SAN DIEGO – When Philip Rivers(notes) showed up for work at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday, he might as well have had a backpack full of boulders strapped over his shoulders. Coming off his worst performance of a stellar individual season, the San Diego Chargers' quarterback knew he needed a swift and pronounced turnaround to lead his team to victory over the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs and keep its postseason hopes alive.
Because, let's face it: If Rivers doesn't bring his "A" game, the 2010 Chargers usually fail.
Though no NFL player carries more of a personal burden toward his team's success – I'd argue that the Packers' Aaron Rodgers(notes) and the Colts' Peyton Manning(notes) are other elite quarterbacks in similarly loaded circumstances, and that's about it – you won't hear Rivers discussing it publicly. For all of his notorious on-the-field bravado, the seventh-year passer tends to downplay his role as the sun of San Diego's solar system, just as he does his best to put a positive spin on the Chargers' maddening penchant for enduring early season struggles before finally finding their flame.
"Oh, it gets old," Rivers said after Sunday's 31-0 dissection of the Chiefs. "Trust me, it gets really old. But hey, in a lot of ways, it makes it fun. Sure, we'd rather be in a better position. But hey, in December – we need help, we need to win out, there's no margin for error – it makes it exciting, that's for sure."
You hear that, Chargers fans? Living on the edge makes your quarterback and his teammates feel alive.
Those among the crowd of 66,780 at Qualcomm who'd witnessed San Diego's near-death experience on the same field a week earlier, a 28-13 defeat to the Oakland Raiders, must have been wondering how the same group of players could put together such dramatically divergent performances in crucial games against division rivals.
A week ago, the Raiders and Chiefs seemed to have surpassed San Diego, winner of the past four AFC West titles, in the push for a postseason berth. On Sunday, with the Raiders (6-7) suffering a 38-31 road defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Chargers (7-6) pummeling Kansas City (8-5), it started looking more and more like San Diego coach Norv Turner will summon another great escape.
With the Chiefs' smoking-hot quarterback, Matt Cassel(notes), home in K.C. four days removed from an appendectomy, Rivers and the Chargers had a decided advantage. They seized it, immediately and comprehensively, and for a change the Pro Bowl passer had plenty of backup.
San Diego's defense, under the expert guidance of brainy coordinator Ron Rivera, made Cassel's replacement, Brodie Croyle(notes), look like a dude who'd spent Saturday night sitting on a barstool in the Gaslamp Quarter reliving his high school glories, only to be offered a Willy Wonkaesque shot at starting an NFL game. The Chiefs gained 67 total yards – the second-fewest by a Chargers opponent – and recorded only five first downs, going 0-for-11 on third-down conversions. It was San Diego's first shutout since the 2006 season opener against the Raiders, which happened to be Rivers' first career start.
Offensively, the Chargers converted 11-of-15 third downs, had the ball for more than two-thirds of the game and achieved optimal balance, with Mike Tolbert(notes), Darren Sproles(notes) and previously anemic rookie Ryan Mathews(notes) keying a season-high, 207-yard rushing effort.
Throw in the season-long constants – Turner's prescient play-calling and Rivers' exemplary execution – and San Diego looked as tantalizingly good as it usually does this time of year. Though the quarterback's numbers (18-of-24, 226 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) weren't special by his lofty standards, Rivers displayed the impressive elements of his game that had been missing in the previous week's defeat to the Raiders: terrific touch, an uncanny ability to exploit mismatches, deceptive mobility in the pocket and a comprehensive command of Turner's elaborate offense, among other things.
For much of this sloppy, choppy season, the Chargers have asked Rivers to be pretty damned close to perfect, and he has delivered at an alarmingly high success rate.
"We just depend on him to put us in the best situation possible, no matter what defenses throw at him or what might break down for us," said All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates(notes), who sat out Sunday's game with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. "That's one of his strengths, him being able to do things in a game setting that give us the best chance to win. Just look at how many different receivers he's completed passes to."
For the season: 17, the same as his uniform number. Among the no-profile players who've caught balls thrown by Rivers in 2010: Kris Wilson(notes), Kory Sperry(notes), Richard Goodman(notes), Gary Banks(notes) and Seyi Ajirotutu(notes). On Sunday, journeyman Kelley Washington(notes) had three receptions for 50 yards, which was a pleasant surprise – but not nearly as significant as the somewhat unexpected return of the quarterback's most potent downfield threat.
After a season marred by a nasty contract dispute, an NFL suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct policy and a calf injury on his second snap of 2010 that kept him from catching a ball until Sunday, Pro Bowl wideout Vincent Jackson(notes) was in the middle of the action. He raced 14 yards on a first-quarter end around, caught a pair of first-half passes and hauled in a gorgeous 40-yard rainbow from Rivers early in the fourth quarter that was called back due to a Jacob Hester(notes) chop block.
General manager A.J. Smith may not have cracked a smile, but Turner didn't try to conceal his excitement. The coach knows that if the big, bad band of primary targets gets back together – Gates, Jackson and fellow wideout Malcom Floyd(notes), who caught a pair of fabulous first-half TDs on balls that Rivers floated to the corner – his quarterback can rediscover a comfort zone that has been elusive for much of this challenging campaign.
"He has a lot on him," Turner said of Rivers after Sunday's game. "I think he's had more on him this year, because he's thrown passes to  different guys. 'Tutu' starts the Houston game – he's an undrafted rookie from our practice squad – and catches four passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns. On the Wednesday before the Raider game, Philip's throwing to five guys who weren't on our roster at the start of the season. So there's not a lot of consistency, and it takes a unique personality to be able to handle that well. He's got the perfect temperament for playing the position."
As Rivers is quick to stress, it also takes pass protection, something he wasn't afforded against the physical Raiders' defensive line the previous Sunday. Oakland's early lead and lockdown pass coverage contributed to the nightmare. "We got down early and now we've got to throw it every play against those super fast and physical big guys up front," Rivers recalled. "Now go make up 18 points – good luck with that. And I had an off week. I didn't play as well as I should have, or can."
Consequently, the Chargers lost a game that pushed them to the brink of elimination. That put a lot of pressure on one guy the rest of the way, and going into Sunday's game I wondered if it was wearing on Rivers.
Afterward I brought up a conversation I had last January with Kurt Warner(notes) shortly after he'd announced his retirement. Warner told me that the most trying part of his job during his final seasons in Arizona had been "the sense that there was so much on my shoulders from a team standpoint … I really felt like if I didn't play well, we lost."
Rivers didn't bite. "I don't feel that way," he insisted. "When you've been in an offense seven years, you shouldn't feel that pressure. As a quarterback, that's the position. I don't feel any more responsibility this year than any other year.
"If you really want to know, the constant that's been around here is the five guys up front. Yeah, I know,  guys have caught passes and all that. It sounds good, and we've been able to make it work from the outside. But the real story is on the inside. They've been playing great and giving me time, and that allows me to run the offense."
Rivers may have time, but his margin for error is virtually nonexistent. The Chargers host the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday night before finishing with road games against the struggling Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos, while the Chiefs – with Cassel's availability in doubt – face the Rams in St. Louis, then close the season at home against the Tennessee Titans and Raiders.
It seems set up for another unlikely San Diego playoff charge, but as Rivers knows all too well, this is a team capable of collapsing in a flurry of inconsistency.
"It's just been a weird year," Rivers said. "We've had turnovers, defensive breakdowns, special teams mistakes – one's up, one's down, and the next week it's something else, and we never could pull it all together.
"Hopefully, we're gonna get it – right here, right now."
They don't really have a choice – and that's the kind of pressure-packed scenario that a certain quarterback calls fun.
THE HIGH FIVE …
• So, about that Patriots letdown I saw coming … um, guess I was just a wee bit off. Impervious to the short week and inclement weather, Tom Brady(notes) and New England (11-2) rolled into Soldier Field and took a 33-0 halftime lead over the Bears en route to a 36-7 victory. The last play of the first half told you all you need to know: Ignoring a sideline order to take a knee, Brady whipped a 59-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch(notes) through the wind and snow. Yeah, it's like that for the Pats.
• One of the biggest cheers at Qualcomm on Sunday came in the game's opening seconds when the Jaguars' victory over the Raiders was announced, with Chargers and Chiefs fans understandably roaring in unison. But virtually everyone should be applauding a Jags team that may be leading the league in resilience and heart. "Oh yeah! We got some of that!" Jacksonville wideout and special-teams ace Kassim Osgood(notes) wrote via text. Osgood, a former Chargers fan favorite, did his part on Sunday, forcing a Jacoby Ford(notes) fumble on a third-quarter kickoff that helped the Jags fight back from a 10-point deficit and take control of the game. Now wrap your head around this: If the Texans lose to the Ravens Monday night, Jacksonville (8-5) can clinch the AFC South with a victory over the Colts (7-6) in Indy next Sunday.
• Speaking of resilience, Michael Vick(notes) took a beating from the Cowboys and showed his mettle, hitting DeSean Jackson(notes) with a short pass that the swift receiver turned into a pivotal 91-yard touchdown in the Eagles' 30-27 victory. I know Vick's numbers weren't overwhelming, but as people who study football for a living can attest, he continues to play at an astonishing level while putting Philly (9-4) in position to return to Cowboys Stadium in early February for Super Bowl XLV. Remember, you can't spell MVP without the MV. (And that is no disrespect to the equally transcendent Brady, who will more than likely win the award for a second time.)
• Remember when 49ers owner Jed York insisted his team would still win the NFC West after an 0-5 start? After San Francisco's 40-21 thrashing of the Seahawks behind newly reinstalled starting quarterback Alex Smith, it could absolutely happen – and that's even if the Niners lose to the Chargers on Thursday. Should the 49ers (5-8) lose at Qualcomm but close the season with victories over the division-rival Rams (6-7) and Cardinals (4-9), they'd own tiebreakers over St. Louis and Seattle (both 6-7) and could conceivably host a playoff game, albeit with a losing record. Even more ridiculous is the fact that Arizona, after its 43-13 destruction of the Broncos, is still mathematically alive. Seriously? Oh yes, I'm very serious.
• It's hard to say anything positive about the scary collapse of the Metrodome roof following Saturday's blizzard in Minneapolis, but here goes: First of all, it was very, very fortunate that no one was inside. Second, if it turns out that the one-day delay of the Giants-Vikings game (which will be played tonight at Detroit's Ford Field) allows Brett Favre(notes) to extend his consecutive-games streak to 298, then Cal Ripken and the notorious Camden Yards power outage will have company. Finally, and most significantly, this was a stroke of luck for Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, as it should allow him an excuse to force the stadium issue with state officials after the season and/or get more aggressive in his possible pursuit of an L.A. move. And if the immediate need to repair the Dome triggers a deal that allows the Vikings to stay in the Twin Cities for the long haul, then the roof falling down will go down as an unlikely and happy catalyst.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That while devouring a delicious burrito early Sunday morning in Pacific Beach with my buddy Dan the Man, I was asked by a young, apparently inebriated dude at the next table, "Are you in the industry?" Um, the film industry? The navy? The food-service field? "Surf and skate." Right. Of course.
2. That Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, according to reports, wore a Snuggie to Bank of America Stadium to watch his team lose 31-10 to the Atlanta Falcons. A Snuggie? Really? That's right – a blanket with sleeves. Look, I'm all for the idea of the old, rich dude with an I-don't-give-a-damn attitude, and I realize that Richardson, having survived severe medical issues and come back strong after a heart transplant, can wear whatever the heck he wants on a chilly day in Charlotte. But is that really the image he wants to project when his team is a league-worst 1-12, partly because of the lame-duck coaching situation he created by declining to fire or extend the contract of John Fox heading into 2010? Richardson, a former NFL player, is a tough man who terminated his sons when they couldn't coexist peacefully in Carolina's front office and who fired up his fellow owners last March in preparation for a potential lockout with a militant speech. He might want to invest in a camouflage coat, or a Mike Tomlin-style bubble jacket, or a well-insulated Bill Belichick-esque hoodie. The Snuggie, however, has got to go. Dare I say it should be locked out of his closet?
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
One of my favorite "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episodes – hell, let's face it: They're all my favorite – came in Season 2 when Larry, sitting courtside at a Lakers game, inadvertently trips Shaquille O'Neal, causing a knee injury that sends the star center to the hospital. It was a nightmare that only a neurotic comedian could conjure, and the perpetrating character's lack of intent made it comically powerful. Suffice it to say that I wasn't laughing when I heard that Jets strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi stuck out his knee and tripped Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll(notes) as the player ran past him on the sideline while covering a punt during Sunday's game at the New Meadowlands Stadium.
Carroll hit the turf and stayed down for a couple of minutes, though he eventually returned to play in Miami's 10-6 victory over the reeling Jets. Presented with photographic evidence of the cheap shot, Dolphins players reacted strongly after the game, with linebacker Channing Crowder(notes) saying, "I wish they'd have tripped me. I'd have broken that old man's leg." And while I would never advocate retaliatory violence as a means of retribution for a team employee's idiotic action, I feel Crowder's pain. Alosi, who issued a statement of apology Sunday night, is a former Hofstra linebacker who has been an NFL strength coach for nine years. So he knows what it's like to strap it on, and he should understand how scary unanticipated contact from a non-participant can be for an athlete of Carroll's caliber. Obviously, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell needs to suspend this clown – among other reasons, a strong message needs to be sent to anyone who might be considering a similar stunt on a potential game-deciding play. (Example: Imagine if a punt returner were taking one to the house late in a closely contested playoff game, and someone on the opposing team's sideline figured tripping him was the only way to save the season.) However, I'd like to take the punishment a step further. Since Alosi is obviously a frustrated bystander, I say the next time the Jets and Dolphins meet we suit him up and make him the gunner for Gang Green on all Miami kickoff and punt returns. This would allow him an opportunity to show what a tough guy he is by delivering legal hits to the opposition. Or, you know, he might get de-cleated, laid out and carried off on a stretcher. And that would be such a shame.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
- San Diego