When will Philip Rivers get the love he deserves, I asked you in that headline above. And the answer is both simple and, for the Chargers franchise, apparently impossibly complex: when he wins.
Rivers, who’s played in every game for the Chargers since 2006, owns the peculiar distinction of living his entire professional life in the shadow of bigger-name quarterbacks. Before he even took a snap, he was the Other Guy in the trade that sent Eli Manning from San Diego’s hands into New York’s. He spent his first couple years in San Diego backing up Drew Brees. And every time he’s appeared poised to break through the ceiling just above his fingertips, there’s been another stud quarterback ready to shove him back down a level or two. Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, and division rivals Peyton Manning and now Patrick Mahomes — every time Rivers has been good, someone else has been just a touch better, relegating him to “also receiving votes”-style QB limbo.
Rivers vs. Eli: No contest
Which, in a way, is more than a little unfair to Rivers. He ranks sixth all-time in career touchdowns, and eighth in career passing yards, and he should pass Eli and Roethlisberger this year. Compare him to the player with whom he entered the league, and Rivers trumps Eli in pretty much every major category: completion percentage (64.6 to 60.3), touchdowns (381 to 362), Quarterback Rating (95.8 to 84.1) interceptions (180 to 241), even quarterback wins (120-116), if that’s your thing. But you know the category where Manning leads Rivers — rings, 2 to zip — and in the bottom-line world of the NFL, that counts for plenty, even if Manning’s currently out of a job and Rivers is still owning his.
So what’s different this year? At first glance, not much. At the quarter-pole of the season, Rivers ranks third in the league in passing yards, tied with Jared Goff at 1,254. He’s seventh in completion percentage (69.2), eighth in Quarterback Rating (105.8), and sixth in attempts (146). And his team is 2-2 thanks to two one-possession losses to the Lions and Texans, games in which the Chargers held a lead midway through the fourth and third quarters, respectively.
Plus, the team offense as a whole is clicking, averaging 403.8 yards per game to rank fifth in the league. Keenan Allen is leading the league in both receptions (34) and receiving yardage (452). Austin Ekeler’s been a capable last-second backfield replacement for Melvin Gordon, who’s expected to return to the field in the next week or so.
Where the Chargers have struggled is in putting points on the board relative to their stats; their 22.5 points-per-game average ranks 14th in the league. The defense allows 18.5 points per game, good for ninth-best in the NFL, though the Chargers allow conversions on over 50 percent of all third-down attempts, third-worst in the league. These are early-season, broad-strokes numbers, yes, but they illustrate the trouble that Rivers, and by extension the Chargers, faces: the offense is very good but not quite good enough to outrun defensive inefficiencies.
Good, but not good enough
That good-but-not-good-enough dynamic has defined Rivers’ career. He’s gone to the playoffs six times in his 13 years as a starter, and four of those years he’s advanced at least one game. Rivers’ specialty is staying on the field: he’s started 212 games in a row since getting the gig back in 2006. He’s nearly four years ahead of his next-closest competition, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (151), though he’s got more than five seasons to go to catch Brett Favre’s 297.
But durability alone won’t win rings, and yet again, Rivers has to will himself and his team up and over mountains. This year, he’s again looking up at superior teams in the Chiefs and the Patriots, but once again he’s looking at a schedule that sets up incredibly well. Aside from the two divisional games with the Chiefs and a couple NFC North matchups against the Packers and Bears, the Chargers ought to be favored in every game from here on out.
The question for Rivers going forward, as it always is, is whether the Chargers will be able to overcome their inherent Charger-ness — that ugly tendency to faceplant in big moments, give away big leads, lose the most winnable of games. It’s a strange dysfunction that runs from the turf all the way up to the front office, up and down the California coast.
Week 17 could feature one of the most crucial games of the year: a showdown in Kansas City between the Chiefs and Chargers. If Rivers is going to make that game mean anything, he’ll need to dominate not just the next three months of opponents, but an entire franchise history. And if he pulls it off, he’ll get all the pent-up acclaim he’s built up over all these years.
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