Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa prepare for Week 1 face-off

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Field Level Media
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Jul 26, 2023; Costa Mesa, CA, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws the ball as quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier watches during training camp at Jack Hammett Sports Complex.
Jul 26, 2023; Costa Mesa, CA, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws the ball as quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier watches during training camp at Jack Hammett Sports Complex.
Image: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A pair of playoff teams from a season ago will start their push for a deeper postseason run when the Los Angeles Chargers play host to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday in the season opener.

Both teams earned wild-card berths last season and were eliminated in the first week of the playoffs in disappointing fashion.

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The Chargers held a 27-0 lead on the Jacksonville Jaguars in their wild-card round game before falling 31-30 while surrendering the third-largest comeback in playoff history.

Los Angeles quarterback Justin Herbert led the Chargers to just three second-half points, but his future still looks bright. The Chargers are banking on just that with a five-year, $262.5 million contract.

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The league's highest-paid player by average annual salary will now have to show he can perform with the expectations that come from financial security.

"I just get to play football now," said Herbert, who was second in the NFL last season with 4,739 passing yards but tied for eighth with 25 touchdowns. "I think that's the best part about it, is that I get to play free. I get to play fearless."

The team's confidence in the passing game is unquestioned. An improved running game behind Austin Ekeler is the hope for this season, not to mention a defense led by edge rusher Joey Bosa that is intent on never having the kind of letdown that happened in the playoffs.

"For now, I like where our run game is at," said Ekeler after the Chargers were third from the bottom in the NFL with 1,524 rushing yards last season. "We'll see if it's better. It comes down to actual games. I can't tell you if it's better or not (in camp). We've got to play games to see the results."

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The Dolphins are also playing the what-if game from last season's playoffs but for different reasons. Miami was down to third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson for their wild-card game against the Buffalo Bills and nearly rallied from a 17-point deficit in a 34-31 defeat.

Tua Tagovailoa had multiple head injuries last season, including one on Dec. 25 that kept him out of the playoffs. He is healthy and ready to continue his march toward being an elite QB. But his path forward will be more as a drop-back passer while he becomes less reliant on his mobility.

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"The best way is to prepare yourself for all the things that haven't gone right for you the previous season," Tagovailoa said. "This isn't just for me. I know a lot of guys in our locker room, they have prepared things they wanted to work on. That is what my offseason has been like. We're really excited to go out there and play a good team."

Tagovailoa completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 3,548 yards, averaged 8.9 yards per pass attempt and 13.7 yards per pass completion in 13 starts last season.

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Tagovailoa has talked about his motivation to stay healthy for a full season. But he might also find inspiration in trying to have a better showing against the Chargers than last season, when he was just 10 of 28 for 145 yards. Miami fell 23-17 in Week 14 at Los Angeles.

"He hasn't wasted a day getting ready for this season," Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel said of his QB. "That was a goal of his. He understands what he means for this football team. He does not take that for granted at all how much support he has to do what he does."

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—Field Level Media