Were it not for the unprecedented silliness that Peyton Manning and the Broncos have unleashed in the opening weeks, then Philip Rivers' rebirth would probably be the dominant story in the NFL. Rivers isn't merely having a bounce-back year. Instead, he's playing at a level few quarterbacks have ever sustained.
As of this writing, Rivers ranks second in the NFL — behind only Manning — in QB-rating (118.8), completion percentage (73.9) and touchdown passes (11). He's also fifth in yards-per-attempt (8.44) and seventh in total passing yards (1199).
But you already know this stuff if you're an attentive fantasy manager. (We'll dig deeper in a moment.) Rivers has been undeniably great in our game, a top-five QB in basically all formats. He's had only one dud fantasy performance so far, and he actually went 20-for-24 that day with a TD pass and zero turnovers. Even his bad day was good.
As a team, the Chargers are currently third in yards-per drive (38.9) and second in points-per-drive (2.57) per Football Outsiders, so the offense has been a fantasy buffet. Antonio Gates ranks as a top-three fantasy tight end, Eddie Royal has caught five TD passes, and Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead both rate as RB2s, year-to-date. Also, rookie wideout Keenan Allen absolutely feasted on Dallas corner Morris Claiborne in Week 4 (five catches on six targets, 80 yards), so he's an emerging threat. Vincent Brown hasn't yet had a monster day, but it's coming; he caught seven balls on nine targets against the Cowboys.
All of this, of course, has been made possible by the near-flawless play of Rivers, directing a Mike McCoy-Ken Whisenhunt offense that clearly suits San Diego's personnel. Here are a few of my favorite beneath-the-surface Rivers stats from the season's first four weeks, via Pro Football Focus (indispensable resource):
• His average time-to-throw this year is just 2.39 seconds, third-quickest in the league. I can think of no better way to assist an O-line. Last year, under Norv Turner, Rivers was at 2.79 seconds;
• On pass attempts where Rivers releases the ball in 2.5 seconds or less, he's completed a ridiculous 74 of 99 throws. But you can't dismiss him as a dink-and-dunk passer, because...
• Rivers has been one of the league's most accurate passers on deep balls, throws 20-plus yards downfield. He's 8-for-17 with two TDs on deep attempts (plus his receivers have dropped a pair of long strikes);
• When pressured this year, Rivers has also been stellar. He's completed 22 of 36 throws under pressure, a better completion rate than every NFL quarterback except Peyton.
So the man is really doing lots of things well. The burning fantasy question, obviously, is whether Rivers can continue at anything close to this pace. He surely has to slow down at some point, right?
Well, there are plenty of reasons for continued optimism. First among these is the player's history; Rivers has been exceptional in prior years, not simply adequate. We're talking about a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback, a guy who led the league in passing yards just three seasons ago (4710). He has year-to-year continuity with most of the skill players in his offense, too.
And then there's this year's system, which has been (among other things) remarkably crisp. It's not just that Rivers is releasing throws quickly, but he gets his team to the line of scrimmage with haste, allowing time to survey and direct. Perhaps Rivers isn't quite at Manning's level as a pre-snap conductor, but he's no scrub. Note, for example, the work he did at the line on this 11-yard Royal touchdown.
Fantasy-wise, you have to appreciate the shootout potential offered by the Chargers on a weekly basis. This team still hasn't held an opponent to less than 20 points. San Diego's D ranks 30th in the NFL in yards-allowed (432.3 YPG) and 21st in points (25.5). Rivers won't often downshift to drain-the-clock mode late in games. The Chargers' schedule isn't exactly loaded with intimidating defenses, either — especially in the near-term. The Bolts' next six opponents are Oakland, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Washington, Denver and Miami; four of those teams rank among the league's 12 most generous in terms of QB fantasy scoring. The only unfriendly opponent on the horizon is Indy, and that's a home game for San Diego.
So, all things considered, I'm inclined to believe that the Rivers resurgence is real and likely to last. Unfortunately, I have zero shares of this player in my fantasy portfolio, and only a small investment in other Chargers (usually Allen, Royal, Brown or Nick Novak). It's early, but I'm guessing this failure to embrace the Bolts will be a major end-of-year regret.