JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP)Trevor Lawrence feels as if he’s been in the playoffs the past two months.
Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars were 3-7 and four games behind division-leading Tennessee in late November. It was clear they needed to find ways to start winning close games.
Lawrence easily could have panicked or even packed it in. Instead, he and the Jaguars picked it up and won six of seven down the stretch, clinching the AFC South and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
Now, Lawrence will make his official postseason debut when the Jaguars (9-8) host fellow playoff newcomer Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers (10-7) in a wild-card game Saturday night.
It could be the first of many postseason trips for two of the NFL’s youngest rising stars.
”When you’re in this position and you’re playing guys like that, that means you’re playing the best teams, and that’s where you want to be at this time of the year,” Lawrence said. ”It’s not necessarily I’m looking forward to playing against those guys. I’m excited for the opportunity that our team has to go play these teams that are really good teams that have great quarterbacks, too.”
At 23, Lawrence is the youngest quarterback in this year’s playoff field and will become the fourth-youngest No. 1 overall pick to start a playoff game in his first two seasons.
He has been everything the Jaguars expected – and more, really – since they chose him with the top pick in 2021. He completed 66.3% of his passes for 4,113 yards, with 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He more than doubled his TD passes from his rookie year and cut down his INTs by more than half.
”You want him to have these moments,” coach Doug Pederson said. ”That’s the winning culture we’re trying to build here and establish. We want to be here in the conversation at the end of the season, have the team playing in these meaningful games, and that’s credit to the quarterback.
”He’s the leader of your team and franchise, and these are all games that will continue to prepare and teach Trevor how important they are.”
This matchup could be the first of many featuring Lawrence and the 24-year-old Herbert, two guys recognized as much for their flowing locks as their flawless passes. For now, it’s merely ”Hair Bowl II,” a rematch from Week 3, which Jacksonville won 38-10 in Los Angeles.
Herbert (ribs) was banged up for that one. But he’s been solid otherwise and led the Chargers to the postseason for the first time since 2018.
He has completed 68.2% of passes for 4,739 yards, with 25 TDs and 10 INTs. He joined Hall of Famer Peyton Manning as the only players in NFL history with at least 25 TD passes in each of their first three seasons.
”He is a big-time player,” Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. ”Usually, those guys shine brightest in the big lights. I think he will be fine. Again, our message is that it is a big game, you’re not going to hide that, but don’t make it bigger than it is.
”You don’t have to do anything different than what you have done up to this point. Just go out and play football.”
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler’s previous game in Jacksonville was one for the record books. He had 101 yards rushing and 112 yards receiving in the team’s 45-10 victory in 2019. He did it on 12 touches, the fewest in league history to get over the century mark in both categories.
Jaguars safety Rayshawn Jenkins has a knack for delivering big plays late. His strip-sack of Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs led to Josh Allen’s 37-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Jenkins also made a shoestring interception that he returned 52 yards for a score to beat Dallas in overtime last month.
Now, Jenkins faces the team that drafted him in the fourth round in 2017 and then let him leave.
”It’s no hard feelings,” Jenkins said. ”I could have been anywhere, and if they let me walk, then they let me walk. But I have pride about this game that I love so much. I love to prove people wrong and show what I can do.”
ON THE RUN
If there are two things that could make the Chargers’ playoff run brief, it is giving up explosive plays and having a porous run defense.
Los Angeles has given up 72 plays this season of at least 20 yards, third most in the league.
The Jaguars ran for 151 yards in the early season meeting between the teams and held the ball for more than 38 minutes.
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