Derrick Johnson's favorite story about Philip Rivers begins with a hard hit and ends with a hearty laugh.
“One time, about four or five years ago, he got hit pretty hard, and he thought it was me,” Johnson said. “And he got up, and because I was the first person there, he’s like ‘Like you don’t hit hard, you’re a finesse linebacker. You can’t hit hard.’”
Johnson, who has long relied on his athleticism to make plays at inside linebacker, remembers that he could not help but laugh about that one.
“And I’m like, 'It wasn’t even me, but I've got you next time, though,' ” Johnson said.
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As good as that story is, that might not even be the best one a Chiefs defender has about Rivers. Toward the end of the Chiefs' 19-7 win over the Chargers in last year’s season finale, defensive end Nick Williams remembers another good-natured Rivers barb.
“He told us, 'Don’t worry about it, y’all going home, too,' ” Williams said with a laugh.
So this is the kind of guy the Chiefs will be facing at 3 p.m. on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium — a jovial gunslinger who loves the game of football as much as he likes talking trash, a reputation that apparently dates back to his days at North Carolina State.
“Yeah, he’s a coach’s kid, and he grew up around it, loves to play the game,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He was that way in college. One of my college coaches actually coached him in college and said he’s a very, very competitive guy, loves to play the game.”
Don't be fooled by the Chargers' 2-7 record this year, either; the 33-year-old Rivers, who boasts a 13-6 career record vs. the Chiefs, is still pretty darn good.
“He’s a competitor, and we respect him, we respect him a lot,” Johnson said.
Despite a litany of injuries at receiver and along the offensive line, Rivers has completed 269 of 390 passes for 3,033 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's second in the NFL in passing and is on pace to finish with 5,392 passing yards, which would be the third-most in NFL history.
“He’s at over a 100 quarterback rating, and that was pretty much what he was last year,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “I think the thing that has been really impressive about Philip, no matter who comes into the game, it doesn’t faze him a bit … there’s no throws he can’t make and he usually tries all of them before it’s over.”
Sutton said the Chiefs will need to be diligent about defending running back Danny Woodhead, who leads the Chargers with 58 catches, and future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates, who has caught 28 passes for 312 yards and remains a weapon at age 35.
“He knows how to use them, trusts them, knows where they're going to be,” Sutton said.
Those two are big reasons the Chargers not only possess the league's No. 1 passing offense at 328.6 yards per game, but are also fourth in third-down conversion percentage and second in total first downs.
But the biggest reason, of course, is their quarterback, who has done an excellent job of getting rid of the football quickly. Only the New Orleans Saints have thrown it more than the Chargers this year, yet Rivers has only been sacked 21 times, which is in the middle of the pack league-wide.
The Chiefs, however, have shown the ability to get to Rivers in the past. When they met in the season finale last year, Rivers was sacked a season-high seven times. He hasn't been sacked more than four times in a game since then.
“When a guy gets the ball out that quick, you have to cover tight and hope you can get him to hold it for just one more click and maybe you can get home on it,” Sutton said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. When anyone throws a ball that quick you can’t get frustrated.
“The key thing out of it is moving the ball. If they’re not moving the ball and the chains aren’t changing, then don’t worry. Just keep on pressing and eventually we’re going to get our chance, and he’s going to hold it one more click and maybe you can’t get him down. But he’s a hard guy to get down.”
And it might be a little tougher to get him down this week, too; 6-foot-9 left tackle King Dunlap and 6-foot-7 left guard Orlando Franklin have been battling injuries for the last several weeks, but are both listed as probable for Sunday. Sutton expects those two to give the Chargers a lift up front.
“Those are big, good, football players, and I’m sure that that would matter a lot,” Sutton said. “If they get both of those guys back, I’m sure they plus themselves in that regard.”
Not a bad thing for a Chargers team looking to dig its way out of the abyss, much like the Chiefs, 4-5 and winners of three straight, did following a dispiriting 1-5 start.
“Obviously they had lost five in a row at one point and now they’ve gotten on a roll,” Rivers said. “That’s where we are, sitting at five in a row, we’re trying to see if we can get on a roll and obviously this is going to have to start on Sunday.”
So, needless to say, Rivers is going to be into it. And if he starts getting on a roll — and heck, even if he doesn't — there's a pretty good chance he'll start talking.
Needless to say, the Chiefs are looking forward to it.
“It is fun, because he’s going to challenge you, he’s going to challenge you,” Johnson said. “And when he does get the best of you, he’ll let you hear about it. And vice versa, when we get the best of him, he’s going to hear it, too. So that’s going to be cool.”