The NFL likes to get a head start on the playoffs.
If possible, the league will reserve the final Sunday night slot of the regular season finale for a winner-take-all game.
The league kind of has one this season.
With two AFC playoff spots up for grabs, the 9-7 Los Angeles Chargers and 9-7 Las Vegas Raiders will wrap the regular-season schedule Sunday night in a win-and-in game. But an upset loss by the Indianapolis Colts earlier in the day could set up a long-shot, yet fascinating scenario.
Jags win could incentivize Chargers, Raiders to collude — kind of
The Colts are guaranteed the other available playoff spot as long as they beat the Jacksonville Jaguars. As of Tuesday night, they were 15.5-point favorites to do so. It's as close as it gets to a lock in the NFL. But this is pro football, where an oblong ball takes funny bounces and strange things happen.
In the unlikely event the Jaguars pull off the upset, the Raiders and Chargers will face said fascinating scenario. In that case, both teams are guaranteed a playoff berth if they tie.
However, the Raiders won't need a tie or a win if both the Jaguars beat the Colts and the Baltimore Ravens beat or tie the Pittsburgh Steelers. They'd still make the playoffs with a loss in that scenario. But if Pittsburgh and Jacksonville win, both the Raiders and the Chargers will need at least a tie to advance the playoffs, with both of them advancing in the event of said tie.
So, what to do?
Some folks have floated the idea that both teams just take turns taking knees for 70 minutes in this scenario. This, of course, is absurd — even if it amounts to optimal strategy. Two teams openly colluding on prime-time national TV for an entire game would add up to a massive sports scandal. NFL integrity, TV ratings and gambling outcomes would be at stake. Severe consequences would surely await whoever arranged said collusion.
Chargers head coach Brandon Staley shot the ridiculous idea down while speaking with the "Rich Eisen Show" on Tuesday.
"I think we all respect the game and the integrity of the game far too much to be complicit in something like that. We're going to do everything we can do win this game."
What if the game is actually tied near the end?
But what happens if the game plays out, and it's tied, say, 24-24, and one team has the ball near midfield in the final minute of overtime? That's where things realistically get interesting. Does the team with the ball play aggressively and try to score? Or does it lay back with a wink and a nod to the opposing sideline?
The worst-case scenario of playing aggressively on offense would add up to disaster for the loser. A turnover that leads to points for the opposition when a tie would secure a playoff spot would spell calamitous headlines for the losing coach.
So, again — in that case — what's a coach to do?
The Colts can make this all moot by doing what's expected during the afternoon on Sunday. But if the Jaguars win?