Alexander: Chargers have more playoff experience than you might think

COSTA MESA — The postseason is different.

Regardless of the sport, regardless of the format, the game changes. It’s faster, more intense, and hanging over it all is the realization that one mistake at the wrong time can send you home.

So where does this leave the Chargers, as they make their return to the playoffs on Saturday night in Jacksonville?

The first thing to note: Justin Herbert is playing his first career playoff game, but so is his quarterback counterpart for the Jaguars, Trevor Lawrence. The Chargers will be making their first playoff experience since the 2018 season and third in 14 years, but Jacksonville is in the postseason for the first time since the 2017 season and the fourth time in 23 years.

And there is some serious playoff experience in the Chargers’ room, even if most of it was gained with other franchises.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy has been there in six previous seasons, 12 games encompassing one year with Detroit and five more with the New England Patriots (two of which resulted in Super Bowl rings). Fellow linebacker Khalil Mack has been to the playoffs three times, once with the then-Oakland Raiders and twice with Chicago. Center Corey Linsley participated in 11 playoff games over five seasons with the Green Bay Packers. Defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day has been a participant the last two years with the Rams, and he has a ring from last year.

“I think that we have a team that is full of really, really quality experiences, and it has been really fun to watch this group take shape together to carve its own path here with the Chargers,” Coach Brandon Staley said.

“You want to be that player-driven team. There’s nothing better than when you have a player who has gone through the same exact thing that you’re about to go through. … All of these guys who have been through it, they’re going to really have to lead the way for us.”

Jacksonville has 13 players on its roster with 35 games of playoff experience. The Chargers have 17 with a combined 70 playoff games.

(And that number doesn’t include wide receiver Mike Williams, who was declared out Friday with a small transverse process fracture in his back. Staley doubled down on his defense of playing Williams and other regulars in the meaningless season finale at Denver when asked Thursday, but it could turn out to be a painful lesson for Staley as his first playoff game as a head coach unfolds.)

Younger players have been consulting older ones on what to expect this past week. But as Joseph-Day noted, you can receive all the advice in the world and still not understand until you’ve had that experience yourself.

“Everything’s more intense,” he said. “And everyone’s better. You know, it really is the best teams. So the (margin of error) is so small. Everyone’s dialed in, and it’s like the speed’s faster. It’s just … a different energy, for sure, but it’s hard to explain more. You have to experience it, for sure.

“I feel like there’s going to be some guys that just will be able to embrace it, you know? And once it happens they’ll know.”

His own first playoff experience was two Januarys ago, a Rams wild-card victory in Seattle, and that was pretty much how the experience worked.

“You’re just going,” he said. “It just hit me, it just came and I was ready for the moment. Guys like Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers, they were just keeping me mentally ready.”

Herbert made an interesting observation during his Thursday media session, that if he was extra amped this week it would suggest he wasn’t amped enough during the regular season. The approach seems to be to treat it as “just another great opportunity to go play football,” as he put it.

Only with, well, a whole season’s work at stake.

Receiver Keenan Allen is a veteran of nine seasons and previous postseason runs in the 2013 and 2018 seasons. His advice, as Herbert recalled it: “Just the same thing that he always says: ‘Go out there, have fun, relax and play the game.’”

A happy medium would seem to work best, between maintaining your normal routine and mindset and realizing the magnitude of these games.

“I think the message has been, we just have to play our brand of football,” linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “It’s about relationships and competition. That’s our way. That’s what Coach Staley says all the time and we can’t let the moment be too big. If we let the moment be too big and get worried about things that don’t matter, we’re going to start lagging in our execution and we’re going to beat ourselves. We got to play our brand of football and force them to beat us. Play mistake-free.”

The other message?

“On the field (Staley) said, ‘Don’t miss this opportunity. Don’t miss these moments,’” Tranquill related. “And I think what he means by that is, take this in. There’s 14 teams left. The other teams are sitting on their couch, so to still be playing in Week 19 is everything. So we’re going to relish it.”

And if it all goes right, the possibility is for memories that last for years. Joseph-Day lived through that a year ago with the Rams, and he remembered what then-teammate Von Miller called the end game.

“Tryin’ to go to football heaven, you know? All glory,” he said.

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