We're at the halfway point of the season and starting to figure out which teams are for real, and which teams will fall by the wayside as January gets closer.
This Monday night, the Los Angeles Chargers (3-4) will visit the New York Jets (4-3), with both teams coming off wins and looking to add another tally in the win column in their efforts to stay in the playoff picture.
The Jets have clawed back from a 1-3 start and are riding a three-game win streak that includes an upset win over the Philadelphia Eagles and an ugly last-second 'W' against the New York Giants last week. And now they're looking to keep things rolling with a win over the Bolts to keep pace in the competitive AFC East, where they're current in third place.
Meanwhile, the Chargers had each of their first five games this season decided by seven points or fewer, with more going against them than in their favor. They currently sit in second place in the AFC West but 12th in the conference playoff picture entering this weekend. Coming off an energizing 30-13 win over the Chicago Bears last week, Los Angeles is searching for another victory to get back up to .500 and gain ground on the AFC field.
So, even though November is just kicking off, Monday's matchup has some playoff implications.
Both teams are making their third prime-time appearances of the season, and both have gone 1-1 thus far. Who will come home with the victory in Week 9?
Here are four things to watch for when the Chargers visit the Jets on Monday night:
- Healthy-ish Herbert faces formidable Jets D. Justin Herbert looked like himself against the Bears last week after a few iffy outings playing through a finger injury, putting up 298 passing yards and three touchdowns in the blowout win. Herbert has proven himself to be among the elite quarterbacks in the league when healthy, creating an interesting matchup as he and his receiving corps face off against one of the most daunting defenses in the league in the Jets. Herbert will have trusted veteran Keenan Allen among the weapons at his disposal, but it will be a battle of strength versus strength when the Gang Green defense, which ranks fifth in passing yards per game allowed, faces the Bolts, who are sixth in passing yards per game. Herbert will have to contend with pressure from the Gang Green front line, including Quinnen Williams and Jermaine Johnson, while also accounting for the coverage in the secondary from Sauce Gardner and Co. Herbert shouldn’t be hampered by the ongoing recovery of the broken middle finger on his non-throwing hand, if his performance versus Chicago is anything to go by, but he’ll still have a tough challenge ahead to equal his performance from last Sunday.
- Can Zach attack? Zach Wilson has come through in crunch time for the Jets in recent weeks, leading the league with three comebacks and orchestrating game-winning drives in the team's last two wins over the Eagles and Giants. But despite his clutch play in key moments, Wilson's overall performance has been subpar, as evidenced by the fact that the Jets offense is 28th in the league. He ranks 27th in the league in passing yards per game (188.0) and has just a 58.3 completion percentage this season, leading to the Jets scoring 13 points or fewer on three occasions, including in last week’s victory. Wilson's one touchdown pass in last week’s win, a 50-yard catch-and-run by Breece Hall, was New York's first first-quarter TD of the season, underscoring the lack of consistent success this year. If the Jets' goal is to put themselves in playoff position by the end of the year, they need Wilson to play full games of good football, not just during the final drives. Fortunately for him, this week's matchup is a favorable one in moving toward more consistent games. The Chargers defense ranks dead last in the league in passing yards allowed per game, offering an opportunity to Wilson to show he can be what the Jets need.
- Can Jets’ O-line hold strong despite injuries? While the Chargers defense has overall struggled, one area in which it makes an impact is the pass rush. Los Angeles ranks 10th in sacks this year (23), led by Khalil Mack with seven (though six were in one game). And star Joey Bosa, the former Defensive Rookie of the Year, appears to finally be healthy after playing through a broken toe for multiple weeks. This group could have a chance at a big game on Monday night, depending on how the Jets’ offensive line is able to adjust amid constant changes. New York will be putting out its sixth different iteration of the five-man unit due to injuries throughout the season, most recently placing both Connor McGovern and Wes Schweitzer on injured reserve this week. Duane Brown will be out again with an injury hip, raising the question of how effectively this group will be able to protect Wilson from the Chargers pass rushers with little time to prepare together.
- Battle of the running backs. Though there’s obviously other factors at play, it can’t be understated the importance of each team’s starting running back in their respective offenses. The Chargers have Austin Ekeler back and healthy after missing three games early on with an ankle injury, bringing back a versatility to the team’s offensive scheme. He has 218 rushing yards and 177 receiving yards this season. Despite Ekeler's return, the Chargers running game has struggled and he's averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, but he's helped in the passing game, as evidenced by his seven catches for 94 yards last week. On the other side, the Jets have second-year back Breece Hall, who has shown himself to be a dynamic presence in his own right. He leads the league in yards per carry (5.7), and recorded the longest rush of the season with his 83-yard tote in Week 1. Though he has had bursts of explosiveness, recording games of 127 and 177 yards rushing, he’s just as often struggled in the Jets’ lacking offense, including finishing with 17 rushing yards against the Giants. Also at play in this battle will be the strength of the opposing defense the RBs will have to face. The Jets’ rushing defense is the weakest aspect of its game, ranking 31th in yards per game allowed, while the Chargers are No. 6 in that category.