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Mariota’s magic could not overcome porous Raiders defense

Updated December 17, 2020 - 10:29 pm

As it turns out, there just wasn’t enough magic in the right arm and electric legs of Marcus Mariota to save the Raiders from another late-season swoon.

Not that the former Heisman Trophy winner and second pick in the 2015 draft didn’t try, coming off the bench to inject life and spirit into a Raiders team in desperate need of those things.

But there is only so much anyone can do when the Raiders’ defense can’t consistently stop anyone, let alone a sensational young quarterback like Chargers rookie Justin Herbert, who seemed to come up with a big play each time his team needed it in a 30-27 overtime win Thursday night at Allegiant Stadium.

The biggest of which was finding Jalen Guyton on a 53-yard pass in overtime to set up the Chargers at the Raiders’ 2-yard line. The Raiders, who kicked a field goal at the end of their overtime drive, couldn’t come up with a Herbert fumble that rolled into the end zone three plays later. By rule, the ball went back to the original spot at the 1-yard line. Herbert took it in from there for the winning score.

“It’s unfortunate we couldn’t find a way to win that game at the end,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said. “It’s on me.”

The loss leaves the 7-7 Raiders’ playoff hopes on life support. Any path to the postseason requires them winning their last two games and everyone in front of them losing their final three games.

Given how they were 6-3 in mid-November with a clear path to the playoffs, it’s inexplicable where they find themselves. Still, the 1-4 free-fall they are in since that high-water mark is reminiscent of the fall they made last year, losing five of their last six games to squander a potential postseason berth.

“It sucks,” is how tight end Darren Waller put it.

It also ruined the magical night that was unfolding for Mariota, who came in for an injured Derek Carr and practically willed the Raiders to a win.

If it wasn’t for the porous Raiders defense, which surrendered 314 passing yards and two touchdowns to Herbert while consistently leaving his receivers wide open, Mariota might have been the hero.

But the season-long defensive issues reared their ugly head once again, just as they have so many times this year while costing defensive coordinator Paul Guenther his job.

The elevation of Rod Marinelli to interim defensive coordinator this week clearly didn’t have the desired effect. Whatever changes he made or different plays he dialed up did little to alter the downward spiral of the struggling defense. It didn’t help they were missing four starters.

The Raiders forced just two Chargers punts. They allowed Los Angeles to convert seven of 12 third downs and gave up 406 total yards. If not for the season-long field goal kicking issues of the 5-9 Chargers, the game probably never would have reached overtime.

That said, without Mariota who knows what direction the game would have taken. “It just shows the kind of football character he has,” Gruden said.

Said Mariota: “Unfortunately we came up a little short.”

Carr left the game late in the first quarter with a groin injury trying to leg out a third-down run from the Chargers’ two-yard line. The Raiders ended up with a field goal on the drive but lost their quarterback for the rest of the game.

On came Mariota, who the Raiders signed during the offseason to both push Carr and provide a quality backup. A pectoral injury slowed Mariota in training camp and landed him on injured reserve for the first five weeks of the season.

The setback was detrimental on a number of levels and left him far enough behind in Gruden’s system that he wasn’t activated to the Raiders’ game day roster until the 13th week of the season.

Between the injury and not dressing out for the first 13 weeks, it called into question the wisdom of the Raiders signing Mariota to a two-year, $17.6 million contract that guaranteed him $7.5 million this year.

Inside the Raiders building, though, Mariota and his payday were looked on as an important insurance policy. If they never had to tap into it, that was fine. On the other hand, it sure was nice to have him around in case of an emergency.

That is exactly what happened when Carr came up limping

On came Mariota to try to save the day, and maybe even the Raiders’ season. And with the team’s playoff hopes hanging in the balance, all Mariota did was complete 17 of 28 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown and run for 88 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.

He guided the Raiders on three touchdown drives and the field goal to take the 27-24 lead in overtime.

“When it comes down to it, it’s part of your job to be prepared,” Mariota said.

Said Gruden: “This kind of puts an exclamation point on why we signed him. I just wish we could have won the game for him.”

Not that Mariota was perfect. In fact, the interception he threw just after the two-minute warning killed a potential game-winning drive.

“That’s on me,” Mariota said. “I missed the throw.”

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on Twitter.

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