Chargers enter playoffs against Jaguars with cloud hanging over franchise
The state of the Chargers is such that the team enters its first playoff game in four years with few people talking about its first playoff game in four years.
Instead, the future of everyone in the organization from general manager Tom Telesco on down came into question Friday after the Chargers ruled out wide receiver Mike Williams.
So, now, rather than talking about Justin Herbert versus Trevor Lawrence and Chargers versus Jaguars on Saturday night in Jacksonville, the conversation centers on this team reaching new heights of Chargering.
Williams was ruled out because of a fracture in his back suffered in the team’s regular-season finale Sunday in Denver. He was hurt in the final three minutes of the first half in a game that had no impact on playoff seeding.
The way the Chargers handled playing time against the Broncos — most starters played at least through the end of the third quarter — left coach Brandon Staley answering questions about the organization’s methods.
The Chargers on Friday downgraded receiver Mike Williams from questionable to out for the team’s AFC wild-card playoff game Saturday in Jacksonville.
Staley repeatedly defended the decision to play his starters, even as the injury to Williams hung over the franchise like an ominous cloud. The Chargers declared Williams questionable Thursday despite the fact he didn’t practice all week. Staley said Williams would work out before the game to determine if he could go.
On Friday morning, his status suddenly changed, the Chargers saying additional tests revealed a transverse process fracture. They said Williams would not travel with the team to Jacksonville in an announcement that invited further speculation about the functionality of the organization.
The loss of Williams means the Chargers will play without their only deep threat and most dazzling playmaker. Williams led the team with 895 receiving yards and an average of 14.2 yards per catch during the regular season.
He missed four full games and all but six offensive snaps of another because of injury. The Chargers went 2-3 in those games.
Without Williams, the offense will rely more on wide receivers Keenan Allen, Joshua Palmer and DeAndre Carter, along with running back Austin Ekeler and tight end Gerald Everett.
The Chargers’ season finale was meaningless so why did coach Brandon Staley play starters? Mike Williams, Joey Bosa and Kenneth Murray Jr. were injured.
Having been a Charger longer than all the others, Allen possesses the best perspective on the fragility of the postseason opportunity that awaits his team.
“This is my 10th year,” he said. “Third time going. That should let you know everything. This ain’t promised. You gotta go for it all when you get the chance.”
The Chargers are making the franchise’s first playoff appearance since January 2019 and third in the last 13 seasons.
At 10-7 and the AFC’s top wild-card team, the Chargers will face a Jaguars team that is 9-8, won the AFC South and dominated the most recent meeting between the two — 38-10 in Week 3 at SoFi Stadium.
“We did a lot of stuff bad in that game,” Chargers linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “I feel like we can only get better.”
Justin Herbert and the Chargers look to keep their season alive with a win over the AFC South champion Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL wild-card playoffs.
Both teams enter coming off late-season surges. The Chargers won four in a row starting in mid-December before Sunday in Denver, where they lost 31-28 on an ugly, bizarre afternoon.
Jacksonville won its last five games, six of its last seven and seven of its last nine, clinching the franchise’s first postseason berth in five years on the final weekend of the regular season.
Despite advancing, the Chargers still have something to prove. Among the NFL’s 14 playoff teams, only San Francisco had an easier regular-season schedule than the Chargers.
In the league’s strength-of-victory measure, the Chargers had the easiest path to this point, their 10 victories coming against opponents that won only a combined 57 times.
Matched opposite teams that went on to make the postseason, the Chargers were 1-5. Jacksonville was 3-3.
With so much at stake, Ekeler said the key is turning an opportunity that is very large into one that feels very routine, the NFL being the most week-to-week existence in sports.
“You gotta make sure it stays the same,” Ekeler said. “You don’t want to be in a scenario where you’re on the field and you’re so caught up in, ‘Oh, my God, we’re in the playoffs.’ We just need to stay consistent.”
The Chargers are walking into an environment that promises to be raucous and unwelcoming, Jacksonville hosting just its second playoff game in the last 23 seasons.
And the 2022 Jaguars have given their fans plenty to get loud about lately.
In their last four home games (all wins), the Jaguars never led against Tennessee until the final three minutes; trailed Dallas by 17 points in the third quarter; trailed Baltimore by nine in the fourth quarter before winning on a two-point conversion with 14 seconds left, and trailed Las Vegas 17-0 early and still trailed to open the fourth quarter.
That’s a lot of mojo-gathering positivity for a franchise that, in its previous four seasons, went 15-50.
Sam Farmer breaks down the matchups and predicts winners for the first six NFL playoff games during wild-card weekend.
“I invite the challenge,” Ekeler said. “I think it’s going to be awesome, an electric environment … That’s what you want. That’s what stories are made of — the guts and the juice and all that stuff, the feeling that makes something special.”
Asked about the impending wall of noise inside TIAA Bank Field, Allen joked, “Every game’s on the road for us, buddy.”
Jacksonville beat Dallas and Dak Prescott in Week 15. Since then, however, here are the quarterbacks the Jaguars have faced: Joshua Dobbs, Davis Mills, Jeff Driskel, Zach Wilson and Chris Streveler.
So, as with the Chargers, they also benefited from a less-than-daunting stretch of regular season.
Saturday night, the challenge changes for Jacksonville with the arrival of Herbert, the Chargers’ record-shattering, game-tilting quarterback. Similar to the Jaguars’ Lawrence, Herbert will be making his postseason debut.
Chargers don’t have much playoff experience, but Super Bowl veteran Kyle Van Noy says that factor is overrated -- just look at last season’s Bengals.
“I think he’ll handle it well,” Chargers’ safety Derwin James Jr. said. “Justin handles everything well.”
Having rallied from 6-6 to the playoffs, the Chargers find themselves right where so many observers predicted they’d be five months ago.
But foreseeing their path here would have been impossible, the team navigating many significant injuries and a long string of inconsistencies along the way.
Now, another significant injury is dominating the news, diverting attention from a postseason game and casting uncertainty upon the direction of the entire franchise.
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