SPORTS DIGEST Chargers can change local perceptions with playoff win

By Don Wanlass 

Contributing Writer

There’s a sports hierarchy in Los Angeles.

The Dodgers lord over the Angels in baseball, the Lakers lord over the Clippers in basketball.

Collegiately, USC football is considered superior to UCLA football, while UCLA basketball rules over USC basketball.

Since arriving here in 2017, the Chargers have played second fiddle to the Rams. To many Angelenos, they are still a San Diego team.

The Chargers finally have a chance to change that perception this year. The Rams will watch the playoffs from home. The Chargers will make their first playoff appearance since 2018 when they face the Jacksonville Jaguars Jan. 14 in Jacksonville.

The Chargers are the top wild card seed in the AFC. At 10-7, they have a better record than the 9-8 Jaguars, who had to defeat Tennessee, 20-16 Jan. 7 to win the AFC South and qualify for the playoffs.

The game will give football fans across the country a chance to see two of the top young quarterbacks in the country: the Chargers’ Justin Herbert and the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence. Barring upsets, the winner plays the Kansas City Chiefs the following week.

The Jaguars ended the season on a high note, winning their last five games.

The Chargers are coming off a 31-28 loss to the Denver Broncos that once again raised questions about head coach Brandon Staley’s game-management capabilities.

Last year, Staley cost the Chargers at least three wins and a playoff berth by gambling on fourth down situations when it made no sense. This year, with his first chance to coach a playoff team looming, he risked getting key players hurt by playing his starters long after the Chargers had clinched the fifth seed in the AFC playoffs.

When receiver Mike Williams left the game with a back injury, Chargers fans held their breath. Staley finally pulled Herbert in the fourth quarter, allowing Chase Daniels to finish out the game, but the questions will remain about Staley until he manages to win a big game. He should start this week.

The Herbert-Lawrence matchup will be crucial.

Herbert has thrown for 4,739 yards this season — second in the league behind Patrick Mahomes — with 25 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.

Lawrence has thrown for 4,113 yards — ninth in the league — with 25 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. 

The Chargers are deeper at receiver than Jacksonville with Keenan Allen, Williams (if he’s healthy) and Joshua Palmer as the wideouts and Gerald Everett at tight end.

Running back Austin Ekeler could be the difference maker for the Chargers. He led the league in most touchdowns this year with 18 — 13 rushing and five receiving. He rushed for 915 yards and caught 107 passes for another 722 yards.

Travis Etienne had a 1,000-yard season (1,125 yards) for Jacksonville, but he caught only 35 passes out of the backfield.

Wide receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones and tight end Evan Ingram are Lawrence’s favorite targets. 

Statistically, the teams are fairly even. The Chargers average scoring 23.6 points a game, the Jaguars average 23.8.

The Jaguars only allow 20.6 points a game. The Chargers give up 22.6. Both teams have a plus five advantage in turnovers this year.

The Jaguars blew out the Chargers at SoFi Stadium, 38-7, in the third week of the season. Herbert played that game with broken ribs, but still threw for 286 yards. The Chargers, however, gained only 26 yards on the ground and turned the ball over twice against zero for the Jaguars. The Jaguars also dominated time of possession by almost 17 minutes.

That was three and a half months ago. The Chargers are healthy on defense with Joey Boza back in the lineup spearheading the pass rush and Derwin James overseeing the secondary from his safety spot.

Most of the sports fans in Los Angeles will be watching. It’s time for the Chargers to not only make a statement with a playoff victory, but gain some ground on the Rams as the city’s second favorite football team.

BITS AND PIECES: The Dodgers made a public relations decision — not a baseball decision — Jan. 6 when they released Trevor Bauer after an arbitrator reduced his suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic violence rules. The Dodgers would rather eat Bauer’s $22 million contract than endure the pickets from women’s rights groups that would have showed up around Dodger Stadium every time he pitched. The Dodgers could have used Bauer in their starting rotation this year, especially since the contract counts against the luxury tax cap the Dodgers are trying to avoid. … 

The Clippers have too good a roster to lose six straight games. Their win over Dallas Jan. 10 broke the six-game skid. Midway through the season the Clippers, who are promoting their team as a championship contender, are 22-21, in sixth place in the NBA’s Western Conference. The Clippers are a championship contender if — and it’s a big if — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can stay healthy. So far this season, Leonard has missed 24 games and George has missed 13. When Leonard is in the lineup, the Clippers win 70% of their games. But if he can’t stay healthy, the Clippers are a fringe playoff team at best. …

Which brings us to the Lakers, who are only 2 ½ games behind the Clippers at the halfway point of the season. The Lakers had their five-game winning streak snapped by Denver Jan. 9, but they have been playing well under first-year coach Darvin Ham and are contending for a spot in the play-in tournament.

Ham has done a good job developing the Lakers’ young talent. Center Thomas Bryant has been a bright spot. Forced into a starting role because of Anthony Davis’ constant injuries, Bryant is averaging 16.9 points and 10.5 rebounds a game since Davis got hurt (again) 13 games ago. LeBron James refuses to age and Russell Westbrook has finally found his niche and the Lakers have a chance to make a playoff run, if Davis can come back healthy after the all-star game. … 

Talk about a let down. First it rained all day. Then the sky fell in on TCU. That’s how the College Football Playoff title game went Jan. 9 (see story below). I missed the first half, caught in traffic driving home. Imagine my surprise to find Georgia leading TCU  38-7 at halftime. I thought TCU might have had a chance if quarterback Max Duggan could outplay Stetson Bennett. That didn’t happen. TCU was the Big 12 champion this year but couldn’t keep up with Southeastern Conference powerhouse Georgia. I wonder if that gave pause to Texas and Oklahoma, two schools moving from the Big 12 to the SEC in 2025. There is a major chasm in the difference in talent between the top schools in each conference.