Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers hardly needs more momentum entering his team’s home showdown against the Chiefs on Sunday. He is, after all, 6-0 against them at San Diego since 2008.
However, Rivers has thrown for more than 300 yards in two of his last three outings, a red-hot stretch in a season in which he’s completed 69.3 percent of his passes for 1,756 yards, 15 touchdowns and two interceptions for the Chargers, 5-1, who enter the game on a five-game winning streak.
“Right now, I think most people would argue that he’s probably playing the position as well as anybody in the league,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said.
But if you ask Rivers, who recently became the first NFL quarterback to have a passer rating higher than 120.0 in five straight games, he’s the one who is on guard entering the game. He’s seen the tape of the Chiefs’ dominant 41-14 win over New England in week four and is thoroughly impressed with the defense he’ll be facing Sunday.
“It wasn’t a confidence-builder tape to watch that game,” Rivers said. “It wasn’t one where you’re like ‘Oh yeah, ooh man, (we can) hit this and hit that and hit that.’”
Rivers has a point. The Chiefs, 2-3, have made a concerted effort to take away the deep ball, and it has worked. Entering week seven, they have allowed only 11 passes of more than 20 yards, the fewest in the league. The Chiefs allowed that many against the Chargers alone last season.
“They are playing more consistent on the back end,” Rivers said. “They haven’t been as exotic in the pressures as they were last year.”
Rivers, however, was quick to add that the Chiefs still have that stuff in their arsenal, and they don’t fall into many play-calling patterns.
“There’s not a lot of people running wide open,” Rivers said. “Every secondary in the league has given up some plays, but they’re really making teams earn it each and every week.”
It’s true the Chiefs have not allowed a 300-yard passing game, despite facing two of the league’s best passers in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. But the Chiefs are well aware that for all his pleasantries, Rivers is still well-positioned to challenge that Sunday, thanks to a dynamic cast of targets and his own unique skill set, which has improbably blossomed in recent years.
“In the last two years, I really feel like this guy has gone from where you thought maybe he’s leveling off to he’s taking off,” Sutton said.
There were some questions about whether Rivers, a 32-year-old, 11-year pro, should still be considered an elite NFL quarterback after the 2012 season.
It was the sixth and final season of noted offensive guru Norv Turner’s six-year run as the Chargers’ head coach, and it ended with a middling 7-9 record. Rivers’ numbers were solid on the surface: He completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,606 yards and 26 touchdowns. But he also threw 15 interceptions, fumbled a career-high 13 times and posted his lowest rating (88.6) in five years.
So out went Turner and in came Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who helped Peyton Manning win Comeback Player of the Year in 2012. McCoy then hired Ken Whisenhunt as his offensive coordinator, and together, the two helped Rivers bounce back to have a career year in 2013, in which he completed a league-best 69.5 percent of his passes for 4,478 yards, 32 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions.
Rivers’ performance, in which he tied the highest rating of his career (105.5, a mark that he posted five seasons earlier), was a reason Whisenhunt got another head coaching job over the offseason, as Tennessee hoped he could perform a similar transformation with Jake Locker, its young, talented quarterback.
But even though Whisenhunt is no longer around, Rivers has built on the progress he made last season.
“He’s such a gifted guy that in the past, I think he was always waiting to see if somebody big would come open down the field, then he had to gun to get the ball down there,” Sutton said. “But now I think he sees the defense as he’s doing it, and he’s much more comfortable dropping the ball off. I think it has made them a really efficient football team.”
This, Sutton said, is the real key. Rivers’ mind now matches his impressive physical gifts — size (6 feet 5 and 228 pounds), quick release and arm talent.
“The guy can make any throw,” Sutton said. “He’s got a strong arm, a little bit of an unorthodox motion. But oh my gosh, the last two seasons he’s been as accurate as anybody in the NFL.”
That would be a big enough headache for defenses even if it weren’t for Rivers’ targets, many of whom are big, fast and capable of breaking off a big play at any moment. The Chiefs learned that firsthand last season.
The Chargers were one of several teams that tortured the Chiefs down the stretch last season with bunch formations and rub routes, and one of the biggest beneficiaries of that was wide receiver Keenan Allen, who caught 17 passes for 213 yards against them.
“I think he’s really developing as a receiver as far as route running and all those things that just come from experience. But he’s a talented guy; he’s got really good hands. Obviously the quarterback has a lot of trust in him.”
So much faith, Sutton said half-jokingly, that he could put a blindfold on and catch passes from Rivers. The same could be said for star tight end Antonio Gates, a future Hall of Famer who has turned back the clock this season to catch 24 passes for 302 yards and six touchdowns.
“He knows how to lean, he knows what the defense is doing so he can find those open spaces, and of course he does a great job of bodying you or boxing you out,” Sutton said. “Once he gets you on his shoulder, it’s hard to get the ball out.”
But Gates isn’t the only tight end the Chiefs have to worry about Sunday. His protege, third-year pro LaDarius Green, has caught only 11 passes for 156 yards. But Green, a 6-foot-6, 240-pounder, burned the Chiefs for a 60-yard touchdown last season in which he outran three of the Chiefs’ defensive backs to the end zone.
“Gates may have lost a step, but he gave it to 89 because 89 can run,” Sutton said with a laugh. “We saw this out in Arrowhead a year ago, but he’s legitimately fast. I mean, he’s about as fast as any of their wideouts.
“Those are the, kind of, new tight ends in our league. They’re presenting a lot of problems. They are like big wideouts is what they really are. Those always cause you the thought process, ‘How do you want to play that? Match it up?’ Those things. It presents a problem. No question.”
Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith — who was one of three DBs whom Green outran, along with Brandon Flowers and Quintin Demps — agrees.
“When you’re guarding tight ends, it’s real quick,” Smith said. “You can be right there on Antonio Gates’ back, but he’s going to put the ball far and extend it from him. With Rivers’ ball location and release, which is quick, the combination of those things make it real difficult to defend against them.”
The Chargers’ dormant running game has even received a boost in recent weeks, thanks to the recent star turn by undrafted rookie running back Branden Oliver, who is averaging 22 carries for 107 yards and a touchdown with four catches for 45 yards in his last two games.
In fact, Oliver’s stature — 5-7, 208 pounds — and jersey number (43) are drawing comparisons to former Chargers mighty mite (and Olathe North and K-State alum) Darren Sproles, and the Chiefs have taken notice.
“He runs really hard, and he does a lot of different things,” Chiefs linebacker James-Michael Johnson said. “He can run all four downs if you need him to.”
But it’s the passing game the Chiefs must be concerned about, a task that suddenly becomes harder due to injuries. Star safety Eric Berry will miss his fourth straight game because of a high-ankle sprain, while starter Chris Owens — who has been a steady performer in the same nickel role Brandon Flowers operated in last year — will miss the game because of a knee injury.
Berry’s replacement, Ron Parker, has opened some eyes with his play. However, Owens’ potential replacements — rookie third-rounder Phillip Gaines and practice-squad signee Jamell Fleming — are untested.
But Smith said the Chiefs’ philosophy won’t change, just like their keys to winning won’t, regardless of who’s pulling the trigger or how well that guy is playing.
“If you see something, communicate,” Sutton said. “There are no secrets out there on the field. If I’m thinking one thing, I’m going to definitely look back at my safety and make sure he knows what I’m thinking so we can both be on the same page.”
Sutton added that tackling will also be key if they hope to snap Rivers’ home winning streak against them.
“It’s going to take all 11 guys,” Sutton said. “When a guy is throwing the routes that he’s throwing, a lot of them are underneath routes. We’re going to have to do a great job tackling, because there’s a lot of what we would call catch and run plays where the receivers are running across the formation. The ball may not travel very far, but the potential of the play (is big) if they get outside the defense going from one side to the other. A lot of times you think of defending the field in depth. They also make you defend the field in width because of the routes they throw.”
Philip Rivers career passing statistics.