CARSON, Calif. — Midway through an anxious week, as he slogged through a mid-day Southern California commute, Philip Rivers had turkey and traffic on the brain. Sitting in the back of the custom SUV that routinely transports him from the Los Angeles Chargers’ Orange County training facility to his San Diego home, the 15th-year quarterback was eager to join his pregnant wife, Tiffany, and their eight children for an epic family feast.
Yet his stomach was left to rumble, for last Thursday afternoon, the interstate was slower than Rivers ambling out of the pocket and rolling toward the sideline. On the drive that wouldn’t end, he wasn’t feeling particularly thankful.
"The Thanksgiving traffic was brutal," Rivers recalled after his near-perfect performance (no, really) keyed the Chargers to a 45-10 thrashing of the Arizona Cardinals at StubHub Center. "It was worse than (rush hour on) a normal day. I was like, ‘Where is everybody going?’ "
Three days later, Rivers’ right arm was more accurate than traffic-enhanced GPS. His record-setting performance not only helped the Chargers (8-3) bounce back from an ultra-frustrating defeat the previous Sunday, but it also served as a stark reminder that the Rams aren’t the only L.A. team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
There are many reasons to view the Chargers as contenders, but the biggest one is the Smack-talking Sidearm Sensation, whose awkward-looking throws are more lethal than ever as he closes in on his 37th birthday next month.
"He’s incredible," Chargers left tackle Russell Okung said of Rivers. "The guy drops back, breaks down defenses and talks trash to them. They talk trash back to him, and he throws it over their head anyway. He’s fearless out there. And today he was almost perfect."
In completing his first 25 passes, Rivers established a new league standard for most consecutive completions in a single game — and tied Ryan Tannehill’s three-year-old mark for most over a two-game period. He ended up connecting on 28 of 29 throws — setting a new NFL single-game record with a 96.6 completion percentage (20 attempts, minimum) — for 259 yards and three touchdowns. And for what it’s worth, Rivers’ lone blemish might have been avoided had anyone bothered to let him know he was on the verge of making history.
With 6:04 remaining in the third quarter and the Chargers up 35-10, Rivers, on first-and-10 from the L.A. 27, dropped back after a play-fake and felt heavy pressure in the pocket. While absorbing a lower-body blow from Arizona defensive end Zach Moore, Rivers tried to loop a short pass over the middle to Austin Ekeler, but it landed at the halfback’s feet, ending the streak at 25.
"I didn’t know I was one short," Rivers told me afterward as he stood at his locker. "I knew we hadn’t missed, but I didn’t know I was right on it. I won’t say whether I would or wouldn’t have taken the sack if I had known. But looking back, Keenan (Allen) had been in a place downfield where I thought I might be able to have gotten it, but I took what seemed like the safer route."
Had Rivers taken the sack, he’d have gotten no flak from his head coach.
"If I had known (about the record)," Anthony Lynn said as he left the stadium, "I’d have told him to take the sack."
In fact, it was a sack Rivers didn’t take toward the end of the previous Sunday’s defeat to the Denver Broncos which had been largely responsible for a surly week at Chargers headquarters. With two minutes left and a two-point lead, Rivers, on third-and-7 from the Broncos’ 48-yard-line, felt pressure from menacing All-Pro pass rusher Von Miller and instinctively threw the ball into the turf, rather than attempt a screen pass to halfback Melvin Gordon.
By doing so — rather than falling down for a sack that would have bled 40 seconds off the clock — Rivers gave the Broncos, who were out of timeouts, the chance to mount a far less-frantic drive, and the Chargers fell 23-22 on Brandon McManus’ last-second, 34-yard field goal at StubHub, ending their six-game winning streak.
After a slow start against Arizona (2-9), Rivers and his teammates took out their frustrations on the Cardinals in a big way.
"It was a good team win, and we needed it," Rivers said. "This has been a tough week. The way we lost to Denver was upsetting, and I was mad at myself. I’m the one who checked to a screen, and as soon as I released it — you saw my face — I knew it was a mistake. On a screen pass, since you’re 12 years old, you’re taught, ‘If you’ve got it, throw it; if you don’t, dirt it.’ I threw it in the dirt, and that’s on me."
Sensing Rivers’ sour mood in the lead-up to Sunday’s game, Lynn made a point of asking the quarterback to share his feelings with his teammates.
"I let him speak to the team on Friday," Lynn said. "We talked about how we play at our best — when we eliminate distractions; when we’re focused; when we’re pissed off. And he was pissed. He was dialed in all week, because he hated the way (the Broncos game) ended. All those guys did."
Angry as they might have been, the Chargers began meekly on Sunday, with the Cardinals striking first on rookie quarterback Josh Rosen’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald and taking a 10-0 lead into the second quarter. When Rivers fumbled after being hit while trying to throw by Arizona defensive tackle Rodney Gunter, and Cards defensive end Benson Mayowa recovered at the Chargers’ 35 with 11:10 remaining in the first half, the quaint StubHub crowd of 25,343 seemed to groan in unison.
Then the Chargers went on a surge that put their well-rounded operation on full display, scoring touchdowns on their next five possessions (their longest in-game streak since 2006), rolling off 45 unanswered points (which they hadn’t done since 1969) and limiting the Cardinals to 149 total yards (their stingiest defensive effort since 2010). The lockdown performance included two sacks from star defensive end Joey Bosa, who missed the season’s first nine games with a foot injury before returning against the Broncos, and a second-quarter interception by dynamic rookie safety Derwin James, which set up the Chargers’ third touchdown.
After the game, I asked James, the team’s first-round draft pick out of Florida State, if he’d underestimated how good Rivers was before arriving in L.A.
"Hell yes," he answered. "Hell yes! On "Madden," I used to play with him, and I’d say, ‘Who is this sidearm guy?’ Then they drafted me, and I got out there on the practice field, and it was amazing what he was able to do. It’s fun playing with him, bro."
It’s less fun playing against him; at least, it was for the Cardinals’ rookie quarterback. Said Rosen: "That was wild. I went up to him after the game and told him, ‘One incompletion … Dude, that’s f—–‘ nuts.’ "
Once Rivers got hot, there was only one chilling moment for Chargers fans: the sight of Gordon, the team’s highly productive halfback, getting drilled by Cardinals defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche after taking a post-catch lateral from Ekeler early in third quarter and leaving the game with a right knee injury. One Chargers source said he did not believe there was structural damage to Gordon’s knee, but the team was awaiting test results to determine the precise nature of the injury. (UPDATE: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday that Gordon was diagnosed with a grade 2 MCL sprain after undergoing an MRI Sunday night.)
If Gordon is forced to miss some time, it will place even more of a burden on Rivers, who is quietly putting together an MVP-caliber season. Though others have attracted more attention — including Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs’ second-year quarterbacking sensation; Jared Goff, the Rams’ prolific third-year passer; and the Saints’ Drew Brees, Rivers’ former Chargers teammate, for whom he served as an understudy during his first two NFL seasons — Rivers has been that good in 2018.
On Sunday, Rivers hit the 25 touchdown-pass plateau for the 11th consecutive season, tying Brees for the second-longest such streak in NFL history.
What Rivers really wants, of course, is a shot at Super Bowl MVP. His last postseason appearance came five seasons ago, and none of his nine playoff games have been staged with a Lombardi Trophy on the line. In a cruel twist of fate, the ultra-durable Rivers, who on Sunday made his 203rd consecutive regular season start, competed in his lone AFC Championship Game, a road defeat to the New England Patriots 11 seasons ago, after having suffered a torn ACL the previous week.
"I’d like to play in one (healthy)," Rivers said.
Now, with the Chargers a game behind Kansas City in the AFC West, they’ll face a daunting December that begins with next Sunday night’s clash against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
"I think we’re pretty good," Rivers told me toward the end of our conversation at his locker. "We’ve got to clean up a few things, and obviously we’re about to enter a very tough stretch, so we have to be better. If we can keep running the ball and protecting it and playing good defense, we’ve got a chance to do some things."
On Sunday, Rivers did something no NFL quarterback had ever done, and it was more than enough to vanquish an overmatched opponent.
Said Okung, laughing: "I’m gonna need him to do it again next Sunday."
It’s a nice thought, but chances are, Rivers will throw more than one incompletion against the Steelers.
"I don’t expect it to be like that next Sunday," Rivers said.
Rest assured, a victory of any sort would be perfectly fine with him.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.
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