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Final Thoughts: Justin Herbert Ready for Playoff Debut


Welcome to the playoffs.

Here are five final thoughts ahead of the Chargers-Jaguars matchup in the Wild Card round.

1. Justin Herbert in primetime

Justin Herbert is getting his first crack at the postseason.

And the Chargers quarterback knows that this is the time of year where everyone is watching and memories are made.

"I think it is always fun playing in January, and hopefully in February," Herbert said. "That is when the memorable football happens.

"We're doing everything we can to just be our best, go out there, have fun and give it our best shot," Herbert added.

The 24-year-old is coming off his third pro season in which he threw for 4,739 yards (second in the league) along with 25 touchdowns.

Herbert has typically performed well in primetime in his young career and he'll get another chance to do so Saturday night in Jacksonville. Kickoff is at 5:15 p.m. (PT) on NBC.

Those closest to Herbert can't wait to see how he fares in his postseason debut.

"I think that Justin's whole life, he has performed well in these types of games, these types of environment," said Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley. "His last season at Oregon, he did about all you could do, as a college player. He has always played his best when the stage is the biggest. That is how his career has been in the NFL.

"In primetime, the big games he has had for the first three years, he has always risen to the occasion because that is the type of competitor that he is," Staley added. "Now, just getting to that stage where he is joining up with his teammates, and there is a team around him that is really excited to compete and be a team out there. He is going to have a good week of practice, like he always does. I know that he will be ready to play."

Chargers Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi added: "He is a big-time player. Usually, those guys shine brightest in the big lights. I think he will be fine."

Herbert has seen the Jaguars once already this season, but the circumstances were certainly different in late September when the quarterback was playing his first game with fractured rib cartilage.

The quarterback said there is "a bunch" of things he and the offense can learn from that Week 3 matchup.

But what remains the same is that the Jaguars have a stout defense, and one that is peaking at the right time.

Since Week 14 — which coincides with Jacksonville's five-game win streak — the Jaguars defense ranks first in that timespan with an EPA per play of minus-0.187.

(EPA stands for Expected Points Added and is an analytical tool that measures success of an offense on a given play. Negative numbers are better for a defense, and this metric shows that Jacksonville's defense has been red-hot over the past five games).

Herbert is well-aware of that.

"It's knowing that they have guys on that front seven that are able to make those plays and you have to have a good protection plan going into it and knowing that you have to limit turnovers," Herbert said. "You have to be able to convert on third down.

"It's the same thing we say every week and that is what is most important about going into a matchup like this is sometimes you can't make a bad play worse," Herbert added. "Punts are OK. Making sure that you are getting the ball and being safe with it."

Herbert has played in 49 NFL games to date. Number 50 will be his first in the playoffs.

He's ready for it.

"This is just another great opportunity to go play football," Herbert said. "This team is special. We're looking forward to the challenge, the opportunity of going out there and playing football."

2. Defense stays hot on 3rd downs

The Chargers defense had one of their worst performances of the season on third downs in Week 3 against the Jaguars.

Jacksonville converted eight of 15 tries, with quarterback Trevor Lawrence moving the chains six different times through the air.

Lawrence is among the quarterbacks who get rid of the ball quick in the pocket.

According to NFL NextGen Stats, Lawrence had the fourth-quickest average time to throw this season at 2.59 seconds. Against the Bolts in Week 3? He got rid of the ball even faster, posting an average time to throw of 2.39 seconds.

Linebacker Drue Tranquill explained the key to combating those quick throws.

"Well, you have to have your cleats in the grass and you've got to have good communication," Tranquill said. "If you don't have good communication, he's going to have the ball out. He's a really good player."

Wait, what does 'cleats in the grass' mean?

"Guys have to be set. You can't have guys running around trying to get their cleats in the grass, running around the formation with their hands in the air," Tranquill said. "We have the phrase 'cleats in the grass.' I'm steady, I'm locked in, I've got my keys and I'm ready to play."

In other words, be ready to do when the Jaguars break the huddle.

Third downs always weight heavy in the outcome of a game, and Saturday night should be no difference, especially considering both sides of the ball are playing well.

Over the final seven games of the season, the Chargers defense ranked first in DVOA on third downs at minus-0.436.

On the flip side, the Jacksonville offense put up a DVOA of 0.185 during the five-game win streak to close out the season. That metric ranked fifth in the NFL during that time span.

Tranquill said whichever team fares better on third downs will have a strong shot to win.

"We saw them once this season and they got the best of us," Tranquill said. "We're excited for Round 2."

3. Win the battle on special teams

Everything is magnified in the playoffs, including special teams and field position.

The Chargers will rely on a lockdown punt coverage unit that finished the season ranked first overall with just 58 return yards on 19 attempts all season. That average of just 3.1 yards per return ranked first in the league by 2.6 yards.

The entire operation deserves credit for that success, beginning with punter JK Scott and including the protection and gunners on the outside.

"It starts with JK's punts and the hangtime he's been able to deliver those balls with," said long snapper Josh Harris. "Our guys are able to get down there in plenty of time and it's also a testament to our protection up front. We've done a good job of building a wall around JK.

"And then on the times we have had returns on us, we've done a really good job of getting that returning on the ground," Harris added.

The Bolts will face a tall task in Jacksonville's Jamal Agnew, who is tied for the lead among active players with four career punt returns for touchdowns.

Chargers Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken was asked what makes Agnew so dangerous.

"Everything," Ficken said, while Harris called Agnew a "home run-threat."

Ficken later expanded on Agnew's skillset.

"This guy is an elite returner," Ficken said. "He's explosive and has got that elite speed to take it the distance on any given return.

"He can make guys miss. He makes moves on moves," Ficken added. "He doesn't have to break his stride or slow down to make a cut. It's full speed."

If the Chargers can pin the Jaguars back on punts (and kickoffs), that would force Jacksonville's offense to drive the full length of the field instead of a shorter distance.

"Field position is big in every game. But when you get into these games, people want to talk about it a little bit more," Harris said. "For us, in our world of special teams, we're trying to positively impact every game we play.

"We're going to do our jobs at a high level and hopefully help the offense and defense play complimentary football," Harris said.

Keep an eye on DeAndre Carter's impact on field position, too. Among NFL players with at least 20 punt returns, Carter ranked second in the regular season with an average of 11.7 yards per attempt.

4. Minimize the mistakes

Kyle Van Noy has played in a dozen playoff games in his career, the most among any current player on the Chargers roster.

Corey Linsley is right behind him with 11.

Both players offered plenty of wisdom this week as to what it will take for the Bolts to get a win in Jacksonville.

Experience, Van Noy said, is a moot point. He pointed to Cincinnati's run to the Super Bowl a year ago with plenty of players who hadn't been there before.

Instead, Van Noy revealed that the smartest and most disciplined team will advance, not the one with the most games under their belt.

"I think the experience really doesn't matter during this time because there's guys that have lots of experience that have made bonehead plays in the playoffs," Van Noy said. "That experience didn't work in that particular situation. I think home-field advantage too, that's a myth, too. And experience.

"The Bengals are a perfect example of last year with both of those," Van Noy added. "No experience and playing on the road."

Linsley offered a bit deeper explanation for how teams can be successful this time of year.

"These teams tend to not beat themselves," Linsley said. "After it all evens out, you bring your stuff and you play as well as you can and as fast as you can, but you have to make the least amount if mistakes.

"A lot of the times in the past when I've got to the playoffs, the games you have won are where you've capitalized on mistakes," Linsley added. "And the games I've been a part of where we lost in the playoffs, I feel like it's a few plays and a few mistakes."

With that in mind, keep an eye on areas such as penalties, red-zone success and mental miscues in the Wild Card round.

They could make a big difference over the course of the game.

5. The coaching matchup

Staley has done his part this season to help the Bolts get into the playoffs.

That was evident in a multitude of ways, perhaps none more evident than this nearly unseen conversationafter a Week 10 loss to the 49ers.

Now that the Chargers are here, Staley is ready for his playoff game as a head coach.

"It's really special. You dream your whole life to be able to compete at the highest level in sports," Staley said. "That was always my dream, as a young kid, was to be able to compete at the highest level in sports, and to be on this type of stage where the best of the best are in one tournament, that's where you want to be.

"I've experienced being in the playoffs before at the other places that I've been," Staley added. "That is certainly the case when you make it to the playoffs; it's the very best players, the very best teams, the very best coaches, the very best organizations. That's where you find out a lot about where you are. We're excited that we're here."

Staley's opposition Saturday night — Jaguars Head Coach Doug Pederson — will be coaching in his seventh playoff game as a head coach.

Pederson, of course, led the Eagles to a win in Super Bowl LII and is 4-2 in his postseason career.

Staley this week spoke about the respect he has for Pederson.

"I think he does a good job of protecting the quarterback," Staley said. "Getting the quarterback in rhythm, on schedule, well-protected, high-completion plays. The marriage of the run and the pass.

"I think he puts a lot of pressure on you in situational football, third- and fourth-and-short, red area," Staley added. "You can tell that this guy played the position at the highest level and that he is thinking about his quarterback. That is how he has always been as a pro coach. He is doing an outstanding job with Trevor [Lawrence] this year, for sure."

Saturday's matchup pits a Staley (a defensive-minded coach) and Pederson, who's background is on offense as he spent 10 seasons in the NFL at quarterback.

The cat-and-mouse game between the two should be fun to watch, as both coaches also showed a willingness to go for it on fourth downs this season.

The Chargers had 29 fourth-down plays (sixth-most in the league) and converted 15 of them. Jacksonville tied for the eighth-most attempts on fourth downs (27) and hit on 14 of them.

Those numbers are nearly identical with the Jaguars at 51.9 percent and the Chargers at 51.7 percent.

Keep an eye on whether or not Staley and Pederson get aggressive Saturday night.

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