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Game Day: A fresh start for the Chargers

Editor’s note: This is the Saturday, January 14, edition of the “Game Day with Kevin Modesti” newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Good morning. The Chargers go into tonight’s AFC wild-card playoff game against the Jaguars with some disadvantages that everyone can see and at least one advantage you might not have noticed.

First, other sports news:

Sean McVay ended four days of suspense by telling the Rams that he’ll remain their coach, and now attention turns to which key assistants might leave.
The Clippers couldn’t handle the Nuggets even without Nikola Jokic in uniform.
The Ducks lost to the Devils to complete a homestand that was long in more ways than one.
UCLA’s eighth-ranked women’s basketball team fell to second-ranked Stanford.
The deadline for exchanging arbitration salary figures brought a flurry of one-year contract agreements for the Dodgers (including Julio Urias) and the Angels.

Now, about the Chargers’ first playoff game since the 2018 season, fifth-seeded L.A. going on the road to face the fourth-seeded Jaguars.

Chargers coach Brandon Staley should feel some heat even as the franchise takes this step forward in his second year. Staley’s decision to play key starters last Sunday against the Broncos, a game that would have no impact on the Chargers’ playoff position, resulted in an injury to wide receiver Mike Williams. The team’s most productive pass-catcher was declared out of this game after a scan yesterday morning showed a small fracture in his back.

This will mark the first NFL playoff game for Staley as a head coach, for quarterback Justin Herbert and for many other Chargers stars.

Our Elliott Teaford heard Herbert talk about his playoff debut and detected the same poise and confidence as ever.

Herbert, writes Teaford in today’s SCNG papers, was “typically unfazed when asked about his playoff debut, downplaying any notion that it would be a bigger game than any of the 49 regular-season contests he has already played.”

Herbert said that “if there was extra fire in my belly this week, it would imply that I didn’t have enough during the regular season. I think we’re treating it like another game because we gave our best effort week in and week out. This is just another great opportunity to go play football, and this team is special. We’re looking forward to the challenge, the opportunity of going out there and playing football.”

While Staley is going against a seasoned playoff coach in the Jaguars’ Doug Pederson, who led the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory in the 2017 season, it’s different for Herbert.

Columnist Jim Alexander points out that the Jaguars face some of the same questions about experience.

“Justin Herbert is playing his first career playoff game, but so is his quarterback counterpart for the Jaguars, Trevor Lawrence,” Alexander writes this morning. “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 the Chargers do have playoff veterans to help the younger guys: “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), ” Alexander notes. “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.”

Here’s a difference between the Chargers and Jaguars that I found fascinating after I looked up the particulars. It’s the way the teams got to the playoffs this season.

The Chargers went into the season considered serious threats to win the Super Bowl, their 14-1 odds of winning the championship putting them the No. 3 contender in the AFC and No. 6 in the NFL. Then they struggled with inconsistency and injuries and finished 10-7, second in the AFC West, to earn a seeding well below those expectations.

The Jaguars began the season as one of the longest shots to win the Super Bowl, with odds of 150-1. Then they played predictably for the first eight weeks – one of their two early victories came against the injury-wracked Chargers – before going on a second-half run to finish 9-8, winning the AFC South, one of the surprises of 2022.

I would have thought the advantage, going into the playoffs, would belong to a team like the Jaguars that overachieved in the regular season, relative to the forecasts in September, and not a team like the Chargers that underachieved.

That turns out not to be the way it works in the NFL.

Three of the past four Super Bowl winners were teams that went into the playoffs with seedings lower than their rankings in the preseason odds: the 2018 Patriots (No. 2 seeds, No. 1 in the preseason AFC odds), the 2020 Buccaneers (No. 5, No. 3) and the 2021 Rams (No. 4, No. 2); the fourth, the 2019 Chiefs, equaled expectations (No. 2, No. 2).

That’s a small sample, but this goes beyond Super Bowl winners. By my back-of-an-envelope count, in thepast four years, teams that overachieved in the regular season – comparing playoff seedings to original expectations – went 20-34 in the postseason (21-33 against the point spread); teams that underachieved during the season went 20-11 in the postseason (20-11 against the spread).

I’d welcome a good explanation for all of that. But the message to fans and bettors might be: Don’t overreact to the hot and cold, ups and downs, bumps and bruises of the season; the earliest assessments of teams’ overall quality might tell us more about their chances in the playoffs.

The Chargers should hope so tonight as they try to shrug off a sometimes frustrating regular season and begin to fulfill the promise of last summer.

TODAY

Chargers are 2½-point favorites this morning over the Jaguars in a wild-card playoff game in Jacksonville (5:15 p.m., Ch. 4).
Kings have won 10 of 13 going into a home game against the Devils (7:30 p.m., BSW). Kings update.
UC Irvine’s men’s basketball team, which is 4-0 in the Big West, visits CSUN,which is 0-5 (1 p.m., SPSN).
UCLA, No. 7 in the nation, goes for its 13th win in a row when it hosts dangerous Colorado in men’s basketball (5 p.m., Ch. 11). Preview.
USC meets surprising Utah, which hopes to have Branden Carlson back, in men’s basketball (7:30 p.m., Pac12N). Preview.
Santa Anita has canceled racing today and Monday because of the forecasts for rain, but it plans to race Sunday. Los Alamitos canceled racing tonight and tomorrow.

NEXT QUESTION

Do you agree with columnist Mirjam Swanson when she applauds USC coach Lincoln Riley for sticking with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch? Share your opinion by email (KModesti@scng.com) or on Twitter (@KevinModesti).

280 CHARACTERS

Clippers weren’t blown out. Didn’t win, either. Lost to Denver 115-103.” – Janis Carr ((at)JanisCarr), acknowledging improvement last night over the Clippers’ 31-point loss in Denver last week.

1,000 WORDS

Rising above: Serenity Henderson of Bonita HIgh (La Verne) shoots over Glendora High defenders in the first half of Glendora’s 64-49 victory last night, which kept the Tartans unbeaten in the Palomares League. Photo is by Keith Birmingham of the Pasadena Star-News and SCNG.

LET’S TALK

Thanks for reading the newsletter. Send suggestions, comments and questions by email at KModesti@scng.com and via Twitter @KevinModesti.

Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the “Game Day with Kevin Modesti” newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

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