I cannot allow this weekend of football to go by without going all gee-whiz on what one of the forgotten men of football, Philip Rivers, did against the Cowboys. Rivers played the best game of his professional life on Thursday.
I just didn’t see it coming. Then again, there’s something fitting, something almost a little too storybook, about what has happened this year to the three franchise quarterbacks from the top of the 2004 draft. Ben Roethlisberger (picked 11th in 2004), with two Super Bowl wins on his résumé, was going to pilot the most explosive offense in football in Pittsburgh. Eli Manning (picked first), with two Super Bowl wins on his résumé, was going to follow up on his 11-win season in 2016 and contend for a Super Bowl. Maybe it’d be Roethlisberger versus Manning in Super Bowl 52 this February.
Rivers (picked fourth) is always the third quarterback in the class. No Super Bowl wins. No Super Bowl appearances. He did lead the league in something in 2016: interceptions. This year the Chargers, coming off four- and five-win seasons, moved to the bandbox ballpark in Carson, Calif., south of downtown L.A., waiting for the stadium they’d share with the Rams to be completed. Rivers, turning 36 this season, would be keeping the seat warm for the next quarterback. Maybe Sam Darnold. Maybe Josh Rosen. L.A. guys for an L.A. team.
But here we are, 12 weeks into 2017, and Rivers, with a late surge, is the best of the famous trio this season. The aw-shucks guy from Decatur, Ala., is first among those three in passer rating (95.2) and yards per attempt (7.60), and tied with Roethlisberger in yards (2,948) and TD passes (20).
This week Rivers played his 201st NFL game. I contend the 28-6 victory over Dallas was the best game he’s played in the NFL. Statistically, there’s no question it was. Rivers had never played a game with at least a 135 rating, with 10 yards per attempt, at least 325 yards passing and a completion percentage of 75 or better. He blew those marks out of the water against Dallas: 149.1 rating, 13.2 yards per attempt, 434 yards passing, 81.8 percent completions. I covered his most meaningful NFL game 10 seasons ago, when he outdueled Peyton Manning in Indianapolis in the playoffs. But this game was better, I thought, because of the number of tight-window, downfield throws.
Add three touchdown passes and zero picks against Dallas, and those are all-time numbers for any quarterback in any game … never mind one that the Chargers had to have to keep their ridiculously improbable AFC West title hopes alive. They were four games out after four weeks, but now, at 5-6, they’re one back of Kansas City with five games to play—and 0-11 Cleveland coming to Los Angeles this week.
“You mention that might be the best game of his career,” Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt mused Saturday. “And think of this: He’s 27 of 33, with two throwaways, with all the difficult passes he completed. And playing on Thanksgiving for the first time, which was a big deal for him. Being in it, being there, I can tell you this was a special game, a really big game. Like a playoff game.”
What impressed me so much was the placement of the throws. Rivers always played with the confidence of Unitas, even when the result didn’t match that greatness. But throw after throw, slung in his sidearm or three-quarters delivery, was on point. It helped that he got some hugely athletic catches-and-runs from the monstrously talented Keenan Allen against the Cowboys. Rivers needed Allen. But Rivers did so much on his own.
My favorite throw came late in the third quarter, the Chargers nursing a 9-0 lead at the Dallas 27. Rivers’ tall and green undrafted third-year guy from Western Oregon, Tyrell Williams, got press coverage at the line. Williams knew on this play-call, if he got tight bump coverage at the line, the route would convert to a go. He also knew he’d be Rivers’ first read on the play. Williams read it right. Rivers, from the Dallas 35, let it fly to the right pylon—but not just to meet Williams there. The ball was thrown so the 6'4" Williams could use his five-inch height edge on Dallas’s Anthony Brown. It was a sky ball, thrown on a line but so Williams would have to jump for it. At the 2-yard line, with Brown all over him, Williams leaped for the ball and snagged it over Brown’s head. Just a beautiful throw.
Whisenhunt coached Roethlisberger early in his career, and then Kurt Warner late in his career. “It’s eerie,” said Whisenhunt. “But this game reminds me of that playoff game Kurt played against the Packers [Warner was 29 of 33 in a 51-45 playoff win in the ’09 season] … the accuracy of their throws, how they attacked the defense, how they made their checks. They are just in an elite league doing that.”
I saw Rivers in training camp, and he was the good Chargers soldier, saying all the right things about a move from San Diego to Los Angeles that he hated. “Joe Optimist,” I called him. I said that to Whisenhunt on Saturday. “He is Joe Optimist,” Whisenhunt said, “and he’d been that way since the summer. A lot of guys can be that way, but they can’t all deliver like Philip has. We lost early, but he believes in our scheme, and he knew it was a matter of time before we played well. I believe his optimism is the light that’s carried us through.”
The Chargers are 5-2 since Oct. 2, and four of their final five games come against teams currently with losing records. Think of this, if the Chargers win the AFC West and get the fourth seed in the AFC: They win a wild-card game, and then go to the top seed in the divisional round. Maybe Rivers versus Roethlisberger, paying homage to the ’04 draft; maybe Rivers versus Tom Brady (with an oppressive pass rush helping in both cases). Suddenly, the AFC playoffs don’t seem so boring.