The Chargers and Jaguars are set for their first-ever playoff matchup.
Kickoff is at 5:15 p.m. (PT) in Jacksonville in the Wild Card round. The Bolts are 10-7 and the fifth seed while the Jaguars won the AFC South with a 9-8 record to claim the No. 4 spot.
We chatted with John Oehser, who covers the Jaguars for their team website, to get a preview of the game.
The Chargers and Jaguars met back in Week 3, which feels like an eternity ago. Jacksonville won handily in that one but how are the Jaguars a different team this time around?
JO: Week 3 indeed was an eternity for the Jaguars. That 38-10 victory over the Chargers marked the high point of their early season, and they lost five consecutive games after that to slip to 2-6. They then won seven of nine games, including their last five to clinch their first AFC South title since 2017. They're a balanced team offensively, with quarterback Trevor Lawrence making fewer mistakes over the last eight games and depending equally on wide receivers Zay Jones and Christian Kirk, running back Travis Etienne Jr. and tight end Evan Engram. They depend largely upon turnovers defensively, finishing fourth in the NFL with 27 takeaways. The main difference now from early in the season is the ability to win close games. Their first six losses this season were all by a score or less. They won their last four home games in dramatic fashion – rallying from 17 points down for a 27-20 victory over Las Vegas, from nine points down for a 28-27 victory over Baltimore, from 17 points down for a 40-34 overtime victory over Dallas and from 10 points down for a 20-16 Week 18 victory over Tennessee that clinched the division.
Lawrence played great down the stretch to lead the Jaguars to the playoffs. Where has he grown the most in Year 2?
JO: Everywhere. He has improved from throwing 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions as a rookie to throwing 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season. He struggled in the red zone early this season, with three interceptions there in the first eight games – one each in three losses. He has improved in the red zone in the second half of the season, and reducing mistakes has been a major difference. He's throwing with more accuracy, and playing with far more confidence under first-year Head Coach Doug Pederson than he did last season.
What are the Jaguars saying about Justin Herbert and the Chargers offense?
JO: That they're very, very good and very hard to defend. The Jaguars know that Herbert was hurting with a rib injury in Week 3, and they also know the Chargers were without wide receiver Keenan Allen that day. They also know that running back Austin Ekelar is very dangerous. They believe they're facing one of the best offenses they will face this season – and a far better offense than the one they faced in Week 3. They believe Herbert is going to make plays at times that can't be defended and that they probably will have to score a lot of points to win.
Check out the best photos of the Chargers Thursday practice at Hoag Performance Center
Who's a crucial player to watch on the Jacksonville defense?
JO: There are several. Outside linebacker Josh Allen, the No. 7 overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, is perhaps their best defensive player; he's a dangerous pass rusher and consistently registers tackles for loss against the run. Former Chargers safety Rayshawn Jenkins has made the Jaguars' two biggest defensive plays of the season – returning an interception 52 yards for the game-winning touchdown in overtime against Dallas in Week 15 and forcing a late-game fumble that Allen returned 37 yards for the game-winning touchdown against Tennessee in Week 18. Linebacker Foye Oluokun led the NFL in tackles for the second consecutive season, having done it with Atlanta in 2021 before signing with the Jaguars last offseason as an unrestricted free agent.
Finally, what's the biggest key for the Jaguars in order to get a win? Takeaways, explosive plays, etc.?
JO: The Jaguars need to run well with Etienne offensively and have Lawrence be efficient in the red zone. But perhaps the biggest key for the Jaguars is takeaways. They have eight in their eight losses and 19 in their nine victories. This defense has made some huge takeaways at critical times this season, and the unit thrives off turnovers.
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