Barnwell: What went wrong for all five NFL wild-card losers, and how each can improve this offseason
- Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
There are plenty of NFL organizations that would have happily signed up for a playoff berth before the season began, but no team wants to be one-and-done once it gets to the postseason. Wild-card weekend delivered four close games in a row after a comfortable win by the 49ers, but there’s no such thing as a satisfying loss in the playoffs. Five seasons came to a halt this weekend — there’s one more game Monday night — and those five organizations are going to want to do whatever it takes to avoid falling at the same hurdle again in 2023.
I’m here to help. I’ve taken a closer look at each of those five losses to get a handle on what those teams should do to advance farther next season. In the process, I’ll break down what went wrong for them over the weekend and how their personnel or process needs to change in the months to come.
Let’s start with the most dramatic game of the weekend, where the Jaguars inflicted psychic punishment on the league’s most snakebitten franchise:
Los Angeles Chargers
Wild-card result: 31-30 loss to the Jaguars
What they need now: An offensive reboot
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the Chargers after their disastrous collapse in Jacksonville on Saturday night. Up 27-0 in the second quarter after Trevor Lawrence threw four interceptions across the Jags’ first six drives, the Chargers simply fell apart. The Jags outscored L.A. 31-3 the rest of the way, becoming the first team in playoff history to win a game in which they lost the turnover battle 5-0.
Unsurprisingly, many of the bogeymen from the 2021 season reappeared as excuses for why the Chargers fell apart. A much-maligned run defense couldn’t come up with a stop in a key moment for the second season-saving moment in two years, as Travis Etienne burst off-tackle out of the T-formation on a fourth-and-1 carry to set up the winning field goal. Los Angeles’ special teams, a strength for the first time in years, came up short when Cameron Dicker missed a 43-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. I even saw the loss blamed on analytics, a bizarre choice when coach Brandon Staley’s only fourth-down decision of the game was to attempt that field goal as opposed to trying to convert with 3 yards to go. (Staley has been far more conservative this season than he was during his debut campaign.)
As I look back at this game, I keep returning to the same problem: The Chargers’ offense simply wasn’t good enough. It’s bizarre to say that about a game in which Justin Herbert & Co. scored 30 points and didn’t turn the ball over, but the Chargers left too much on the table and were lucky to avoid giving away the game before the final minutes. This should be the blueprint for how and why they need to evolve on offense next season.
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