NFL

Chargers and Raiders face off with playoff spots on the line

By Sports Desk January 07, 2022

The 18th and final round of the NFL regular season is upon us and there remains plenty of intrigue in a frantic scramble to make it to the playoffs.

Five teams from the AFC are competing for two postseason berths, while one spot is up for grabs in the NFC. 

Away from the Super Bowl picture, there are a number of other intriguing subplots ahead of an action-packed weekend.

Stats Perform previews some of the standout games and the best of the rest.


Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) @ Las Vegas Raiders (9-7)

The winner of this contest is guaranteed a playoff spot, while there is also a scenario whereby a tie could see both advance. Interestingly, six of the previous seven games in Oakland/Las Vegas have been decided by three points or fewer.

The Raiders beat the Colts on a last-second field goal last week to prevail 23-20 – their fifth win of the season by four points or fewer, tied with the Packers and the Titans for the most in the NFL.

Justin Herbert set the single-season passing touchdowns record for the Chargers last week with his 35th of the campaign. He now requires 172 yards this week to also take the passing-yards record.

The Chargers' 34-13 win against the Broncos was their fourth victory in a win while scoring 30 points or more. They have averaged 33.9 points per game in wins this season, second most in the NFL behind the Bills (35.1).

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1) @ Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

The Steelers have won three in a row against the Ravens, with all three of those victories being decided by less than a touchdown, the most recent coming by a 20-19 scoreline last month.

Last week's 12-point win over the Browns was the Steelers' largest of the season, though not since 1969 have they gone a full campaign without winning by at least 13 points.

The Ravens are coming off the back of a 20-19 loss to the Rams, their league-leading eighth game decided by three or fewer points this season – no team in NFL history has had more than nine games decided by three or fewer points.

Najee Harris rushed for 188 of the Steelers' 190 rushing yards against the Browns and accounts for 77.9 per cent of his side's rush yards this season, the highest share of any player in the NFL.

 

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) @ Denver Broncos (7-9)

The Chiefs will be looking to respond to their defeat against the Cincinnati Bengals in week 17 when they take on the Broncos, whom they have defeated in 12 successive meetings – the league's joint-longest active winning streak along with the New England Patriots against the New York Jets.

Despite last week's defeat, the Chiefs have scored at least 30 points in four successive games, which is the longest-running streak in the NFL and one short of their all-time record of five set in 2004 and 2018.

Kansas lead the way in the NFL with 391 first downs this season and, with nine more this weekend, will become the fifth team in the last 70 years with 400 or more first downs in a season.

The Broncos were defeated by the Chargers last time out to ensure a losing season for the fifth straight year, an unwanted run they last went on from 1963 to 1972 with 10 straight losing seasons.

Elsewhere...

The Jaguars require a victory against the Colts to avoid becoming the fourth team in the last 30 years to have consecutive seasons with two or fewer wins. The Colts have lost three games this season by exactly three points – the Seahawks are the only team this season that has failed to win a single game by three or fewer points with more losses in such games (0-5).

The Rams can clinch their third NFC West title in six seasons season since moving back to Los Angeles with victory over the 49ers. However, the Niners have won each of their last five meetings with the Rams.

The Falcons have three successive wins against the Saints in Atlanta and are seeking a fourth in a row for the first time since between 1991 and 1994. Following defeat to the Bills last week, the Falcons have alternated between wins and losses over their last seven games.

The Bills can clinch their second consecutive division title with victory against the Jets, following on from a previous run of 24 straight seasons without finishing top. All 10 of Buffalo's wins this season have come by 12 points or more.

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    Kylian Mbappe is already the best player in France and can continue to make history after signing his new contract with Paris Saint-Germain, according to Ronaldinho.

    Last week, Mbappe agreed a new three-year deal with the Ligue 1 champions, rejecting Real Madrid's public advances in a huge transfer blow to the Champions League finalists.

    The World Cup-winning forward scored 39 goals and added 21 assists during a remarkable individual season with PSG, as Mauricio Pochettino's team secured a10th league title in the club's history.

    The 23-year-old is already the second-highest Ligue 1 goalscorer in PSG history, scoring 171 goals in 217 league outings for the Parisian giants – only Edinson Cavani (200 goals in 301 games) has more.

    Former PSG star Ronaldinho, who scored 25 goals in two seasons with the club before departing for Barcelona in 2003, says Mbappe is already out-shining team-mates Lionel Messi and Neymar.

    However, Ronaldinho also insisted PSG would have been able to cope had the France star left for Madrid, highlighting the quality of his team-mates.

    "Right now, of the future... he's a player that could be part of history," he told Mail Online. "He deserves all the respect he's getting. He is making history and can continue to create happiness for us in this game.

    "Today he is the best player for PSG. If he left to go anywhere else, it would only be to have the chance to be the best player in another country. He's already the best in France.

    "Paris Saint-Germain has some of the best players in the world right now – Messi, Neymar, Sergio Ramos. 

    "Some of the best players in the world are in this team. So, if one of the best players in the world leaves, other top players will continue in their place."

     

    Meanwhile, Ronaldinho's former Barcelona team-mate Messi endured a mixed first season in France, recording 11 goals and 14 assists in all competitions but being jeered by his own fans in the aftermath of March's Champions League defeat to Madrid.

    However, Ronaldinho insists the Argentine is happy in Paris, highlighting his 2021 Ballon d'Or win as evidence of his continued quality.

    The former Camp Nou star also insists Barcelona will recover from Messi's departure and return to the top of the game under Xavi's management, backing the Blaugrana boss to create another "beautiful" team.

    'If my friend is happy, it's the right decision, and I believe he is very happy," Ronaldinho said of Messi. "He is going through a period of adapting, but he's already been voted the best player in the world.

    "People said they were surprised when I left Barcelona and when Messi left. But Barcelona continues to be Barcelona. 

    "Things change in football, naturally. Now the club's hierarchy needs to bring in new players with talent to continue being successful.

    "They already have a great coach who has a foundation in the history of the club. So, the club can begin it's rebuild with this manager to create a beautiful team. They need to now give the manager the opportunity to build a great team.

    "It won't be easy. They need a bit more time to build a side that is based around the best players. But I think players are happy to be playing for one of the best teams in the world."

  • Goretzka: Germany not setting World Cup targets ahead of Nations League tests Goretzka: Germany not setting World Cup targets ahead of Nations League tests

    Leon Goretzka says Germany are not setting any firm World Cup targets after two disappointing tournaments, but hopes Die Mannschaft can "make a good impression" in their upcoming UEFA Nations League games ahead of their trip to Qatar.

    The Bayern Munich midfielder has won 41 caps for his country, scoring 14 goals, but has enjoyed limited tournament success with the national team, featuring in underwhelming campaigns at the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020.

    Germany crashed out in the group stages in Russia in 2018 before being eliminated by England in the last 16 at the Euros last year, also missing out on qualifying for the Nations League semi-finals in 2020-21.

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    "We'll play our Nations League games first and see that we make a good impression and can go to the World Cup free. 

    "I've already taken part in tournaments where we were considered one of the favourites and we failed quite a bit. Then there were tournaments where nobody expected us [to perform well] and we won. 

    "Basically, we are an absolute footballing nation with great successes in the past, and accordingly we have our expectations in such a competition."

    Germany have been drawn into a tricky Group E for the tournament, alongside Japan, Costa Rica or New Zealand, and Spain, having lost their last meeting with La Roja 6-0 in November 2020.

    Before that, Flick's side face several tough Nations League fixtures, including a home clash with England and a double-header against European champions Italy, and Goretzka believes those contests will provide Germany with a real test after Flick won eight of his first nine games at the helm. 

    "The opponents we have now are much more important," he added. "These are top games at the very highest level.

    "We haven't had one under Hansi yet, so [with] many games against top opponents, which is why we made a good impression. Now we can prove that at another level, higher up."

    Meanwhile, at club level, Goretzka endured an injury-hit campaign with Bayern, making just 19 league appearances as Julian Nagelsmann's men won the Bundesliga title, fewer than fellow midfielders Marcel Sabitzer (25), Joshua Kimmich (28), and Jamal Musiala (30).

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  • Champions League final: Camavinga and Rodrygo, the wildcard exceptions to Ancelotti's rotation reticence Champions League final: Camavinga and Rodrygo, the wildcard exceptions to Ancelotti's rotation reticence

    Regardless of what occurs on the pitch at the Stade de France on Saturday, the 2021-22 season will have been a good one for Real Madrid.

    Even if they are ultimately left with only the Spanish top-flight title to show for their efforts, there's an argument to be made that Carlo Ancelotti has defied expectations in his first campaign back at the Santiago Bernabeu.

    Given the important losses of Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos coupled with the fact only two new players were incoming, it would've been understandable if fans were less demanding than usual in their pre-season predictions.

    After all, Ancelotti was seen as a safe pair of hands rather than someone who was going to come in, shake things up and preside over a philosophical overhaul – and looking back over the course of the season, he's been the perfect appointment.

    Of course, the turmoil at Barcelona helped Madrid's cause, while Atletico Madrid's title defence fell flat early on. For a while Sevilla looked to be the only challengers to Los Blancos, but given they ran out of steam in the previous campaign, it's unlikely Ancelotti and his team will have been unduly worried by them – they ended up scraping a top-four spot.

    As composed and dominant as Madrid were at LaLiga's summit, fans, pundits and journalists alike did go searching for potential weaknesses, or reasons for the chasing pack not to give up hope.

    One area that appeared to be brought up more than most was rotation and the risk of burnout.

    Full steam ahead

    Between the start of the season and the end of December, six Madrid players had featured for more than 1,400 minutes in LaLiga. There are no surprises in this list: they would be considered the majority of the team's core players.

    In the same period, only Espanyol (seven) had more players feature for at least 1,400 minutes in LaLiga, but they didn't also have Champions League football to contend with. Sevilla had three players meet the criteria; Barcelona had two and Atletico Madrid just one, goalkeeper Jan Oblak. 

    Similarly, Madrid named the same starting XI three times in LaLiga this season. While that doesn't sound a lot, only Celta Vigo, Getafe, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna have done so more often.

    It's clear to see Madrid have relied on a bigger group of core players than their rivals, and as such concerns about fatigue appeared astute earlier in the season.

    But here we are, right at the end of the campaign: Madrid won LaLiga with four games to spare and are preparing to play in the Champions League final – and their route to this stage has relied on the ability to laugh in the face of fatigue, with Los Blancos coming back from the brink three times.

    In that sense, you have to praise Ancelotti's squad management. Whether their lack of injuries has been by design or a fluke is difficult to speculate about, but there's clearly an element of Ancelotti swiftly establishing his preferred XI and then only wavering from it when absolutely necessary.

    And when he did have to look elsewhere, there's no doubting who his favourites were.

    Rodrygo and Eduardo Camavinga have come off the bench 23 times each across all competitions this season, the joint-most in the Madrid squad.

    Granted, it's not as if they're two hopefuls promoted from the academy – both were expensive additions to the squad. But the frequency Ancelotti has turned to them as substitutes shows his belief in them to either carry out his instructions or make a difference.

    Nowhere was that clearer than in the latter stages of the Champions League. Five of Camavinga's nine appearances in this season's competition have been in the knockouts, while Rodrygo has come off the bench four times in Europe since the turn of the year.

    The latter has, understandably, taken a lot of plaudits in the second half of this season. He scored the vital aggregate equaliser against Chelsea, the brace that flipped the City tie on its head, and was inspirational off the bench away to Sevilla in the 3-2 win that essentially wrapped up the title.

    Before the turn of the year, Rodrygo appeared to be struggling for relevance at Madrid. There will have been some wondering if he had a long-term future at the club, but he knuckled down after Christmas and has become a genuine weapon, seemingly embracing the fact you can still be decisive even off the bench.

    On a per-90-minute basis, he heads into Saturday's game ranked fourth at Madrid for open-play chances created (1.4) and goals (0.34), joint-second for assists (0.34, behind Benzema on 0.35) and third for shots (2.4). He's beginning to show his worth.

    Ancelotti's choice

    Some might have generally expected more from Camavinga since joining from Rennes last year. He's not been able to establish himself as a regular in midfield at the expense of his more senior colleagues, perhaps unsurprising given he lacks the metronomic abilities of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric and the grit of Casemiro. However, his impact shouldn't be overlooked.

    In the second-leg clashes against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City, every single one of Madrid's eight goals came after Camavinga's introduction. Those goals ensured Ancelotti's men produced great escapes in each tie.

    In fact, over the 146 minutes both Camavinga and Rodrygo have been on the pitch in the Champions League in 2022, Madrid have scored eight times and conceded none. Over 502 minutes without at least one of them on the pitch, they've scored six and let in 11.

    Of course, it's not as if Camavinga himself has been a central figure to all eight goals. His importance in these scenarios is more centred on the wide-ranging skillset he instantly brings to Madrid – he can pass, he's confident on the ball and is a hard-working competitor.

    His contributions were notable in all three second legs, but it was against City when he really forced people to sit up and acknowledge him. In the three and a half minutes that followed his 75th-minute entrance, Camavinga showed his poise with a nice switch of play, swept up effectively in midfield as Phil Foden looked to pounce on a loose ball, and then tackled Rodri out wide.

    He was happy to accept possession under pressure several times, with one occasion seeing him turn and lift a wonderful pass over the City defence in the 82nd minute as Karim Benzema tested Ederson in goal. A minute later he was darting back in pursuit of Bernardo Silva, ultimately producing an exceptional sliding tackle to win the ball back.

    Camavinga then played a vital role in Madrid's first goal in the 90th minute. His inch-perfect lofted pass to the back post allowed Benzema to turn the ball into the danger zone where Rodrygo was on hand to flick home.

    Rodrygo's second in quick succession forced extra time, and Camavinga helped bring about Madrid's crucial third. It was he who carried the ball over half the length of the pitch before finding the Brazilian to cross towards Benzema, who won the penalty from Ruben Dias.

    But he showed his value off the ball as well. His four tackles from 45 minutes on the pitch was bettered by only Federico Valverde (five) among Madrid players, and he played the full 120.

    His showing was another reminder of the supreme talent Madrid brought in last year and, for many it might've even been enough to earn a starting spot in the final.

    Both Camavinga and Rodrygo certainly deserve at least the chance to impact proceedings in Paris, but don't expect Ancelotti to lose faith in his preferred XI at this stage.

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