Column: Justin Herbert tried to be hero, but his feats vanished into the Black Hole
It was dark and deafening, “The Imperial March” on the loudspeaker, black helmets and silver masks and maddening mayhem in the stands.
The image of the late John Madden filled the scoreboard. The Al Davis Torch glowed in the end zone. “The Autumn Wind” provided the soundtrack.
When the Chargers took the Allegiant Stadium field Sunday night, somebody turned off all the lights, and through the darkness a singular voice boomed into a sing-song taunt that would continually haunt.
The Chargers heard it. They felt it. They fought it. But they were ultimately swallowed by it.
After a spectacular, fourth-quarter comeback, the Chargers’ season came to a disappointing end Sunday in a 35-32 overtime loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
On their way to the playoffs in the final hours of the regular season, the Chargers stepped into The Black Hole and will not be seen again until next fall, losing bitterly to Los Angeles’ favorite team and Las Vegas’ favorite new show.
Those Raiders will make the playoffs instead, for only the second time in 20 years, after winning a dramatic 35-32 decision in overtime despite the incredible late heroics of Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert.
“I think Vegas showed up in a real way and helped us pull this one out,” said Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. “It was unbelievable.”
It was all too believable for Chargers fans accustomed to these sorts of big-game failings. This one included another crazily botched fourth-down decision by coach Brandon Staley, a fumble that led to points, an interception that led to points, and penalties that led to points. The Chargers had two turnovers and 108 yards of penalties and every bit hurt. It was a black hole, indeed.
“I’m disappointed because I feel like we’re one of the best teams in the NFL,” said Staley. “I feel like this team’s good enough to not only be in the tournament but to win it… But it was a fight this season. We just couldn’t create enough separation, and we had to have this game and we couldn’t quite finish it out.”
Not that Herbert didn’t try.
“This team laid it on the line,” said Staley.
And in the end, thanks to Herbert, they did. This game was seemingly done with five minutes left in regulation and the Chargers trailing by 15. But in arguably the two greatest consecutive crunch-time drives by any quarterback this season, Herbert amazingly pulled them back to the brink of salvation.
With dirt on his face, with his long hair dripping with sweat, Herbert led the Chargers on a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to begin the comeback, then led them on a 19-play, 83-yard drive to tie it on a 12-yard scoring pass to Mike Williams on the final play of regulation.
On the two drives he was hit and harassed and brilliant, going 15 for 31 for 164 yards with two touchdowns and an incredible five fourth-down conversions.
Then, after the Raiders began the overtime with a field goal, Herbert led the Chargers to a 41-yard Dustin Hopkins field goal to tie the score again.
Ah, but the Chargers allowed the Raiders to drive 48 yards in the final minutes, then watched Daniel Carlson nail a 47-yard field goal in the final seconds to win it.
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A quirk in the NFL playoff picture would have allowed both teams to advance to the playoffs if they had ended the game in a tie, and it seemed for a second that the Raiders were going to settle for the tie by letting the clock run out. But with 38 seconds remaining, Staley foolishly called a timeout, his second big game-management mistake of the night. After the timeout, Josh Jacobs gashed the Chargers defense for 10 yards, setting up the game-winning field goal. The Raiders took advantage of Staley for their fourth consecutive must-win victory in a season filled with tragedy and turmoil.
“We don’t stop,” said Raiders’ defensive end Maxx Crosby.
The Chargers, as they had done throughout the game, stopped just short.
“We just have to do a better job tackling at the point of attack against Josh on some of those runs at the end,” said Staley. “We just didn’t finish those plays on that last drive on defense.”
Herbert finished with 383 yards passing and three touchdowns, yet in the end it wasn’t enough to overcome his team’s mishaps and mistakes.
“The fire that burns the brightest in the Raider organization is the will to win” read an infamous Al Davis quote on the scoreboard. The Chargers have that will, they just can’t figure out a way.
Bad Chargers, Chapter 1: Midway through the first quarter, the Chargers’ Andre Roberts fumbled away punt return deep in Chargers’ territory. Six plays later, the Raiders scored on a 12-yard flick from Carr to Hunter Renfrow after Renfrow had beaten Michael Davis to the corner of the goal line.
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Bad Chargers, Chapter 2: The Raiders turned what should have been a quick last-gasp drive at the end of the first half into a touchdown because of two Chargers blunder. First, the Raiders somehow converted a third down on a 22-yard run by Jalen Richard through several missed tackles. Then, they took advantage of a foolish end-zone push of Zay Jones by Chris Harris Jr. in the final moments of the half that resulted in a 41-yard penalty and gave the Raiders the ball on the one-yard line. On the next play, Jacobs scored and the Raiders finished the first half with a 17-14 lead.
“The end of the half was a huge momentum swing — the third-and-22 when we got split on the draw,” said Staley of Richard’s run. “We’ve got to go tackle that guy. We’ve got to make a play. Then we had them in good position and he throws a pass really far out of the end zone and we get called for a PI. That dramatically changed the momentum.
Bad Chargers, Chapter 3: Staley took another dumb chance in a season of dumb chances, going for it on fourth-and-one from their own 18-yard line. Crazy, right? Even crazier was the play they ran, Austin Ekeler right up the middle, where he ran right into Darius Philon and Roderic Teamer and the Raiders held. Four plays later, Carlson kicked a 31-yard field goal to give the Raiders a 20-14 lead. Think the Chargers could have used those points?
“I felt like that was going to be a drive-starter for us, generate some steam for our offense,” said Staley. “Felt like we would get it.”
Bad Chargers, Chapter 4: At start of fourth quarter, Herbert throws interception to Casey Hayward Jr. on a wild pass that shouldn’t be tried. The Raiders responded with a 52-yard field goal by Carlson to make it 29-14.
The game finished with a lot of Good Herbert.
But in the end, it wasn’t enough to overcome Bad Chargers.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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