The winner of the AFC South usually gets relegated to an early afternoon playoff game, but that’s not the case this season. Just one year after the Urban Meyer debacle, Doug Pederson and Trevor Lawrence have the Jacksonville Jaguars in the postseason, where they’ll face off against the Los Angeles Chargers in a Saturday night prime time game.
Let’s run through the key storylines involved in this Wild Card matchup, including the doppelganger nature of these two squads, Brandon Staley’s potential hot seat — especially after word of Mike Williams’ injury that will keep him out for the game — and whether either team can make a deep playoff run.
The Chargers and Jaguars Are Similarly-Built Teams
One of the teams involved in Saturday night’s Wild Card game drafted a quarterback in the top 10, spent a ton of money in free agency to augment the rest of its roster, and hired an analytics-friendly head coach.
The other team… did exactly the same thing.
It’s almost eerie how indistinguishable the Chargers and Jaguars are from a roster-building perspective. Trevor Lawerence was more of a no-brainer selection in 2021 than Justin Herbert in 2020, but both franchises landed their long-term signal-callers early in their respective drafts.
Los Angeles and Jacksonville were willing to spend heavily in the free agent market in 2022, perhaps because both clubs needed an infusion of talent. The Jaguars doled out more free agent money than any team in the NFL ($325 million), while the Chargers ranked fifth at $221 million. In terms of active cash spending on their entire payroll, Jacksonville and L.A. are within $53,000 of each other.
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Both clubs are especially willing to spend on the defensive side of the ball. The Jaguars, who added linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi, and cornerback Darious Williams this offseason, rank third in defensive expenditures. The Chargers are fourth after bringing in corner J.C. Jackson and pass rusher Khalil Mack and extending edge defender Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James.
After a head coaching search that nearly ended with the now-unemployed Nathaniel Hackett in charge, the Jaguars landed on Pederson, who won a Super Bowl as the Eagles’ head coach. Arguably the progenitor of the NFL’s fourth-down revolution, Pederson brought a modern offense and a forward-thinking approach to Duval County.
The Chargers hired former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley as their head coach in 2021, and he immediately established himself as an aggressive game manager who would use data to inform his strategies. But two years in, questions about Staley have emerged, and it’s even possible he could be out of a job by next week.
Can Brandon Staley Get Back on Track Even With Mike Williams’ Injury?
In 2021, Staley quickly became the type of head coach that NFL nerds could have only dreamed of. With a reputation derived from an analytically-inclined mindset, Staley often eschewed field goals and punts in favor of trying to convert on fourth downs.
Heading into this season, Staley was singing the same tune. And yet, he wasn’t nearly as aggressive as he’d been the year before. Per Ben Baldwin’s data, Staley made the correct “go for it” decision on fourth downs just under 40% of the time in 2022. That ranked just 16th in the league and well behind Pederson’s Jaguars (roughly 53%).
Pederson probably has the upper hand if Saturday’s game comes down to decision-making. His Lombardi Trophy was, in large part, won on the basis of heavy analytics usage, and Pederson is typically fearless in his fourth-down choices.
Staley views football in a more global sense than most NFL head coaches, but his actions in Week 18 were extremely short-sighted. Although the Chargers had already locked up the AFC’s fifth seed thanks to the Baltimore Ravens losing in the early afternoon window, Staley played his starters into the third quarter.
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We all know what happened. Receiver Mike Williams, who missed four games with health issues this year, suffered a back injury, while Bosa and linebacker Kenneth Murray also left with injuries. Bosa and Murray are on track to play against Jacksonville, but Williams couldn’t walk after the game and has been ruled out for Saturday’s game.
“This isn’t a preseason game where you have 90 guys to choose from,” Staley said after the game. “You only have 48 players to choose from. You have to go out there, and you have to field a football team.”
The New York Giants, who were similarly locked into their playoff seeding in the NFC, managed to make due against the Eagles in Week 18. Their inactive list was a who’s who of the club’s best players. Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, Andrew Thomas, Dexter Lawrence, and a host of other crucial players didn’t see the field for New York.
Losing Williams is bad enough, but if Herbert had gone down in that meaningless game against the Broncos, Staley’s seat would have been blazing hot. For now, his status as the Chargers’ head coach seems secure, but that could change if L.A. is one-and-done in the playoffs.
The Jaguars Could Be 2022’s Version of the 2021 Bengals
The Jaguars have a lot of similarities with the Chargers, but they also share much of the same tissue with last year’s Super Bowl runner-up.
Heading into the 2021 season, the Cincinnati Bengals were +15000 to win the Super Bowl, the third-lowest odds in the NFL. Coming into this year, Jacksonville was in a comparable spot at +13000, the sixth-lowest in the league.
Lawrence and Joe Burrow were selected with the No. 1 overall picks in back-to-back drafts. Both the Jaguars’ and Bengals’ offensive lines are a problem. And both clubs added free agents on the defensive side of the ball to create smart, veteran units that boasted adaptability on a week-by-week basis.
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Cincinnati beat the Las Vegas Raiders in the Wild Card Round before taking down the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs en route to the Super Bowl. If Jacksonville were to make a run, they’d face an arguably more daunting slate of opponents, as they’d likely have to win against the Chargers, Chiefs, and one of the Buffalo Bills or Bengals.
It’s clearly an unlikely scenario, as FiveThirtyEight gives the Jags only a 3% chance of winning the Lombardi. But Jacksonville is getting hot at the right time. They won five games in a row to close the season. By EPA per play, the Jaguars’ offense ranked seventh and their defense first over that stretch. Lawrence’s 7.64 adjusted net yards per attempt was fourth during that span.
Jacksonville is on a roll, and a Cinderella run through the bracket isn’t out of the question. But it has to begin with a win on Saturday night.