SAN DIEGO – He felt the fear of a season slipping away, and Philip Rivers knew the grinch-in-a-hoodie was coming to town. The San Diego Chargers quarterback pondered his team's place in the world and came to a straightforward conclusion: To avoid hitting bottom, we need to go up top.
During a chance meeting in the weight room at the team's training facility last Wednesday, Rivers ran this sentiment by coach Norv Turner, who was preparing for Bill Belichick and a New England Patriots squad that knocked San Diego out of the previous two postseasons. Turner, in his second year as the Chargers' coach, was facing his second consecutive early-season crisis, and he was certainly open to suggestions.
The stakes were clear. At 2-3, San Diego simply couldn't afford to bomb on Sunday night. What if, Rivers wondered, we open the game by throwing a bomb?
Turner was intrigued. As the week went on, even as he filled his game plan with quick, high-percentage passes, Turner pondered his quarterback's idea. And on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium, as the Chargers' went through warmups before their 30-10 thrashing of the Pats, the coach and quarterback revisited the topic and decided to let it rip.
"Let's do it," Turner said to Rivers. "But if it's not there, don't forget the check-down to the back."
Rivers nodded without much sincerity. He had no intention of playing it safe.
As tone-setters go, the call couldn't have been any better. After Darren Sproles downed the opening kickoff, San Diego's offense took the field and got ready to tangle with the team that had kept it out of the end zone in last January's AFC championship game. Lined up in the right slot, wideout Vincent Jackson took off on a "go" route that wouldn't be stopped. Rivers faked a handoff to halfback LaDainian Tomlinson, dropped back and heaved a 48-yard spiral downfield.
Even before Jackson hauled it in despite tight coverage from New England cornerback Deltha O'Neal, Rivers felt as though he'd already accomplished his mission.
"It wasn't really that great of a throw, but Vincent went up and got it," Rivers said later. "My attitude was, just give him a chance. When you throw it up like that, three of the four things that can happen are in your favor. You can get a catch or a (pass interference) call, and even with an incompletion you can kind of send a message."
The message, reinforced repeatedly on Sunday by Rivers and his fired up teammates, could be translated thusly:
We're not scared of you, especially with Tom Brady recovering from knee surgery a couple of hours up the coast.
We're a much better team than the one people saw in the season's first five games.
And instead of riding our future Hall of Fame halfback, our offense now runs through Rivers' right arm.
Though Tomlinson accounted for 118 all-purpose yards and eclipsed 11,000 career rushing yards, becoming the NFL's fourth-fastest player (behind Eric Dickerson, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders) to reach the milestone, he played a supporting role on Sunday. The Chargers seemed to call his number in order to keep the Patriots honest – or, at times, to give Rivers' arm a breather.
In truth, be it because of nagging injuries or systemic changes, the Chargers haven't really been LT's team since before the stretch drive of last season, when San Diego shook off a 1-3 start to win the AFC West. The notion of a sequel, incidentally, seemed far more convincing after Sunday's developments, with the division-leading Broncos (4-2) losing at home to Jacksonville and the Chargers closing to within a game in the standings.
San Diego got big contributions from players on both sides of the ball and excelled on special teams as well, but Rivers was the guy who made it all go. Even with leading receiver Chris Chambers out with an ankle injury, Rivers completed 18 of 27 passes for 306 yards – his first career 300-yard game at Qualcomm – and tied his career high (for the fourth time in '08) with three touchdown passes.
The 48-yard completion to Jackson on the opening play set up Nate Kaeding's 25-yard field goal, and on San Diego's next drive Rivers went up top again, finding wideout Malcom Floyd – also covered by O'Neal – on a 49-yard rainbow in the front of the end zone.
On the third quarter drive that put away the Pats – a four-play, 98-yard parking-lot-thinner – Rivers threw deep twice more to Jackson and in the process ruthlessly shredded Belichick's secondary.
The pivotal sequence began after Matt Cassel, making his fourth career start in the wake of Brady's season-ending knee injury in the opener, drove the Patriots 77 yards to the San Diego 1-yard line to start the second half. Trailing 17-3, Cassel threw incompletions on first and third downs, with a Sammy Morris run for no gain sandwiched in between.
On fourth down Cassel, who faced furious pressure from the middle of the line all night, tried to buy some time in the pocket before giving up on finding an open receiver. He clumsily started forward as if to slither his way into the end zone before getting pummeled at the 2, and the Chargers took over.
Rivers, after a 4-yard run by fullback Mike Tolbert, went to the long ball once again, zinging a 59-yard pass to Jackson. Two plays later Rivers threw to Jackson streaking down the left sideline, where the wideout was clipped by beaten cornerback Ellis Hobbs as he fell into the end zone.
The 32-yard pass interference penalty gave San Diego a first-and-goal from the 1. In the old days, there'd have been little doubt as to who would get the call: LT, who set an NFL record with 31 touchdowns in 2006.
Now, it must be concluded, Turner wants Rivers handling the ball.
The Qualcomm crowd hasn't yet grasped the transition. Late in the second quarter, after Tomlinson had run 8 yards to the New England 4-yard-line on first down, the fans chanted "LT, LT." But rather than calling Tomlinson's number again, Turner had Rivers line up in the shotgun, and the quarterback zipped a pass to Jackson in the middle of the end zone.
Now back to that third-quarter drive: On first down, Rivers threw again, finding Antonio Gates on the right side of the end zone for a 24-3 lead.
Tomlinson, once the undisputed ruler of the red zone, has ceded that title to Rivers. For now, no one in San Diego is complaining.
"He's a good weapon," center Nick Hardwick said of the fifth-year quarterback, who has shown no ill effects of the torn ACL he somehow managed to play through in the '07 AFC title game in frigid Foxborough. "He's a very, very smart guy who is aware of what defenses are doing at all times, so to put it on him is not a bad thing."
Just before the Chargers took the field on Sunday, Kasim Osgood, San Diego's Pro Bowl special-teams ace, surprised his teammates by giving an impassioned speech. He talked about pride and what motivates players to compete in big games, captivating an audience that understood the urgency of the situation.
"Let's just put it on the line for each other," Osgood urged. "Do it for the guy to the left of you and for the guy to the right. There's something we want out there. It's time to go get it."
With that the charged-up Chargers raced out into the mild Southern California twilight and got ready to launch what amounted to a restart of the 2008 season.
"Yeah, it does feel a bit like that," Hardwick said. "At least, I hope it was. The challenge now is to sustain it."
As Sunday's victory showed quite conclusively, it's a challenge that starts – and ends – with Rivers.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• After Arizona ended a two-game losing streak by crushing the previously unbeaten Buffalo Bills eight days ago, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt resisted the urge to get overly excited. "When we don't make mistakes or turn the ball over, we're a pretty good team," he said. "But we can't ride the rollercoaster. We've got to get off of that." Losing to the Cowboys Sunday after blowing a 10-point lead in the final two minutes would've been the equivalent of a harrowing free-fall, but Whisenhunt's team avoided it by forcing a quick three-and-out in overtime, then becoming the first team to close out a victory with a blocked punt for touchdown on the final play. Sean Morey raced in to smother Mat McBriar's kick, and Monty Beisel recovered and flopped into the end zone for the 30-24 triumph that gave the Cards (4-2) a two-game lead in the NFC West. Arizona's improvement is not random; rather, it is the product of an improved front office guided by methodical general manager Rod Graves and armed with a shrewd player personnel director in Steve Keim. This past April, Keim unearthed fifth-round halfback Tim Hightower of Richmond, a player not even invited to the NFL scouting combine. On Sunday, with the Cards facing a third-and-17 in the third quarter, Hightower managed to catch a deflected pass and run for the first-down yardage, setting up a game-tying touchdown. Meanwhile wideout Steve Breaston, a 2007 fifth-round pick out of Michigan, filled in admirably for the injured Anquan Boldin with eight receptions for 102 yards and a TD.
• The Saints are only 3-3, a disappointment considering that their three defeats have all been by less than a touchdown. But New Orleans has to be considered a legitimate playoff contender, if only because its quarterback, Drew Brees, is having a phenomenal season. On Sunday at the Superdome, Brees flat-out eviscerated the Oakland Raiders, completing 26 of 30 passes – two of the incompletions were throwaways – for 320 yards, with three TDs and no interceptions. He now has 1,993 yards on the season; projected over a 16-game pace, that would give him 5,314, which would shatter Dan Marino's 24-year-old single-season record of 5,084. Forget the numbers, though: It's Brees' mastery of his craft that stands out to his teammates. "Drew is (expletive) ridiculous," New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita said Sunday evening via text message. "Pretty damn impressive." And to think Nick Saban, during his tenure as the Dolphins' coach, chose Daunte Culpepper over Brees after the '05 season. Had Saban gone the other way, who knows how different the current NFL and NCAA landscapes might be.
• As gripping as the Cardinals-Cowboys finish was, there were four other killer climaxes in the early games that played out within minutes of one another, and fans who subscribe to DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket or who spent Sunday in sports bars were treated to one hell of a ride in real time. At FedEx Field, Marc Bulger's 43-yard pass to Donnie Avery set up Josh Brown's 49-yard game-winning field goal at the gun as the Rams broke an eight-game losing streak and stunned the Redskins, 19-17. The celebration was so jubilant that, said one player, “In the locker room it was like we had just won the Super Bowl.” By comparison Ryan Longwell's second consecutive game-winning kick for the Vikings, this one from 26 yards with nine seconds remaining for a 12-10 victory over the winless Lions, was ho-hum. Less mundane was the fact that Vikings fans chanted for their head coach to be fired throughout the second half, even though Brad Childress' 3-3 team is now tied with the Bears and Packers for first place in the NFC North.
In Houston, the Texans got their first victory in dramatic fashion when Matt Schaub ran it in on fourth-and-goal from the 3 with three seconds remaining, dooming the Dolphins to a 29-28 defeat. I told you before the season that Texans offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan would be aggressive; give him and head coach Gary Kubiak credit for having the guts to call a quarterback draw in that situation, especially considering that Schaub is a relatively reluctant scrambler. Finally the Falcons, after falling behind the Bears on a Kyle Orton touchdown pass with 11 seconds to go, somehow managed to win, 22-20, on Jason Elam's 48-yard field goal as time expired. A Chicago squib kick, and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan’s clutch 26-yard sideline completion to wideout Michael Jenkins, made the (seemingly) impossible possible. The Falcons, now 4-2 under rookie coach Mike Smith, are tied with the Bucs and Panthers atop the NFC South, and they can no longer be considered a mere curiosity. "I think we have some believers now," veteran linebacker Keith Brooking said (via text message) late Sunday afternoon. "The bye comes at a great time. " Brooking helped stop Bears halfback Matt Forte on fourth-and-inches to preserve the Falcons' 19-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter, one of the many huge plays that helped his team prevail.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• By now it's clear that Mike Holmgren, who decided to coach a 10th and final season for the Seahawks in '08, should've called it quits after nine. Seattle's run of four consecutive NFC West titles seems almost certain to end, and the sight of third-stringer Charlie Frye lighting it up for 83 passing yards Sunday in a 27-10 home defeat to the Packers evoked memories of Holmgren's previous low point as the Seahawks' coach. It can't be that bad, can it? Well, Holmgren did reportedly throw a major tantrum last week, and I have a feeling it won't be his last. After all, I might head north and pay him a visit.
• As for the team that some believe Holmgren may be coaching next year, his hometown San Francisco 49ers, Mike Nolan's merry pranksters had another bad trip of a Sunday at Candlestick Park, squandering a nine-point second half lead before falling 40-26 to the Eagles. It's hard to get too negative about a regime that drafted the outstanding Patrick Willis 11th overall in '07, but Niners fans can't have been overly thrilled to see wideout DeSean Jackson continue his impressive rookie season with six receptions for 98 yards. Because of concerns about his size and character, Jackson slipped to the second round, with Philly drafting him 49th overall. Meanwhile San Francisco passed on the former Cal star twice, instead selecting defensive end Kentwan Balmer and guard Chilo Rachal, neither of whom has come close to making an impact. I could see if the logic behind those picks was to build for the future, but Nolan told reporters last week that "we felt we (drafted) players who would help us more quickly." Just for the sake of argument, Mike, you hired an offensive coordinator, Mike Martz, who has been effective at utilizing small, quick receivers (Exhibit A: Az-Zahir Hakim) in his scheme. In six games, Niners wideouts have combined for five touchdowns, with four by 15th-year veteran Isaac Bruce. Something tells me Jackson could've helped increase that total by, like, a lot. And if Balmer and Rachal end up contributing down the road, they'll likely be doing so for a coach other than you.
• At least Nolan, whether he's wearing a suit on the sidelines or a T-shirt at practice, can look himself in the mirror without cringing. The same can't be true for new Raiders coach Tom Cable, aka The Cable Guy, whose debut in New Orleans on Sunday was every bit as abysmal as predecessor Lane Kiffin's first game of '08. In breaking down film of Oakland's 34-3 defeat to the Saints, in which the Raiders gained 226 yards (including, amazingly, 44 on a 13-play drive in the fourth quarter), Cable undoubtedly will be tempted to make some corrections. But whatever he does, he'd best avoid criticizing any of his players – and especially not quarterback JaMarcus Russell (13 for 35, 159 yards) – publicly or even in the presence of other staff members like senior executive John (Yes, Al) Herrera. If the new coach says a disparaging word, he'll be subject to getting stiffed by owner Al Davis who, when he does fire Cable, will cite such insolence as "cause." And, when that happens, Cable will deserve to be cheated out of every last penny. I'm through feeling sorry for the men who have to work under these absurd conditions. Cable, in taking the interim job after Davis fired Kiffin earlier this month, knew exactly what he was getting into, and he didn't have to accept the owner's offer. In doing so, he basically surrendered any semblance of self-respect inside the building or, for that matter, in NFL circles.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1) How Chrissy Hynde's voice can be so sublimely knee-buckling, year after year.
2) Dan Orlovsky's thought process on the first-quarter safety that ended up being the difference in the Lions' 12-10 defeat to the Vikings. After taking a shotgun snap in his own end zone, dropping back to pass and rolling right, Orlovsky, a fourth-year passer making his first career start, obliviously drifted out of the back of the end zone and took 11 steps– eleven – before he realized that the ref had whistled the play dead. I know I shouldn't laugh, but I've seen the replay 10 times, and I have yet to remain silent. No matter what Orlovsky does from here on out, I have a feeling that many of us will never be able to shake this image. Curiously enough the quarterback on the opposing sidelines, 15th-year veteran Gus Frerotte, knows what it is like to be branded forever by a faux pas. Eleven years ago Frerotte celebrated a touchdown by jamming his head into a padded wall in the back of the RFK Stadium end zone, which landed him in the hospital with a sprained neck. That stigma, Frerotte said Sunday night, "will never go away, no matter how many safeties there are."
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I'm a big Jim Haslett fan, and watching his emotional reaction to that thrilling upset of the Redskins in his first game was one of Sunday's great pleasures. But the report by the NFL Network's Adam Schefter that Haslett, upon becoming interim coach after Scott Linehan's firing two weeks ago, got a clause in his contract granting him the job on a permanent basis if he leads the Rams to at least six victories over the season's final 12 games? I'm not happy about it. First of all, if you're the Rams, why pen yourself in like that? Deciding whether to consider Haslett as the head coach goes well beyond the amount of games he wins. More important, how do the players respond to his leadership? Is his philosophy in line with that of ownership and the front office? Is substantial, lasting progress being made that transcends the outcome of games which can be affected by a random referee's decision (Ed Hochuli, cough cough) or a tipped ball? Even worse, such a move seems to violate the spirit, if not the actual letter, of the Rooney Rule, which requires teams filling a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate. The Seahawks, who last winter announced that Mike Holmgren would be replaced by assistant head coach/defense Jimmy Mora after coaching one final season in '08, already managed to circumvent this; the NFL ruled that a current staff member can be elevated if there's a pre-existing agreement to hire him in such a circumstance. If the league allows the Rams' pact with Haslett to supersede the requirement to interview at least one minority candidate, it will have created a loophole that other teams might begin employing with regularity. And that would be a bad thing, as a matter of principle and on a practical level.
I like the Rooney Rule because it exposes franchises to candidates they might not otherwise consider, and who then have a chance to make such a huge impression in interviews that they get the gig. This is what happened in Pittsburgh after the '06 season, as longshot candidate Mike Tomlin convinced Steelers owner Dan Rooney – the man after whom the rule is named – to hire him as Bill Cowher's successor. Anyway, it will be interesting to see how all of this plays out, but I hope that if Haslett does remain in charge in St. Louis beyond the '08 season, it won't just be because he reached some preset victory total. With all of that said, given the stakes, how angry must Haslett have been at guard Richie Incognito for getting that unconscionable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that knocked the Rams out of chip-shot range and forced Brown to make a 49-yarder for the victory? Incognito claimed after the game that he didn't know what he'd said to the official who threw the flag that could have provoked the penalty, and Haslett told reporters, "If you're going to call a penalty on a guy who swears – if he did swear – then there's going to be a lot of flags flying out there." I know Haslett well enough to assume that, after the flag was thrown, his reaction made Incognito seem like Bill Cosby. If ever there was a time that the dude should have lived up to his name, that would have been it.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Young QBs. He was scared out of his mind."
– Text from Vikings safety Darren Sharper, recalling the Orlovsky safety.