Saturday night’s matchup between the fourth-seeded Jacksonville Jaguars and fifth-seeded Los Angeles Chargers is one of the most intriguing games of Super Wild Card Weekend.
Led by young quarterbacks making their playoff debuts and risk-taking head coaches who promptly ended postseason droughts, the Chargers-Jaguars matchup has all the makings of an evenly matched game. It also has great potential to be the most entertaining game of the slate with two top-10 offenses squaring off.
Brandon Staley’s playoff debut comes in his second season with the Chargers, marking the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2018. But one year following a Week 18 overtime loss to the Raiders, which would’ve earned LA a playoff berth, the Chargers aim to right a mistake after persevering through an injury-riddled season in 2022.
Doug Pederson’s first season with the Jaguars has brought Jacksonville its second home playoff game this century after winning the AFC South in 2022. The Jaguars had to win in Week 18 in order to capture its first division crown since 2017, which was the franchise’s last postseason. appearance.
Saturday will be the first-ever playoff meeting between the two franchises. They are two of 12 teams in the NFL to have never won a Super Bowl, and join the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings as those among this year’s playoff field vying for the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy.
Here are five things to watch for when the Jaguars host the Chargers on Saturday:
- High-profile QBs of tomorrow’s NFL. Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence, a pair of under-25 QBs making their playoff debuts, offer a glimpse into the NFL’s next generation of perennial postseason stars. The Herbert-Lawrence matchup will be the first-ever playoff game between two QBs selected in the top 10 within the previous three drafts, and will be just the third matchup of QBs that are making their playoff debuts within their first three seasons in the Super Bowl era, per NFL Research. Entering Super Wild Card Weekend as the league’s most efficient passers in the latter half of the season, Herbert (70.1) and Lawrence (69.7) own the two highest completion percentages in the NFL since Week 9 and have respective passer ratings of 93.2 and 95.2. The Chargers and Jaguars are two of three teams in the NFL this season to produce a trio of pass catchers with 750-plus receiving yards by virtue of their young gunslingers. Herbert’s 292.2 passing yards per game on the road are second-most in the league since 2021, and he faces a Jaguars team that hasn’t allowed 250-plus passing yards since Week 13. Lawrence comes into the playoffs having waned off in an impressive season, throwing just one touchdown and averaging 197.7 yards per game in the final three games despite going undefeated in that span.
- An effective pass rush could be the difference. Los Angeles endured its worst loss of the season in Week 3 when the Jaguars came to town and hung a dominant 28-point victory. The pass-rushing disparity from that game offers a key factor going into Saturday’s rematch. According to Next Gen Stats, Lawrence was pressured on just 12.8% of dropbacks while the Jaguars effectively rushed Herbert 30.4% of the time. Lawrence went 9-for-16 passing for 100 yards and two TDs when given at least 2.5 seconds to throw and led an offense that scored three total TDs when the Chargers did not apply pressure. Joey Bosa left that Week 3 game early due to a groin injury that kept him out until Week 18, and his return is crucial against Lawrence, who mustered just 14 yards passing (2 of 5 completions) in the few times he felt pressure against the Bolts. Winners of five of their last six, the Chargers have produced 18 sacks since Week 14, which is nearly half of their sack total for the season (40), and exacting revenge against Jacksonville might be associated with how often the pass rush creates pressure.
- Injuries follow the Chargers into the postseason. Staley’s decision to play his starters in a needless Week 18 game against the Broncos brought forth the latest chapter of an injury-riddled season. Wide receiver Mike Williams (back; questionable) is the Chargers’ leader in receiving yards with 895 off 63 receptions (four TDs), and his absence is crucial for an offense that averaged 3.5 points and 50-plus yards per game less this season with him in the lineup. The big-play threat of Williams creates opportunities for LA, with Keenan Allen getting desired one-on-one matchups and running back Austin Ekeler seeing plenty of room ahead on short passing plays. Williams’ presence has also had a great effect on Herbert’s efficiency on third down, with the QB averaging 7.7 yards per attempt with seven TDs, one interception and a 108.6 passer rating with Williams playing and mustering 5.8 YPA, no TDs, two INTs and a 61.8 passer rating without the big-bodied wideout. For a Chargers team that lost key players on both sides of the ball in 2022, Williams’ availability may be essential for a win, but it could also be the crux of a disappointing, yet fitting, ending to their 2022 season.
- Opportunity knocks for Travis Etienne. The second-year Jaguars running back has largely flown under the radar in his first healthy season, but a breakout game looms against a leaky run defense. The Chargers have allowed 145.8 rushing yards per game (28th in the NFL) and 5.4 yards per carry. That’s over 30 YPG more than any other playoff team in the conference and the worst YPC average allowed in the Super Bowl era, according to NFL Research. Only five teams in NFL history have allowed a higher YPC in a season, and Etienne’s big-play speed is a serious threat that has the potential to complement Jacksonville’s passing attack. Etienne had 1,125 rushing yards and five TDs (5.1 YPC average) while adding 316 receiving yards (35 receptions) this year. Most of that production came after Week 6 when Etienne became the featured RB in Jacksonville, ranking fifth in the league with 910 rushing yards since that point. While the Chargers run defense did improve in the final weeks of the season, Etienne stands as a potential X-factor on Saturday night and the table is set for him to punctuate a breakout season.
- Mindsets of Staley, Pederson might bring forth a deciding moment. The Chargers and Jaguars are led by head coaches who are not afraid to take risks. For better or worse, Staley has quickly garnered a reputation for his fourth-down decisions, but the Chargers have no doubt embraced the attitude since last year. In 2022, the Chargers weren’t as successful on fourth downs, converting 51.7% of 29 attempts as opposed to the 22 of 34 (64.7%) attempts they converted last season. Identifying when to take those risks, which has been the main argument of Staley’s critics, has been a specialty trait for the coaching style of Pederson, who won Super Bowl LII with the underdog Eagles. The Jaguars, too, have taken their chances with Pederson at the helm, ranking in the top 10 in the NFL along with the Chargers in fourth-down attempts and conversions (14 of 27; 51.9%). Pederson has brought an unmistakable gusto to Jacksonville upon his arrival and Jaguars players have grown more confident throughout the course of a season that started with a 2-6 record. The upstart Jags might have an edge here given Pederson’s past playoff experience, but Staley’s Chargers have game-planned well down the stretch and have a more distinct veteran presence on the field. Add in the fact that Staley’s defense will go up against Pederson’s offense, both of which being that coach’s forte, and you have an intriguing head-coaching plot that is sure to have cameras ready on the sidelines when that decision-making moment comes.