This year's playoff field hits differently. Every year I get pumped up, but the infusion of young talent at the quarterback position amplifies my excitement to a whole new level. It was hard to picture the NFL playoffs without Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady for a long time. Well, we have yet to get rid of Brady, but at 8-9, he is certainly not at the forefront of the playoff picture. The first wave hit with Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen a few years back. Last season, Joe Burrow entered the chat. Now, Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence have arrived.
The historical trends aren't kind to quarterbacks making their playoff debuts. I still remember successfully fading Josh Allen's first postseason start in 2020 against the Texans, which resulted in an ugly 22-19 loss for Buffalo. Nevertheless, it shows you that all dynamic quarterbacks start somewhere, which makes it even more intriguing that Herbert and Lawrence's first chapter will be against each other. Maybe the rivalry is the next Dan Marino-Jim Kelly, Brady-Peyton Manning or even Allen-Mahomes. The future will be fun, but for now, Saturday night is the only result that matters. So let's handicap this one and figure out which quarterback will get us to the window.
Los Angeles Chargers (-2) at Jacksonville Jaguars
What a difference a year makes. This time last season, Chargers head coach Brandon Staley was considered one of the brightest young head coaches in football, and Doug Pederson couldn't even sniff an interview. Now, Pederson is pushing for Coach of the Year, while Staley needed a late run to avoid the hot seat. Of course, the NFL will always be about, "What have you done for me lately?" but the betting market is an entirely different animal that helps ground us from the emotional swings of the league. The oddsmakers do an excellent job of snapping us back to reality when recency bias creeps in. Whether we ignore the signals or not is an entirely different conversation.
It's easy to get caught up in Jacksonville's storybook ending to the regular season. It's everything we love about sports. The coach nobody wanted gets hired by the franchise nobody wanted to coach and turns a 3-7 start into a five-game winning streak to win the AFC South. Bettors flaunt their futures tickets all over Twitter, and everybody is happy. It was an impressive run, but Saturday night is likely the final lap. We all love Pederson, but with only six games with air-tight point spreads, I had to bet the Chargers with the line under the key number of three.
As much as I want this game to be about the quarterbacks, I strongly feel it will come down to which defense does a better job. That's where the Chargers have their most significant advantage. Brandon Staley's defense is healthy again with Joey Bosa back in the lineup and has looked impressive in the second half of the season. In non-garbage-time situations, L.A. ranks sixth in EPA per dropback allowed and moves as high as second over the last five weeks. The Chargers are doing a better job of pressuring the quarterback, especially since Bosa's return. The Chargers have the second-most sacks over the past three weeks. Everything moves faster in the playoffs for a young quarterback, and while Staley's scheme concedes yards on the ground, I am confident the Chargers' coverages will frustrate Lawrence in the biggest game of his career.
Herbert will have a much easier time against Jacksonville's secondary. The Jags' defense ranks 30th in pass DVOA, 28th in passing yards allowed and 22nd in yards per passing attempt. Whether or not Mike Williams is 100%, the Chargers have the offensive firepower to go up and down the field. I can't imagine Austin Eckler isn't a huge part of the game plan, considering Jacksonville allows the most receiving yards per game to running backs and is the third-worst tackling unit in the NFL. The Bolts' offensive success will force Jacksonville to abandon the ground game, playing right into the hands of Staley's defense. This game isn't about which coach did a better job this season or which young quarterback has a brighter future. It will be decided by which one has the better team around him. My money is on Justin Herbert.
Stats provided by Football Outsiders, rbsdm, PFF, teamrankings.com.