DENVER — If the NFL insists on calling the first round of the playoffs next week “Super Wild Card Weekend,” then Week 18 was the “Fantastic Frenzied Forerunner” or the “Harrowing Harbinger.”
Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley elected to play most of his starters for most of the game at Denver even though their playoff position (fifth seed) and first-round destination (Jacksonville) were locked in before kickoff.
It sure looked like a losing bet when wide receiver Mike Williams was carted off the field, linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. left with a stinger and star linebacker Joey Bosa, who just returned from a serous groin injury, limped around following a cameo appearance that featured a sack and maybe a tweak.
Backups were in by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, although receiver Keenan Allen, who missed most of the season with a bad hamstring, returned and caught a touchdown pass with 6 minutes left.
“We signed up for 17 games,” Allen said. “And I only played, what? Six or seven games this whole year. So, it feels good for me to keep playing, play in this altitude, get some more wind. And I’m tired right now. I can barely breathe now. Good to get out there and play with the guys some more.”
Allen said neither the game plan nor the mindset was affected by learning before kickoff that the Chargers didn’t need to beat Denver on Sunday to avoid a first-round game at Cincinnati.
“No, not at all,” Allen said. “We practiced all week. We prepared to come and fight, to come to play today, and that’s what we did.”
Even if they left Denver a little more banged up after their 31-28 loss to the Broncos that snapped their four-game winning streak.
If the Chargers go on a run in the playoffs behind third-year pro Justin Herbert, Staley will be hailed for keeping his players sharp.
If not, he’ll face ridicule for risking so much in a meaningless matchup.
“We wanted to go and compete,” Herbert said. “We wanted to be out there. I think whatever Coach Staley and the front office, whatever they decided for us to go out there, we were going to be on board with it 100%.
“We love this game, we love to be able to compete with each other, and we’ve got a special locker room. It didn’t go our way, unfortunately … But hopefully everyone will stay healthy and get after it for next week.”
The Chargers certainly won’t have to worry about rust when they face the Jaguars, a team they lost at home to by a 38-10 score back in September.
“We’re a way different team than we were back then,” Chargers safety Alohi Gilman insisted. “We’ve gone through the ups, the downs of an NFL season, and the good thing about that is that’s what molds us. That’s what builds the character into the team that we are now. I’m not going to lie. I don’t even know who that team was in Week 3. This is where we’re at right now.”
A team that got after it Sunday when it didn’t have to.
The Jaguars enter the playoffs on a five-game winning streak after ending a four-year playoff drought by beating the Tennessee Titans 20-16 on the final weekend.
The Titans were 7-3 at their bye just before Thanksgiving but lost their last seven games, including two to Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars, who were just 2-6 at Halloween.
Over in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks crashed the playoff party, sneaking in as the seventh seed when Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers blew a fourth-quarter lead at Lambeau Field in a win-and-they’re-in game against the Lions.
Detroit was eliminated earlier Sunday when the Seahawks beat the Rams 19-16 in overtime, but the Lions’ mindset was to win in Wisconsin, either to punch their own ticket to the playoffs or to prevent the Packers from going.
So, they were unfazed by not having any playoff carrot to play for.
“Basically we found out in pregame warmup or coming off, and I’m telling you, we were unfazed,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “We knew what we were coming in here for, and it was to gain some respect and show what we’re capable of no matter what happened. We knew the only way to do that is to win. So our guys were locked in, they were unaffected by that, because we knew what the objective was.”
The Seahawks were seen as rebuilders when they traded nine-time Pro Bowler Russell Wilson to Denver in the spring, but Geno Smith led Seattle to the playoffs after succeeding Wilson, who bombed in his first season with the Broncos.
Still, the Seahawks were seen as playoff long shots right up until Sunday night, when the Lions rallied to beat Green Bay in the final game of the NFL’s regular season.
Watching in Seattle were the restless Seahawks.
“As the game went on, you could just feel Detroit was playing really well and they had a legitimate chance. You could just tell,” coach Pete Carroll said after learning he’d be in the playoffs for the 10th time in 13 seasons in Seattle. “It was so much fun for everybody. I was hoping there could be a party tonight.”