8:15 PM EST, NBC – Line: Chargers -2.5, Over/Under: 47.5
SUPER Wild Card Weekend is here, folks, and let’s cap Saturday night with a pair of teams that haven’t been in the playoffs for quite a while, as the Los Angeles Chargers face off against the Jacksonville Jaguars from TIAA Bank Stadium in Northern Florida. After suffering through a three-year postseason drought, the Chargers (10-7, 2nd in AFC West) find themselves back in the playoffs, and from a neutral perspective, they have to like how the cards have fallen. Though they came up short in their season finale at the Broncos (much more on this one shortly), Los Angeles took advantage of arguably the softest schedule in the league to close out the campaign, besting the likes of the Colts and Rams to clinch a Wild Card spot, making that aforementioned 31-28 defeat to their division rivals inconsequential. In their second season under the leadership of (Head Coach) Brandon Staley, the Bolts overcame some significant injuries on both sides of the football, particularly in the trenches where the Offensive and Defensive Lines were decimated for large stretches of play. Let’s take a moment to run down the list of absences, shall we? (Defensive Linemen) Christian Covington, Austin Johnson, and Otito Ogbonnia are all languishing on injured reserve, while (Pro-Bowl Edge-Rusher) Joey Bosa missed all but five games with a torn groin. On the Offensive Line, (Tackles) Rashawn Slater and Andrew Trainer along with (Center) Isaac Weaver all bit the dust, while the likes of Trey Pipkins and Jamaree Salver have been dealing with their own ailments over the last few weeks. Furthermore, (Pro-Bowl Receivers) Keenan Allen and Mike Williams have both missed a wealth of time, with the former sidelined for seven of the first ten contests with a nagging hamstring, while the latter was lost for four games midseason due to a high ankle sprain. With such an injury crisis, it’s understandable that the Chargers were one of the worst in the NFL when it came to rushing the football and defending it, ranking thirtieth in both rushing yards (89.6) and yards per carry (3.8), while finishing twenty-eighth against the run (145.8) and dead-last in yards per carry allowed (5.4). So, with that in mind, how in the hell did they make it to this point, you ask? Well, they have a REALLY good Quarterback by the name of Justin Herbert. Statistically, some may think that the 24-year-old may have regressed in his third season as the starter, but there is no conceivable way that this team finishes 10-7 without him, as he singlehandedly carried the Offense throughout the bulk of the campaign. Despite playing through multiple cracked ribs suffered back in Week Two, Herbert (pictured below) completed a career-high 68.2% of his passes for an average of 278.8 yards per game on 6.15 net yards per attempt, with twenty-five touchdowns opposed to ten interceptions, with a QBR of 58.4, along with five game-winning drives, including four fourth quarter comebacks. With that said, he’ll need to do more in this rematch with the Jaguars, who HAMMERED the Bolts in a 38-10 drubbing at SoFi Stadium back in late September. Granted, this was the first game after cracking his ribs, but Herbert had a very rough day at the office in this one, completing just 23-of-45 passes for 297 yards, a touchdown and an interception, while losing a fumble along the way. The hosts got off to a dreadfully slow start in this affair, going three-and-out on their first two drives before Herbert was picked off on his first pass of the third possession, while losing it again via a strip-sack on the fourth. Meanwhile, Staley’s Defense bended without breaking in the first half, permitting just one touchdown despite conceding four straight trips deep into their own territory, only for it to be a completely different story in the second half in which they shipped three consecutive touchdown drives, the latter two bleeding away the clock and consisting of fourteen plays apiece. Granted, that was a lifetime ago in terms of football, with the aforementioned Allen and Bosa both expected to take the field, along with Williams, who caught just one pass for fifteen yards on that afternoon, while Herbert is many months removed from suffering that rib injury. As we stated earlier, with a healthier roster in hand, Los Angeles should fancy this matchup with the Jaguars, who prior to this encounter haven’t been in the playoffs since January of 2018, with very few players possessing any postseason experience. However, this will prove to be a telling assessment of Staley, who in turn will be coaching in his first playoff; the 40-year-old has been criticized heavily for the many questionable in-game decisions that he has made throughout his tenure in Southern California, ranging from a consistent knack for going for it on fourth down driven by his dogged faith in analytics, to his curious choice of fielding both Bosa and Williams in last weekend’s loss at Mile High. Both players departed the field of play early with respective maladies, though it remains to be seen if that was done out of caution or due to greater degrees of seriousness.
When we last saw the Chargers, they fell in their season finale at the Broncos in a 31-28 affair that ultimately meant very little, as their postseason positioning had already been cemented following the first round of games. Had the Ravens beaten the Bengals during the 1:00 slot of contests, then Los Angeles would have had to have defeated Denver in order to secure the fifth seed in the AFC, with difference being a trip to Jacksonville opposed to a venture to defending AFC Champion, Cincinnati. With nothing to play for from either perspective, this one was surprisingly lively, as the two sides traded scores throughout the first half, heading into intermission with the score tied at 17-17. As for the second half, Staley pulled the plug on many starters following the third quarter, including Herbert, who finished the day with 273 yards and two touchdowns on 25-of-37 passing. As (veteran Backup) Chase Daniel entered the fray, the hosts would extend their lead to 31-20, before the 36-year-old found the aforementioned Allen for a 3-yard score, before hitting (young Receiver) Josh Palmer for the two-point conversion to cut the deficit to three points. Unfortunately, that would be as close as they could get, for when it was all said and done the Bolts were outgained 471-352 and outrushed 205-59, though that has been a recurring theme throughout the campaign. (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Austin Ekeler posted seventy yards from scrimmage in limited action, though did lose a fumble late in the third quarter, while Allen hauled in eight receptions for 102 yards and both touchdowns. Looking to tonight’s matchup, the Chargers had won eight consecutive games against the Jaguars prior to that previous matchup in Week Three, four of which took place in Northern Florida. Herbert has faced them twice in his young career, owning a 1-1 record with a completion percentage of 59.1% for an average of 322.0 yards on a healthy 7.17 net yards per attempt with five total touchdowns in comparison to committing two turnovers. From a betting perspective, Los Angeles has been on a heater, covering the spread in seven of their last ten games, including each of their last four outings. They’ve also posted a 7-3 record against the spread in their last ten games away from SoFi Stadium, while covering the number in three of their last four contests when designated as a favorite by the oddsmakers. Furthermore, the Bolts are 5-0-1 against the spread after accumulating at least 250 passing yards, which is the case tonight, while posting a 4-0-1 record against the spread over their last five outings overall. On the injury front, Bosa (undisclosed) and (veteran Cornerback) Bryce Callahan are both listed as questionable, with the latter continuing to deal with a nagging groin strain that has hampered him for weeks, though news recently broke that Williams will indeed be sidelined for this Wild Card affair, due to a sore back, making Staley’s decision to put play him in that meaningless finale all the more scrutinized.
Meanwhile, Meanwhile, there have been many great stories around the NFL this season, though one of the best has to be the resurrection of the Jaguars (9-8. 1st in AFC South), who after spending the bulk of a decade mired in mediocrity, have not only returned to the realm of respectability, but have returned to the playoffs for just the second time since 2007, winning their first division crown since 2017. For those of you who openly question the impact of a coach, then look no further than this franchise; from 2008 to 2021, Jacksonville posted the worst record in the league at 67-158 (.297), with just one winning campaign along the way, including a miserable 4-29 (.121) over the previous two seasons, resulting in back-to-back number one overall picks in the NFL Draft. Simply put, last year’s dumpster fire under the “guidance” of Urban Meyer was nothing short of embarrassing for everyone associated with the franchise, though that nadir thankfully led to the most inspired hire under (Owner) Shahid Khan: Doug Pederson. Indeed, the 54-year-old has been a GODSEND in Northern Florida, bringing a sense of professionalism that was absent throughout his predecessor’s brief tenure. Pederson (pictured below) posted a solid 42-37-1 record (.531) over five seasons with the Eagles, taking them to the playoffs on three occasions and delivering the franchise its first Lombardi Trophy thanks in large part to one of the most famous play calls in NFL history (Philly, Philly anyone?). Of course, he also dealt with quite a bit of controversy during in his time in Philadelphia, from ongoing QB controversies to a ravenous media and fan base, making this venture south to sleepy Jacksonville a proverbial walk in the park. Though his first campaign Northern Florida began slowly, winning just two of his first eight games in charge, all of the hard work that he, his staff, and players have put in has finally paid off, with a 7-2 record over the last ten weeks, entering the playoffs on a five-game winning streak, their longest in SEVENTEEN years! So, what in the name of Mark Brunell has changed for these cats, you ask? Well, Pederson has proven his ability to identify and develop talent, particularly on the offensive side of the football and after enjoying so many premium draft picks over the past few years there is plenty of talent for him to work with, none more so than (Sophomore Quarterback) Trevor Lawrence. The number one overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Lawrence (also pictured below) was arguably the most hyped QB coming into the NFL since Andrew Luck, and after receiving a complete disservice under the tutelage of Meyer, has begun to THRIVE under Pederson. Year #2 has been far more promising than year #1, with the 23-year-old posting significant improvement across the board, completing 66.3% of his passes (up from 59.6%) for 241.9 yards per game (up from 214.2) on 6.43 net yards per attempt (up from 5.37) with twenty-five touchdowns (up from 12) in comparison to eight interceptions (down from a league-worst 17), while making good use of his athleticism with 291 rushing yards and another five touchdowns. During this five-game winning streak, Lawrence has been even better, completing an efficient 67.9% of his throws for an average of 255.8 yards on 7.40 net yards per attempt, with eight touchdowns opposed to just two interceptions, while rushing for another eighty yards and two more scores along the way. We’ll see what he has in store for an encore against the Chargers, who he absolutely CARVED up in that aforementioned 38-10 shellacking back in late September; Lawrence completed an efficient 28-of-39 passes for 262 yards, three touchdowns and zero turnovers on that afternoon, leading an attack that outgained Los Angeles by 101 total yards and manhandled them on the ground, 151-26. At this point, the Jags are playing with house money, for you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone two months ago that thought that this team would qualify for the playoffs, let alone host a game. It’s a testament to the players, the coaching staff, and the front office who have once again proven that anything is possible in this league, provided you hire the right people, stick to a vision and see it through. Now we’re about to see just how much these cats have matured over the course of the last five months, for winning one of the weakest divisions in the NFL is one thing, winning a playoff game is a whole other matter altogether….
When we last saw the Jaguars, they managed to complete one of the most improbable turnarounds and secure their first AFC South title in five years following a disappointing 3-7 start, coming back to defeat the Titans, 20-16 last Saturday night. Make no mistake, the anxiety at TIAA Bank Stadium was as thick as the humidity in the Summer, for this contest was nothing short of difficult for a young team that is still very much learning how to win. That was evident from the kickoff, as the two-time reigning division champions slowly grinded their way to an early 10-0 lead, making it 13-7 at halftime as the hosts struggled to move the chains apart from a six-play, 50-yard drive culminating in a 25-yard strike from Lawrence to (veteran Receiver) Christian Kirk. This would continue to be the case int he second half, as Tennessee added another field goal to make it 16-10 early in the third period, and while Jacksonville’s Defense continued to thwart their rivals again and again, Lawrence & Co could do little when they had the football, amassing a scant thirty-nine yards of offense over their final five drives of the night. However, it was (Defensive Coordinator) Mike Caldwell’s unit that made the difference, intercepting Joshua Dobbs deep in his own territory to set up field goal, while a strip-sack of the young Quarterback in the final stanza led to a go-ahead 37-yard touchdown return courtesy of (veteran Edge-Rusher) Josh Allen. When it was all said and done, the Jaguars authored just 222 total yards, all but ten of which came from Lawrence, who completed 20-of-32 passes with a touchdown and a lost fumble, while possessing the pigskin for a mere 23:48 of game time. With that said, timely plays from the Defense led to the victory, as (Sophomore Cornerback) picked off Dobbs, while ((veteran safety) Rayshawn Jenkins, who has made several huge plays during this win streak, was responsible for the sack that led to that seismic fumble return. As a group, the Jags held the Titans to 312 total yards, while keeping (two-time Rushing Champion) Derrick Henry largely contained with 109 yards on thirty carries and pressuring Dobbs with thirteen hits and four sacks. From a betting perspective, Jacsonville has fancied being an underdog, particularly at home, where they have covered the spread in five consecutive games when getting points. Looking to tonight’s matchup against the Bolts, the Jaguars flushed over a decade of misery down the drain, ending an eight-game losing streak to Los Angeles, whom they had covered the spread against on just one occasion during that span. From a betting perspective, Jacksonville has covered the spread in six of their last ten games, and recently saw their four-game win streak in that regard come to an end in last weekend’s tryst with Tennessee. They’ve posted a middling 5-5 mark against the spread over their last ten games at TIAA Bank Stadium, though have been easy money as an underdog of late, covering four of their last five when getting points. However, they have failed to cover the spread in four straight contests after posting less than 250 total yards of offense, which is the case tonight. On the injury front, both (2022 number one overall pick) Travon Walker and (veteran Guard) Brandon Scherff returned to action in last weekend’s triumphant finale against the Titans, making the Jags as healthy as they can be for this crucial Wild Card showdown.