results, they're not in — and won't be if they lose on Sunday night. Pittsburgh's comeback in Baltimore, capped off by Chris Boswell's game-winning field goal, preempted scenarios in which the Raiders would have clinched a playoff spot before even taking the field.
📺: CBS pic.twitter.com/37BntIzfj4
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) January 9, 2022
Now, they'll have to win — or tie.
Staley and Bisaccia, despite their words, will surely be aware of the permutations. They surely won't kneel out the entire game, as some have suggested throughout the week; and likely won't change anything about how they call plays before halftime.
But if the game is tight in the fourth quarter, they'll know that a tie is as good as a win. That will change the calculus on late-game decisions. It could lead to ultra-conservatism, perhaps even something akin to an infamous 1982 World Cup soccer match, in which West Germany and Austria spent the final 10 minutes of their final group game passing the ball around inconsequentially, knowing that the result as it stood would send both teams to the next round.
The final game of the NFL regular season might not come to that. But 271 games have opened up the possibility that it might.