Philip Rivers' bolo ties have caused no shortage of laughs among fans, opponents and teammates. Yet the quarterback's natty road game neckwear that has accompanied the San Diego Chargers' unexpected run to Sunday's divisional round showdown against the Denver Broncos might keep making cameos throughout these playoffs.
Rivers sported the latest offering after the Chargers stunned the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round on Sunday. It came courtesy of a San Diego-area man, who sent Rivers a bolo he had made from elk antlers more than a decade ago, complete with a polished stone in the center.
"It is a real tie, it is officially a tie," Rivers protested to reporters this week, insisting he was initially flouting new club regulations that require a necktie on game days on the road.
As he did so the briefest smile crossed his face before his intense game face immediately returned, one that will look the Broncos directly in the eye on Sunday.
A few years back, visits to the postseason were routine for Rivers and the Chargers, with the QB making a postseason start four straight years up until 2009. Yet while the other high-profile QBs taken in his lauded draft class of 2004, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, have accumulated four Super Bowl rings between them, Rivers has spent the last three years getting no closer to one, with San Diego shut out of playoff action.
He may never get a better shot than this year. Even if it has to be as a No. 6 seed. Even if it means going into Mile High on Sunday and taking on the team widely acknowledged as the league's finest.
"We don't necessarily think of ourselves as huge underdogs," Rivers said. "We understand that is the perception but we don't over emphasize that. But we know the way we are capable of playing. We've got to keep playing at that level to keep advancing."
Mired at 5-7 as recently as a month ago, a gloomy offseason beckoned for the Bolts. But Rivers inspired a late tear that included handing Kansas City its first defeat of the season – that's when the bolo made its first appearance – and the Broncos their only home setback of the year. The Chargers toppled the Chiefs once more in overtime, aided by a missed field goal in a wild season-ending clash and got some help from the stumbles of others.
Numbers count for little with this club or with this quarterback. The Chargers lost to some of the most insipid teams in the NFL – Redskins, Texans and Raiders are on the list – excelled against some of the strongest, then made a mockery of the Bengals' 8-0 home record in the wild-card round.
Rivers is one of only two active QBs, along with Tom Brady, to have a winning record against Peyton Manning and has laughed in the face of Mile High, piecing together a 6-2 career record in the altitude where so few like to venture. No wonder then that a low seeding and a tag of underdog hold little fear for the Chargers, or their coach Mike McCoy, who served as the Broncos' offensive coordinator for four years before taking over the Chargers about a year ago.
"To be honest with you I believe I am going to win every game I have ever played or coached," McCoy said. "I have never gone into a game thinking we are not going to win. That is how we have been doing it the past month of the season."
In coaching circles McCoy has relative youth on his side and is seen as a football mind on the rise. For Rivers, time may be shorter. He is 32, and though he has had better teams in the past, he has perhaps never had a hotter one.
The Chargers have had a carefree mentality but its on-field leader's approach is quite different, seemingly happy to shoulder the collective pressure burden, perhaps relishing it.
"He just wants us to get the best out of ourselves, that is what he is all about," safety Eric Weddle said.
Rivers trusts this group, has learned plenty about his team over the course of the season and senses it has enough clutch attributes to overcome some technical limitations. It is why he can provide the intensity expected of a leader while still being relaxed enough to rock the bolo, all while trying to conjure another magical performance in what would be a monumental upset regardless of the December win in Denver.
"It gives you confidence to know we can win when we've done it four weeks ago," Rivers said. "We realize how hard it was, how well we played and that it is not just going to happen. It is going to be hard."
He says it with conviction and an intense glare. Another season was drifting away from Rivers a few short weeks back, but having somehow kept the prize within reach, he is not letting his eyes waver for a second.
Fun can come later. First, there is serious business at hand.
Except for those ties.