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It Was Always the Jags—Whether the Chargers Liked It or Not

Saturday night’s wild-card matchup featured two pieces of NFL folklore: the Jaguars’ newfound inevitability, and the Chargers’ unavoidable curse. The two combined to form a comeback for the ages—and present plenty of offseason questions for Los Angeles.

It was always the Jags.

Jacksonville Jaguars safety Andrew Wingard was the first one to say it, while he was leaving the field after an early-December victory over the Tennessee Titans.

And that phrase soon became a rallying cry for the team and its fan base. Trevor Lawrence echoed it in a press conference the next week, recalling his fourth-quarter fumble that had nearly lost his team a game against the Dallas Cowboys—before the defense rallied back and Jacksonville eventually won in overtime.

In that same presser, Lawrence mentioned “the Vikings game the other night” as an example of never knowing what’s around the corner in an NFL game—that Minnesota Vikings game, of course, being the team’s record-setting 33-point comeback over the Indianapolis Colts. That comeback was the largest in NFL history. And Saturday night, Lawrence authored a slightly less lofty 27-point comeback against the Los Angeles Chargers—just the third-largest comeback in playoff history in his first career playoff game.

There was never a doubt, of course. It was always the Jags.

It was always the Jags for a few reasons. Lawrence is the first. Granted, he was a big part of the reason they needed the enormous comeback in the first place: Lawrence threw not one, not two, not three, but four interceptions in the first half, two from deep in his own territory, which turned into 14 points for the Chargers.

As with all four-interception games, there’s a bit of context. His first pick was tipped—twice. His second came on a fourth-and-7 in fringe field goal range, on a play that reasonably could have been called for defensive pass interference or defensive holding. But the long and short of four picks is that there are four of them, and that is bad. Lawrence got fooled by disguised coverages and tried to force the football into tight windows. The Chargers’ defensive backfield knew the concepts, and the Jaguars’ receiving corps wasn’t talented enough to separate against man coverage.

Lawrence was in his first career playoff start, going against one of the league’s preeminent defensive coaches and leading a 9-8 roster that—while, yes, it was always the Jags—barely eked into the playoffs with a comeback win over the Josh Dobbs–led Titans. He was making bad mistakes, but understandably bad mistakes. The Jaguars were going to lose, and the players would tell reporters that they were a young team and that they were hungry to get back. This offseason, those same reporters would write about Calvin Ridley joining the team or Jacksonville acquiring a new cornerback in free agency or spending a draft pick on the offensive line and link it back to those quotes about how the Jaguars were going to be back next year. And all of that was going to be fine.

But Trevor Lawrence doesn’t lose on Saturdays.

That’s another zippy one-liner that holds some water: Lawrence has never lost on a Saturday. High school, college, professionally, he hasn’t lost on a Saturday. With the win tonight, he’s 37-0.

To say that “he’s just a winner” is reductive and dull. To say that “he’s been there before” is not just reductive and dull, it’s also not accurate: One of the reasons Lawrence has never lost on a Saturday is because Lawrence spent most of his college career not trailing in any football games. But Lawrence is just a winner, and in some respects, he has been there before. He has played in national championships, winning one as a true freshman. He was one of the greatest recruits in the history of five-star rankings, one of the highest-graded athletes ever in the NFL draft process, not just because of his size and his arm talent and his mobility and his processing, but because of his poise. His comfort. His unflappability. Second-year players in their first career playoff start don’t do what Lawrence did after throwing those four picks.

Lawrence righted the ship, throwing for over 200 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. There wasn’t any one particular throw that totally astounded: His deep touchdown to Zay Jones, while a critical quick score, was wide open; so was an earlier touchdown to Marvin Jones, although it took patience and guts to hang in the pocket and get to the backside of the concept.

But that’s the point, really—it’s not that it was any single heroic bomb, some Mahomesian wizardry, an inflection point that turned the tides. It was the self-control to not try to get it all back in one play; the maturity to play the game exactly as he had been playing it before (when he threw four picks), only to execute it the way he had all season. It was “chipping away,” the same philosophy Doug Pederson told the NBC crew he would deliver to his team at halftime.

And let’s talk about Pederson. There’s a reason Zay Jones was wide open on that touchdown and Marvin Jones wide open on his. There’s a reason why this young team entered a locker room down 20 points at halftime and emerged unflustered. Pederson is the adult in the room, the actual championship coach that the Jaguars once believed they had found when they hired Urban Meyer last offseason. The same message Pederson gave in his halftime interview—just keep “chipping away”—is the same message he gave after the comeback overtime win against the Cowboys.

“Our guys—I don’t really think they worry too much about where it is, what the score is,” Pederson said. “I really don’t. We just keep chipping away. I think it’s just a matter of the guys just kind of trusting in themselves and gaining confidence as the game goes on.”

Pederson can flat-out coach. He’s aggressive, choosing to attempt a two-point conversion after a Chargers penalty set the football at the 1-yard line with his team down four—and that choice would eventually ensure the Jaguars’ game-winning field goal kick was not a game-tying field goal kick. He’s a developer, as evidenced by Lawence’s steady improvement this season. And he is a schemer, a wicked play designer who called a precious timeout to get into the exact look he knew would win the game for the Jaguars on fourth-and-inches.

Pederson’s flat-out good coaching stands in contrast to the other sideline—the guys who gave up the 27-point playoff lead. And for all the praise that we may wish to heap on the Jaguars, on Pederson and Lawrence … once you remember that their comeback came against the ever self-sabotaging Los Angeles Chargers, it does seem a bit more inevitable.

In The Ringer’s wild-card entrance survey, a majority of our NFL writers identified Brandon Staley as the coach with the most to prove this postseason. The reasons were simple: The Chargers have an elite quarterback in Justin Herbert and a defense they spent tons of money and draft picks on, and in the first two years of Staley’s tenure, they’d yet to experience the success that an elite quarterback should bring. Last season’s Week 18 embarrassment—a loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in prime time with a playoff berth on the line—seemed almost unmatchable. This is worse. Way worse.

The Chargers are the first team in playoff history to lose a game with a turnover margin of at least five. (Remember, as we already established, they are also the third team in playoff history to lose with a 27-point-plus lead.) Playoff teams with a turnover margin of at least four were previously 85-1 (with the lone loss coming in 1977). Playoff teams with a turnover margin of at least three were 167-11.

It is very hard to accomplish what the Chargers did Saturday night—but it is even more difficult to accomplish what they have done this entire season: mistake after mistake after mistake. The Chargers offense was without Mike Williams tonight, because he sustained a back injury in the second quarter of the Chargers’ Week 18 game against the Broncos. There was no playoff positioning for the Chargers to gain in that game; Williams, who has a history of back injuries and had already missed time during the season with ankle issues, had nothing to gain from playing in the game. Staley played Williams anyway—along with other key starters, who luckily escaped unscathed—because of roster limitations.

This is an unacceptable answer. Playing a young receiver in place of Williams would not have been hard, and I know that because that’s what the Chargers were forced to do tonight with DeAndre Carter, who ended up getting hurt mid-game and was replaced by Michael Bandy. Staley’s misstep as a coach kept the Chargers without a $20 million receiver in an offense that desperately needed him.

And let’s talk about that offense. Staley’s handpicked offensive coordinator is his ex–college coach, Joe Lombardi. Lombardi’s offense is not an acceptable NFL offense. It has placed the rocket-armed Herbert at the bottom of the league’s rankings in depth of target on early downs, consistently forcing the Chargers into third downs—downs on which they run the same concepts, over and over, no matter how aware the opposing defense is.

The Chargers defense failed down the stretch against the Jaguars—something for which their defensive-minded head coach must answer. But take a step back and it isn’t hard to see the offense as the greater problem this season, including Saturday night. In the second half, Los Angeles failed to sustain time-sucking drives or score touchdowns to extend their lead. They scored 17 points on three drives that started inside the red zone; they scored 10 on their nine other drives.

It is difficult to imagine Staley surviving as the head coach of the Chargers after this, the second massive embarrassment of a season-ending loss in the same number of years. The only way he can maybe buy himself another year is if he fires Lombardi as a scapegoat. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Staley is not winning enough with such a talented team. His philosophy on in-game decisions continues to flip-flop—the Chargers had a fourth-and-3 from the 27-yard line on which Staley elected to kick, which was a pretty big surprise—and his defense still fails him in big moments. A change feels inevitable.

It may initially seem unfair to knock Staley for falling victim to the Chargers’ inescapable curse. This team may just be destined to always face-plant late in games on the biggest stages, no matter who the quarterback or coach is. But that wasn’t the only inevitability at play tonight. For as many mistakes as Staley has made during his time as the Chargers coach, he should have remembered:

It was always the Jags.