This Wild Card Weekend can also be called Rematch Weekend. All six games are rematches from the regular season. Three of them are going to be teams facing each other for the third time and three will be teams playing for the second time.
The most intriguing game to me is Saturday night’s Chargers vs. Jaguars. Even though they played each other in the regular season, that game was in Week 3. Looking at it from a coaching perspective, very rarely will teams in the playoffs go much further back than November in studying their opponent. Teams evolve from what they were in September and October. You’re just not the same team. You can change personnel-wise, and you can change philosophically.
As a coach, I used to go back and look at those early season games against a team we would face in the postseason and say, “Wow! We looked so much faster in September than we did in December.” It’s funny to watch. Everybody just slows down as the season goes on because of the wear and tear.
That first meeting between the Chargers and Jaguars was played in L.A., and the Jaguars won in a convincing manner. There were a lot of circumstances that are not the same as they are now. Justin Herbert was playing hurt from the week before and the defense had just not come together. But we saw Trevor Lawrence have a big game. We saw the Jacksonville defense do what they’ve been doing recently; they took the ball away. Some of the same elements are there, but these are still two different teams. Both are coming in very hot, with the Jaguars winning their last five and the Chargers winning four of their last five.
Jacksonville’s defense has clearly been a difference in these last five games. They’ve got 11 takeaways, two defensive touchdowns, and they have literally won two of those games with their defense. Trevor Lawrence has eight touchdown passes and only two interceptions. But a very big key for Jacksonville is they also have to get Travis Etienne involved early and they’ve got to be patient with him in the running game. He’s a player, to me, where it’s more about the attempts than the yards. Travis Etienne could go zero, zero, one, 49. He’s a big-play runner that you’ve just gotta keep giving the attempts and he will give you the big play eventually.
The Chargers have gotten healthier, and they’ve gotten better. These last five games are the first time we’ve seen Mike Williams and Keenan Allen be on the field at the same time, with Austin Ekeler, who leads the league in rushing and receiving touchdowns, and Herbert. And that offense is very, very dynamic. Williams does give them the ability to get the big play down the field, which has not been something the Chargers have been doing that much. They’re not a big-play team besides the plays Herbert makes outside the pocket utilizing the whole field with his arm, which is very strong. But if Williams plays, he becomes a big element in their offense.
Editor’s note: Williams was ruled out for Saturday’s game and could miss 2-3 weeks with a fracture in his back.
They’ve got to get Ekeler involved in the running game more. If you go back to that Week 3 game, neither he nor the Chargers were able to do anything in the running game. Because we saw the big-play ability of that Jacksonville defense, it’s very important the Chargers be able to establish the run game. The Chargers also have to protect the football. Herbert needs to make good decisions, because this Jacksonville defense will make you pay if you become impatient, or you become a little bit careless with your decision-making.
The biggest thing for the Chargers defense is that it has to be careful not to give up the big play. The Chargers have given up 72 plays of 20 yards or more, which is third-most in the National Football League. And if you look at the Jacksonville offense, one player I’d keep an eye on is Christian Kirk. He’s a down-the-field, explosive pass-catcher Lawrence loves to go to, particularly in the play-action game.
Another intangible is that both coaches, Doug Pederson of the Jaguars and Brandon Staley of the Chargers, are not afraid to go for it on fourth down. I don’t think it’s going to be an automatic punt with either of these coaches. They’re in the top 10 in the league in going for it on fourth down. It’s going to be a fun game to watch because neither of these coaches is going to blink. I think it’s going to be a great game that will come down to turnovers and situational football, which is third downs, getting off the field, and holding the other team to field goals.
For Jacksonville, this is like a second playoff game. Their first playoff game was last week against Tennessee, with a win-or-go-home game for the division championship. For the Chargers, if they can get by this game, they’re getting healthier.
Whoever wins, I can see them winning more than just this game.
Here are three keys to victory for each team:
1. Protect the football. That Jacksonville defense does such a great job of taking the ball away.
2. Establish the run game with Ekeler, because it keeps the defense off its heels. Ekeler is the key to the Chargers’ offense, not just the running game but in the passing game as well. He’s the glue, the cog that keeps that offense together in the short-passing game, the screen game, the running game. He is everything.
3. The defense getting healthy at the right time. They’re getting Joey Bosa back. Derwin James is back; the matchup of James on Evan Engram is going to be a big one, which I can’t wait to see. Asante Samuel Jr. vs. Christian Kirk is going to be a big one, too. The defense of the Chargers has its hands full, but they’ve been playing very well these last five weeks.
1. Be patient with the running game. That’s very important because it keeps the pass rush, with Bosa and Khalil Mack, in check and helps keep Lawrence clean. And Etienne is one of those guys who can break one off at any point.
2. Keep Herbert in the pocket. Herbert is a much more dangerous player out of the pocket than he is in it.
3. Hold the Chargers to field goals. The Jaguars must be really good in the red zone.
Bill Cowher coached the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1992-2006. Under Cowher, Pittsburgh won eight division titles, two AFC Championships and Super Bowl XL. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020. Follow him on Twitter at @CowherCBS.
As told to Vic Carucci