Chargers QB Justin Herbert primed for his playoff debut

Chargers QB Justin Herbert primed for his playoff debut

Joe Namath’s Super Bowl guarantee. Terry Bradshaw’s desperation throw and Franco Harris’ immaculate reception. Joe Montana’s pass and Dwight Clark’s leaping catch in the back of the end zone. John Elway’s 99-yard drive. Tom Brady’s comeback(s). Nick Foles’ Philly Special.

If a quarterback’s reputation is forged in the playoffs – and the NFL’s history tells us that it most definitely is – then it’s now Justin Herbert’s turn to establish his when he makes his postseason debut with the Chargers against the Jaguars in an AFC wild-card game Saturday night in Jacksonville.

Herbert, 24, has thrown for 14,089 yards in three seasons, the third most in the NFL behind Patrick Mahomes (14,829) and Brady (14,643) since 2000. He has thrown 94 touchdown passes, sixth most behind Mahomes (116), Aaron Rodgers (111), Josh Allen and Brady (108) and Kirk Cousins (97) since 2020.

Cool, cool, cool.

Herbert has a 0-0 playoff record.

Zero passing attempts. Zero yards. Zero touchdowns.

He was, however, 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 since the Chargers selected him sixth overall in the 2020 draft after a stellar career at the University of Oregon.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “but 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.”

So, there you have it.

No big deal.

But will that really be the case?

After all, wide receiver Mike Williams was ruled out of Saturday’s game because of a back injury suffered in the second quarter of the Chargers’ loss Sunday to the Denver Broncos. Initial tests Sunday and Monday were negative, but a scan Friday morning revealed a small transverse process fracture.

Williams didn’t practice with his teammates this week and was initially listed as questionable for Saturday’s game. The Chargers then downgraded him to out Friday before leaving for Jacksonville. He was the Chargers’ fourth-leading receiver with 63 catches during the regular season.

The Chargers expect nothing but Herbert’s best, as usual.

“At the end of the day, it’s another game,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “It’s still football. Sport doesn’t change. Gotta go out there and do what you’ve been doing. He’s a great competitor. He’s a great player. He’s our leader, so I think he’ll be fine. He’s a composed guy, too. It shouldn’t be too big for him.”

Said safety Derwin James Jr.: “I think he’ll handle it well. Justin handles everything well. It’s just another day, another opportunity for him to show the world what he can do. I feel like he’s ready.”

Added offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi: “I think he will be fine. He will be good. He’s excited. He is a big-time player. 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.”

Herbert’s third season in the NFL has been different from the others.

He wasn’t The Associated Press’ rookie of the year, as he was in 2020.

He wasn’t picked for the Pro Bowl, as he was in ‘21.

He was more of a fighter in ‘22.

It was evident that this season would be different from Herbert’s first two seasons when he suffered fractured rib cartilage in the fourth quarter of the Chargers’ loss Sept. 15 to the Kansas City Chiefs. Herbert went to the sideline for one snap, then returned to the game to direct a touchdown drive.

He hasn’t missed a snap because of the injury since he was hurt in Week 2, regaining his mobility and accuracy within a matter of weeks. His standard reply when asked how he was doing was to say, “Fine, how are you?” It was only slightly misleading since he was eventually better than fine.

Herbert led the Chargers (10-7) to victories in four of their final five games, guiding them to the fifth-seeded position in the AFC and a date with the fourth-seeded Jaguars (9-8). It’s the first playoff appearance for the Chargers since the 2018 season, and only their second since 2010.

Coach Brandon Staley said he had no doubt that Herbert was ready for the challenge, primed to begin establishing his reputation as one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. It was Staley’s belief that a lifetime had prepared Herbert for this moment, and plenty more to come.

“He has always played his best when the stage is the biggest,” Staley said. “That is how his career has been in the NFL. In primetime, the big games he has had for the first three years, he has always risen to the occasion because that is the type of competitor that he is.

“Now, just getting to that stage where he is joining up with his teammates, and there is a team around him that is really excited to compete and be a team out there. He (had) a good week of practice, like he always does. I know that he will be ready to play. …  I’m sure glad that we have Justin Herbert.”