LOS ANGELES (AP) — Draft Class of 2020 alums Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert are preparing to face each other for the second time — and with more at stake for their respective teams.
Both quarterbacks are trying to do something classmates Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts have already accomplished: get to the postseason.
Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins bring an 8-4 record into Sunday night's showdown and are in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
Herbert's Los Angeles Chargers (6-6) haven't been to the postseason since 2018 and sit one game behind the New York Jets for the final spot in the AFC.
Tagovailoa was the fifth overall pick three years ago while Herbert went one spot later. Herbert said it has been tough to build camaraderie with his classmates because of how COVID-19 affected the draft.
“A lot of it was separated, so we weren’t able to work out together and things like that,” Herbert said. "For the most part, it was just checking in when we were at the scouting combine and things like that.”
Tagovailoa has thrived under the offense installed by first-year coach Mike McDaniel. He leads the league with a 112.0 passer rating and is sixth with 21 touchdowns.
Miami has the NFL’s second-best passing offense and fourth overall offense.
Tagovailoa said the Dolphins’ offensive struggles against San Francisco showed what the team still needs to improve.
“There’s areas of work that you thought maybe you had down that, ‘Hey, reality check. Here’s what the deal is,’” said Tagovailoa, who has won 15 of his last 18 starts. “So it was good for all of us offensively to see the mistakes, to talk about the mistakes.”
Herbert is fourth in the league with 3,339 passing yards and tied for seventh with 20 touchdown passes. For most of the season, Herbert and the offense were able to produce despite his early-season rib injury and receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams being together on the field for five quarters. But over the past four weeks, a subpar running game and injuries to the offensive line have taken a toll.
Herbert has been sacked 16 times in the past four games after going down 10 times in the first eight.
“We’re just trying to move the ball as much as we can, convert on third down, limit turnovers, and push the ball downfield. Get the run game involved and just do the things that we know that we can do,” Herbert said.
Tagovailoa and the Dolphins beat the Chargers 29-21 in Week 10 of the 2020 season. Herbert was held to a career-low 187 yards in that game.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Miami receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle could have big games against a Chargers defense that is susceptible to allowing big plays.
Las Vegas' Davante Adams torched LA's secondary last week with eight receptions for 177 yards and two touchdowns. The last time the Chargers played on a Sunday night, Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce had six catches for 114 yards and three TDs.
The Chargers have allowed a league-high 13 touchdowns of 20 yards or more, including three last week. Opponents have 54 plays of at least 20 yards, which is tied for fifth most. Los Angeles could also be short-handed in the secondary with safety Derwin James (quadriceps) and cornerback Bryce Callahan (groin) listed as doubtful.
Hill — who has two 100-yard games in 11 career games against the Chargers — leads the league in receiving yards (1,379) and receptions of at least 20 yards (22). He also needs 11 yards to break Mark Clayton's franchise mark for a single season, which has stood for 38 years.
Waddle is fifth in the league with 972 receiving yards and has 16 receptions of 20 yards or more.
Both teams have struggled in trying to establish a running game. The Chargers' 84.7 yards per game on the ground is the second-lowest in the league, while the Dolphins have the fifth-lowest average at 89.7.
According to the NFL's Next Gen Stats, the Dolphins have been held to no gain or negative yards on 23.1% of their rushing attempts, the sixth-highest rate in the league. The Chargers are seventh at 22.9%.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Dolphins linebacker Jaelan Phillips, who is from Redlands, California, estimated he will have about 91 relatives and friends at Sunday’s game. Phillips played two seasons at UCLA before transferring to the University of Miami.
“This whole city is real nostalgic for me,” Phillips said. “It has a special place in my heart. Obviously it didn’t work out with football, but there’s no bad blood at all, man. I’m just grateful to be back here soaking in every moment.”
In his second NFL season, Phillips has emerged as one of Miami’s best edge rushers with five sacks.
The league flexed Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs out of the Sunday night spot in favor of this matchup. Even the drama surrounding Russell Wilson and the Broncos wasn't enough to keep low-scoring Denver under the lights.
Last year, the NFL flexed a Chiefs game into the prime-time spot in Week 13 and bypassed a Chargers-Bengals matchup that would have featured Herbert and Joe Burrow.
It is likely this won't be the final schedule change involving Miami and Los Angeles. On Jan. 1, the Chargers and Rams are slated for the Sunday night game, but that is likely to be moved. One of the candidates to replace it is Miami at New England.
AP sports writer Alanis Thames in Miami contributed to this story.
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