For years -- forever? -- Al Davis thought the NFL plotted against his beloved Raiders. Last week would have provided plenty of fuel for his conspiracy theory. The upcoming opponent's starting quarterback got COVID-19 and hours later the NFL enacted a seismic change in its protocol to allow players to return after just five days instead of 10. That the switch merely followed CDC guidance for the entire country would have been beside the point in Davis' mind. How else could the Raiders look at the timing of the rule that allowed Carson Wentz to be on the field for the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, with a chance to clinch a playoff spot on the line, as anything but somebody in a very high place being out to get them?
Unless it was a very lucky break. Wentz returned for the Colts, but after a week without practice, he and the offense sputtered at the start of the game -- the Colts had 10 total yards of offense in the first quarter -- and struggled with consistency throughout. Even after the Colts took the lead early in the third quarter, they missed opportunities to bury the Raiders. A Derek Carr interception turned into no points when Wentz was sacked on third down. On the next drive, Wentz missed a throw to a wide open T.Y. Hilton that would likely have gone for a touchdown. The 23-20 Raiders victory kept them alive in the chase for the final two AFC wild-card spots, prevented the Colts from clinching one of those spots and prolonged an uncomfortable question for the Colts -- can they count on Wentz to carry them on his back?
The final answer to that hasn't come, and the truth is it hasn't been needed with running back Jonathan Taylor shredding defenses. But the Raiders were intent on slowing him (Taylor finished with 108 yards and one touchdown), and Wentz was unable to take over.
Colts head coach Frank Reich was clearly disappointed, and Wentz said he didn't know what happened on the Hilton miss, but that he wanted the throw back. But neither coach nor quarterback would point to the lack of practice time last week as the problem.
"It's not uncommon for guys this late in the season to miss practice," Reich said. "It happens all over the league. You have to rely on accumulated reps."
That is certainly true. Routine injuries added to the current wave of positive COVID cases in the NFL have spared no team and will likely impact the playoff picture in ways more obvious than Wentz's week. And the bottom line is that as disjointed as the Colts looked on Sunday, the loss wasn't fatal. They can clinch a wild-card spot by winning in Jacksonville next week. That is thanks to Wentz, too. If you are looking for evidence that Wentz can carry the Colts to a title, look at their Christmas win over the Arizona Cardinals. He led a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that gave the Colts the win and the breathing room they badly needed Sunday.
For the Raiders, the victory encapsulated their entire dramatic and traumatic season. They started fast, saw their coach resign, watched as teammate Henry Ruggs III was charged (and later released by the team) after he was the driver in a car accident that killed a woman, caved in, and then somehow rallied. Even the NFL's longest regular season might not be enough to contain all of that, but the Raiders seem to thrive when they are perched on the edge of disaster. Carr threw two interceptions that prevented the Raiders from extending their early lead Sunday (although the Colts did not get any points off either pick) and then dug the Raiders out of the hole he helped create, leading his 29th fourth-quarter comeback win of his eight-year career. Three weeks ago, the Raiders were blown out by the Chiefs and had lost five of six games to sink to 6-7. Now they are 9-7 and can clinch a playoff berth -- their first since 2016 and only their second since they went to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2002 season -- with a win over the Chargers in a massive clash of division rivals next week, all with a coaching search on the horizon whenever the season ends.
"We do things to hinder ourselves at times," Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia said. "Then we do things we feel like we can keep improving as the game goes on to put ourselves in position to win in the end."
Bisaccia might have inadvertently summed up the entire AFC in that one quote. This season has been a battle of attrition and adjustments, exacerbated by the extra week. The team that is currently perched atop the conference is the Tennessee Titans, who are 11-5 with an opportunity to wrap up the first-round bye against the Houston Texans next week. The Titans have been without Derrick Henry for two months, but they continue to wear down opponents with the running game and the return of Bud Dupree has brought back the pass rush. The Titans' defense exposed the Miami Dolphins' shortcomings with Tua Tagovailoa and presented the rest of the conference with a daunting picture of what is ahead in the postseason: The Titans are getting healthy and peaking at exactly the right time.
The Colts, Raiders and Chargers can only hope for the same next week.