It looked as if the San Diego Chargers were on their way to a season-opening win in the late game of ESPN's Monday Night Football doubleheader. In the end, it was the Arizona Cardinals who thundered back in the fourth quarter, erasing a 17-6 deficit to come out with an 18-17 win. As Cards quarterback Carson Palmer said, it was a great team win, and it sets Arizona up pretty nicely in an NFC West that looks like it could be just as competitive as it was last season.
Here are three thoughts from the game:
1. Philip Rivers may miss Ken Whisenhunt more than we (or he) thought.
Though head coach Mike McCoy was justifiably given a lot of credit for the reinvention of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in 2013, it was offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt who really worked with Rivers every day, giving the QB less of a vertical game to work with and more of a quick, timing-based offense that allowed Rivers to see the field with less pressure and more defined reads. But when Whisenhunt left to become the head coach of the Tennessee Titans, new offensive coordinator Frank Reich stepped in, and at this point, the results are mixed. Rivers finished with 21 completions in 36 attempts for 238 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and he had just 80 yards in 20 attempts in the first half.
Far too often, Rivers bled the clock dry as he had the year before, but this was not a fast offense, and the protection was not in Rivers' favor. He climbed the pocket often to evade pressure, but still found more pressure far too often after those escapes. He missed open targets more than once and left several opportunities on the field. This could be an issue of Rivers and Reich still adjusting to each other and trying to get on the same page, but in an AFC West where the Broncos already have the look of a team ready to make another charge to the Super Bowl, San Diego's margin for error is pretty thin. The Chargers can't afford too many more nights like this.
"Mistakes. Just too many mistakes in crucial times," Rivers said. "We had plenty of opportunities on offense, and I've talked to a few of the defensive guys who felt that they let a few slip by, too."
2. Arizona's depleted defense is still a potential force.
The Cards were without inside linebackers Karlos Dansby (free agency) and Daryl Washington (league suspension), as well as defensive lineman Darnell Dockett (injury) and Frostee Rucker, Dockett's replacement, who was also hurt in this game. On top of that, primary pass-rusher John Abraham left in the third quarter with a concussion. But it didn't seem to matter, as Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles dialed up a confounding array of blitzes that kept the Chargers on their toes and Rivers off balance for most of the night. Outside of the 14 points San Diego scored in the third quarter, Arizona's defense was on point all the way through, and it was a credit to Bowles that it ended that way. San Diego gained just 52 yards on 24 rushing attempts, and though Rivers was never sacked, he was pressured fairly consistently. The Chargers' first four and last two drives ended in punts. Veteran Larry Foote, one of the inside linebackers replacing the Dansby/Washington combo, led all Cards defenders with eight tackles, and two tackles for loss.
3. Carson Palmer's still got it.
At least in the fourth quarter, he certainly did. Palmer threw both of his touchdown passes in the final 12:35, and he hit a total of 11 targets along the way, Atypically, Larry Fitzgerald wasn't thrown to until late in the game, and it was Michael Floyd who led the team with seven catches for 119 yards, including a long catch on a beautiful Palmer airball. Palmer hit running back Stepfan Taylor for his first touchdown of the night early in the fourth quarter, and followed it up 10 clock minutes later with a quick screen to rookie receiver John Brown in which Brown blew through about five different Chargers defenders for the score. It would appear that in head coach Bruce Arians' second year, he and Palmer are on the same page regarding how this offense is going to work, and Palmer looks as good as he ever has as a result.
"This was one of those games where we got something going, and we didn't. We got something going, and then we didn't," Palmer said after. "It was a dogfight, and we knew it was going to be -- it's a good football team that won a game in the playoffs [in 2013]. That's a team that's going to win a bunch of games. We're very fortunate to fight that hard and get what we got in the fourth quarter."
Bonus Thing: Chris Berman and Trent Dilfer need to be sent packing from Monday Night Football.
Put simply, neither one of these guys is great in the booth. Berman is fine with highlights and bloopers -- short attention span theater -- but he falters badly when asked to carry a narrative through a three-hour football telecast. And while Dilfer, the ex-NFL quarterback, is knowledgeable enough, he also has an overwhelmingly keen desire to hear himself talk about things that have nothing to do with what's happening on the field.
That was all bad enough, but in the first half, when Berman and Dilfer started opining on the facts of the Ray Rice timeline as they saw them ... well, that was not pretty.
Berman: "You know the news today -- Ray Rice no longer a member of the Baltimore Ravens. The continuation of what happened when a film of he and his soon-to-be wife in the elevator was seen by everybody. Waived immediately by the Ravens, suspended indefinitely by the NFL, and he probably won't play football again for good reason. And so, now there's a lot to be talked about here, as we get set for action. And the Ravens acted right away, didn't they, Trent? They had to!"
Dilfer: "Yeah, I talked to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti this morning -- he woke up this morning, had seen the video for the first time, and went into the office. Met with his leadership and his management team, acted quickly and decisively, and really had no other choice but to release him from the organization."
Berman: "And look, it goes beyond quickly ... the Ravens didn't get any call from the league. It was very quickly done, but it's larger than just football and Baltimore."
Dilfer: "It really is. And in my role as head coach in Nike Grass Roots Football, I encounter over 1,000 of the very best high-school football players in the country every year. And every one of them dreams of playing on Sundays and Mondays. That's the ultimate goal. And I think the NFL did a great job of sending a very stern message, which is, 'Listen, it's more than being a great football player. You've gotta win off the field as well."
Berman and Dilfer go on and on from there, but you get the point. They were praising an organization that painted Janay Palmer as an accessory after the fact on social media and on its own website, while painting Rice as a victim of judicial malfeasance in the court of public opinion -- Bisciotti's comment months ago about the P.R. hit Rice was taking was perhaps the most disgusting part of this whole episode.
And they were praising a league that screwed this investigation up so badly, Roger Goodell was forced to do something he NEVER does -- admit he was wrong. The subsequent change in the league's domestic violence policy was nothing but damage control, and if that video hadn't surfaced, Ray Rice would be on his way back to the Ravens' facility this week.
"Winning off the field," indeed.
Berman and Dilfer need to be zapped off any future prime-time broadcasts (certainly any this season) for this unthinkable breach of integrity in shilling for a team and a league, and both should publicly apologize. As the Rice story overwhelmed pro football throughout Monday, the words of these two "broadcasters" brought it all down to a very sad level at the end of the day -- a level that proves no matter what, some people will never get it.