Raiders’ late-season collapse continues in crippling loss to Chargers

Marcus Mariota fills in well for Derek Carr but falls a play or two short

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Steve Marcus

Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) launches himself between Los Angeles Chargers outside linebackers Nick Vigil (59) and Kenneth Murray (56) and makes it into the end zone for a touchdown during the second half of a game at Allegiant Stadium Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.

Fri, Dec 18, 2020 (midnight)

Josh Jacobs darted his eyes, sloshed a piece of gum around his open mouth and groaned in the second or two before he offered his response.

The question regarded how Jacobs was processing the Las Vegas Raiders almost completely falling out of the NFL playoff race with a 30-27 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Chargers Thursday night at Allegiant Stadium. It looked like he was running through the full gamut of emotions as the realization struck that a goal the running back felt so certain the Raiders would reach in his second year was now out of reach.  

“Obviously, that’s frustrating,” Jacobs said. “Trying to go on this journey of what we envisioned ourselves each year at the start of the year, what we want to do as a team, what we want to accomplish, obviously, that’s frustrating.”

Only a little more than a month ago, the Raiders were 6-3 and sitting pretty in their aim to get to the postseason in their first season in Las Vegas. They’ve won only one of five games since — a miracle against the worst team in the league, no less — after the latest debacle in a must-win spot against an AFC West rival on national television.  

The Raiders (7-7) aren’t technically eliminated from earning a wild-card spot after losing to the Chargers (5-9), but their probability hovers somewhere above 5%, according to publicly available predictive models.

“It sucks,” tight end Darren Waller said. “You want, in these stretches, to be able to play your best football, but the results haven’t been what we wanted. But we have to live with it.”

There were some extenuating circumstances to the Chargers’ defeat, but it boiled down to the same basic premise of previous setbacks: An above-average offensive performance had a few outages at inopportune times to enable a full-on defensive blackout.

Despite playing without quarterback Derek Carr for the first time this season after he injured his groin in the first quarter, backup Marcus Mariota got the Raiders in position to win multiple times. The former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 overall draft pick put up 314 total yards combined between passing and rushing, along with a touchdown in each category, and had the offense clicking just as efficiently as it's done under Carr all year.

“I loved being out there again,” Mariota said. “It was fun to play. Unfortunately, we just didn’t make enough plays.”

Mariota could never quite deliver the deathblow to outduel fellow former Oregon great Justin Herbert, who completed 22 of 32 pass attempts for 314 yards and two touchdowns. The Chargers' rookie quarterback snuck in the game-winning touchdown from the 1-yard line after a couple plays earlier hitting Jalen Guyton with a 54-yard completion.

Mariota nearly never gave him the chance. The Raiders won the ever-important overtime coin toss and looked to be on their way to ending the game with a touchdown on the opening drive when their run game got to them inside the 5-yard line in 10 plays.

But the Chargers hunkered down and limited Jacobs — who finished with a pedestrian 76 rush yards on 26 carries — from there. Las Vegas inexplicably never targeted Waller, who hauled in nine catches for 150 yards and a touchdown on the night, in overtime.

On third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, Mariota looked for fullback Alec Ingold short of the end zone. Incomplete.  

Raiders coach Jon Gruden opted for a 23-yard field goal from kicker Daniel Carlson, reasoning that taking a 27-24 lead with 3:18 remaining was “the right play at the time.”

“We didn’t execute down there like we wanted to but I’m always going to believe in the defense every time they go out there whether things go our way or not,” Waller said.  

That’s a massive, if not misguided, amount of blind faith in a unit that had played so poorly that Gruden fired defensive coordinator Paul Guenther last week and promoted defensive line coach Rod Marinelli.  The Raiders were also missing five starters against the Chargers, including arguably their most valuable defender in Clelin Ferrell, and nothing seemed to change under Marinelli’s watch.

The 75 yards of natural grass that stood between the Raiders escaping with a victory after Carlson’s kick became 2 yards in less than a minute. Cornerback Trayvon Mullen picked up a pass interference — his fourth penalty of the game — first to help the Chargers get moving down the field, and then Guyton torched cornerback Keisean Nixon to get to the goal line.

“We’ve got to do a better job on the receivers,” Gruden said. “They’ve done a nice job collecting some athletes there and they made some plays, but the penalties were very hurtful.”

Surely assisted by the absences of cornerbacks Damon Arnette and Nevin Lawson, Las Vegas couldn’t cover any Los Angeles receiver all night. The Chargers scored on their opening drive when Herbert zipped in a 10-yard score to tight end Hunter Henry.

Then, when they got the ball back with a minute to go in the first half at midfield, he connected with receiver Tyron Johnson for a 25-yard touchdown to go into halftime with a 17-14 lead.

“When you make mistakes and you don’t get in the quarterback’s face, usually these guys find the open guy and that’s what happened,” Gruden said. “We did not play a Cover 2 zone very well. It’s happened before this year and it’s hard to admit it again.”

Gruden praised the Raiders’ offensive showing, especially given the challenge they were thrust into when Carr hobbled to the locker room and with offensive coordinator Greg Olson out on the COVID-19 list. Gruden and his staff formulated a game plan around Mariota’s strengths and went heavy on run-pass option calls that are rarely utilized with Carr.

“It’s a real credit to Mariota,” Gruden said. “He’s a hell of a player. We called some plays we didn’t really practice,  but had practiced earlier in the season. If Derek can’t go, we’re always going to try to do what our quarterback can do best and this guy can really run. He’s a dual threat and he proved it tonight.”

Mariota said it had been “a long journey” back to the field through injuries and confidence issues after the Tennessee Titans benched him last season. He thanked Gruden and the Raiders’ organization but wished he could be in a more celebratory mood.

Mariota was a play or two away from being able to do so, even before overtime.  His biggest mistake came with two minutes remaining in regulation when he threw an interception to Chris Harris deep in Los Angeles territory.

Tied 24-24, the Raiders could have won the game with a field goal. Mariota got the chance to get them into field-goal range again with 53 seconds to go after the Chargers missed their own 51-yard kick attempt but threw two incompletions and then a 9-yard pass short of the first-down marker.

The Raiders lined up for an improbable 65-yard field goal attempt to end regulation, but a bobbled snap by holder/punter A.J. Cole prevented the kick from ever getting off.

A bizarre menagerie of errors from both teams filled the final stretch of the game, but the Raiders’ miscues proved more costly both in the short- and long-term. Not only did Las Vegas lose but it also virtually guaranteed a fourth straight season of missing the playoffs. 

“I have a one-track mind and that involves winning,” Gruden said. “This is going to help us in some ways, but it’s really painful to lose right now. We’ve had a lot of tight games go down to the buzzer and this one was tough.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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