Quandaries abound for the Los Angeles Chargers and the Las Vegas Raiders as it relates to this season and the next.
While the Raiders are clinging to AFC playoff hopes, the Chargers could be playing -- and coaching -- for their 2021 futures. A pivotal game for both teams awaits.
Rookie sensation Justin Herbert and the L.A. Chargers (4-9) face Derek Carr and the host Las Vegas Raiders (7-6) in the penultimate edition of Thursday Night Football, which kicks off at 8:20 p.m. from Allegiant Stadium and airs on NFL Network, FOX and Amazon Prime.
With the final TNF game actually taking part on Christmas Friday, this is the last scheduled Thursday game on the 2020 NFL slate, as an AFC West rivalry takes place Week 15 with the Chargers aiming to avenge a 31-26 defeat to the Raiders in Week 9.
Here's what to watch for:
Seasoned vet, star rookie set to square off
Justin Herbert could well be headed to winning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, while Derek Carr might be on track to earning the respect he's been long overdue. The final stretch of the season is likely to determine if those aspirations come to fruition. Herbert could make history on Thursday as his 25 touchdown passes have him within striking distance of Baker Mayfield's single-season rookie record of 27. Herbert has been a beacon of hope for a struggling Chargers franchise and a model of spectacular for a first-year player. Over the past few weeks, he's had his struggles, but after his worst outing in a 45-0 Week 13 loss to the Patriots, Herbert responded with his first game-winning drive to lead the Bolts past the Falcons, 20-17. Going 36-for-44 for 243 yards and two touchdowns, Herbert became the first rookie with an 80-plus completion percentage on 40 or more attempts since at least 1950, per NFL Research. In his previous start against the Raiders, he had 326 yards and two TDs, so Herbert's stellar opening campaign could be headed for another sterling showing. But the Carr-led Raiders won that first matchup and more than anything, victories matter for Carr and Co. right now. Just as the Raiders did, Carr (who's having an overall excellent year with 24 touchdowns to seven interceptions and 257.2 yards per game) got off to an excellent start to the season. Following a promising 6-3 opening, though, Las Vegas is 1-3 over its last four. Carr has had eight turnovers across the last four outings, with at least one interception in each game after throwing just two in the first nine games. In fairness to Carr, the Raiders' rushing attack hasn't produced more than 89 yards in any of its last four games. Win or lose, Carr's shouldering Vegas' offensive fate and doing so with a limited receiving corps. Beyond tight end Darren Waller, Carr's options have been limited, though Nelson Agholor has shown promise. With the Raiders' playoff hopes fading, Carr's most likely going to have to outduel a star rookie in Herbert who's looking to close out an all-time great first campaign.
Keenan Allen's quietly stellar season
Psst. Keenan Allen is having an absolutely phenomenal year. Despite some injuries and despite playing for a losing team, Allen has been sensational. Hidden away on a last-place team, he's no doubt been overlooked and deserves a bit more light shined upon another stellar season. Thus far, Allen has hauled in 99 catches (second in NFL) for 975 yards (12th) for eight touchdowns (tied for ninth). Allen has 44 more receptions than any other Charger, double the TD catches of any other Bolts player and 400 more receiving yards than any teammate. As Herbert takes aim at the rookie record for passing TDs, Allen's also zeroing in on notable milestones as he's poised to lock up his second-straight 100-catch campaign (third overall) and his fourth-consecutive 1,000-yard campaign (fifth overall). Heading into Thursday, Allen's racked up 623 receptions in 99 career contests, which is the most by any player in his first 100 games, per NFL Research. And this season, only he and Packers dynamo Davante Adams have 90 or more catches and eight or more touchdowns. Facing the Raiders' 25th-ranked passing defense, Allen's quiet standout season could get noisy.
Can DC change fix Raiders D?
Hours after the Raiders' 44-27 loss to the Colts on Sunday, in which Vegas allowed 40-plus points for the second time in three games and the third time this season, Paul Guenther was fired as defensive coordinator. Currently the AFC's ninth seed, the Raiders' postseason hopes are slipping and the defense has been the largest reason why. Scrambling to save the season, a change was made and Rod Marinelli's taken on the interim DC reins looking to breathe a little life into a defense that's 30th in scoring, 30th in sacks and 22nd in takeaways. Maxx Crosby has six of the team's 15 sacks as the Raiders' post-Khalil Mack pass rush problems carry on. And while rushing the passer is a long-standing problem, Las Vegas has also allowed a league-worst 21 rushing touchdowns. The defense needs to change things up in a hurry and going up against the No. 8 offense in the NFL on Thursday isn't the most favorable matchup to do so.
An important one for Gruden and Lynn
If not for Gregg Williams dialing up a job-ending zero blitz call in Week 13, the Raiders would be amid a four-game skid. Nevertheless, Vegas has still lost three of four, allowing 35 or more points in each of those losses, and that one win saw the defense give up 28 points to the Jets, a tally that stands as the winless squad's season-high. Still the only team to defeat the Chiefs this season, the Raiders have also bested the Saints. And yet, a once-promising campaign has been divebombed. While the defense has been horrendous, Carr's play has waned and the running game has been non-existent. This is the Jon Gruden era 2.0 in its third season and he still hasn't had a winning season with the Silver and Black since 2001. The Raiders were a surprising starter brimming with promise and they're now in a free fall. This is a must-win for Las Vegas amid a crucial season for Gruden and his grand plan of turning this franchise around.
While doubt in Gruden's designs for the franchise would have to creep in with another defeat, Anthony Lynn's future with the Chargers is already shrouded in uncertainty. With a second consecutive losing season clinched under the Lynn umbrella, the Chargers have continued to lose in heartbreaking ways colored by abysmal special teams play and baffling game-management mistakes. At this point, every crucial decision is magnified and every win matters for Lynn. Starting Thursday, the Chargers conclude their season with three AFC West matchups and can avenge three losses of five points or less. Defeating division foes and avenging a trio of nailbiting losses will make firing Lynn all the more difficult. At this point, that's probably the affable coach's best and only hope of keeping his job in 2021.