NFL Playoff Picture: How Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers Can Clinch an AFC Wild Card Berth in Week 18

In the end, it all comes down to Week 18 for Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers

Not only did a Week 17 rout over the rival Denver Broncos keep the Chargers’ playoff hopes alive, but it set up a fascinating regular-season showdown with the Las Vegas Raiders. Here’s what needs to happen if Herbert and teammates hope to play in the 2021 NFL Postseason.

Justin Herbert and the Chargers face a win-and-in scenario (or a tie-and-in)

At this stage in the game, the Chargers control their postseason destiny. Only they — and, technically, the Raiders — will determine whether or not they reach the playoffs for the first time since 2018.

The Chargers will lock up one of the AFC’s three wild-card spots with a victory or tie on Sunday night. That’s it. There is no other way the Chargers can reach the postseason.

As for the Raiders, they’re also in with a victory. However, a tie won’t be good enough for Las Vegas to secure a playoff berth. The Raiders also need the 2-14 Jacksonville Jaguars to shock the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday afternoon.

Even if the Raiders lose, they can still reach the playoffs if the Colts lose and the Baltimore Ravens defeat the Steelers. A tie between the Ravens and Steelers will also suffice.

Herbert and teammates had no problems when they faced the Raiders earlier this year

When the Chargers hosted the Raiders on Monday, Oct. 4, the very beginning of the game proved to be a bad omen for Las Vegas. Although SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles is covered, there are open panels on the side of the building that can force a delay if inclement weather is in the area.

The Chargers and Raiders faced that exact scenario in October, and the kickoff was pushed back roughly 35 minutes as a result. In a furious postgame press conference, then-Raiders coach Jon Gruden ripped the stadium’s design.

“The locker room here is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen. I mean, you can’t see anybody. It’s like a maze. So whoever contorted this visiting locker room, I’d like to meet this guy, see what his idea was.”

Jon Gruden

Gruden had bigger problems that month. He resigned a week later amid a scandal involving offensive and insensitive emails he sent while working at ESPN from 2011-18.

As for the game proper, Herbert threw three first-half touchdowns in a 28-14 victory. Chargers running back Austin Ekeler rushed for 117 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.

On the other side of the field, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr passed for 196 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception in the loss.

Which teams might the Chargers face in the Wild Card Round?

Right now, we know that if the Chargers reach the playoffs, they’ll do so as a wild-card team. In other words, they’re guaranteed to play on the road in the first round.

We also know that four teams — the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, and Tennessee Titans – can clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed. The three that don’t secure the top seed will host a playoff game next week; that group includes the Buffalo Bills, which can win the AFC East but cannot have home-field advantage.

Herbert and teammates faced three of those five teams this season. Los Angeles took down the Chiefs, 30-24, in Week 3 before losing 34-28 at home on Dec. 16. Herbert threw six touchdowns to only one interception against his AFC West rivals.

The Chargers welcomed Mac Jones and the Patriots to Los Angeles on Halloween and, despite a late comeback, fell 27-24. Over a month later, Herbert torched the Bengals’ defense for 317 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-22 victory on Dec. 5.

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