For ringless Philip Rivers, it's now or never time
Bill Parcells had a way of boiling down complex questions into simple answers. It was one of the things that made him who he was, which is to say a Hall-of-Fame coach and football philosopher.
“How does one judge a quarterback?” he was once asked.
“A quarterback, like a coach, is judged by his jewelry,’’ Parcells replied. There was no need to delve deeper into the matter. The best quarterbacks win. The rest don’t.
Philip Rivers doesn’t want to end up among the rest. That is why, at 37 years old, he well knows this Sunday may be his last chance. Despite all his passing yards and touchdown throws and Pro Bowl trips, Rivers has no jewelry after 15 years of trying.
Time is no longer on his side, and he knows it. If he is to avoid a ringless Judgment Day, this Sunday he must finally beat his great nemesis, which is Tom Brady or Bill Belichick, depending on how you want to look at it.
Rivers is a well-publicized 0-7 against Brady and 1-7 against Belichick. Those numbers are cruelly unfair because the truth is only one time, way back in 2006, did he have the better team. But that was his first year as a starter, and he stumbled after leading the then-San Diego Chargers to a 14-2 record and home field advantage.
Brady showed up and knocked him out of his first playoff in his first game. It’s been that way ever since, it seems.
It happened again in 2007, but, to be fair, that game was a mismatch because Rivers needed surgery to stabilize a torn ACL in his right knee six days before he faced Brady in the AFC championship game. Not only was he far less than 100 per cent so were his biggest weapons.
LaDainian Tomlinson had a sprained MCL and lasted only four plays. Antonio Gates had a fractured big toe and played like it. Add the fact Brady’s Patriots were 17-0 that season, playing at home in 23-degree weather and facing a quarterback who, in barely a week would need further knee surgery, it seems fair to say that losing 21-12 was more a testament of Rivers’ strengths than a sign of weakness.
Truth be told, only in 2006 did Rivers face Brady with the better team, and even then he had some nitwit teammates who undid him, none more than a guy named Marlon McCree. McCree intercepted a pass with six minutes remaining and San Diego in the lead, and instead of simply falling down he tried to return it and fumbled, setting up the game-tying touchdown.
You can’t blame Rivers for that or for Marty Schottenheimer’s ill-advised decision to go for it on a fourth down instead of kicking a field goal. Or for Drayton Florence committing unnecessary roughness late in the game after Brady was sacked on third down, allowing New England to keep the ball and eventually cut San Diego’s lead to one.
None of those things were Rivers’ fault, but he did not play particularly well that day, either, and within a couple of years his team began to fade under a cascade of bad draft picks and poor coaches, eventually disappearing from the post-season for over half a decade.
This is only the second time since 2009 that Rivers is in the post-season, and he well understands that if Parcells is right he better do something about it now.
“Yeah, I think there's no denying that you know you don’t have a ton of years left,’’ Rivers said this week. “I want it for our team. I want our team to experience, and us to accomplish, our ultimate goal. We haven’t done it. It’s really not about me. It’s about us.’’
True. It is always about “us’’ in football, not “me.’’ Yet and still, Brady is entering the playoffs for the 16th time in 18 years compared to Rivers’ sixth in 12 years. In New England, it is about he … period.
Brady is 27-10 in the playoffs, while Rivers is 5-5. Brady’s won five Super Bowls and appeared in eight, while Rivers has yet to reach the game that most defines an NFL quarterback.
More significantly this Sunday, Brady is 12-2 in the divisional playoff round, an ominous number for a 37-year-old trying to find a way to get himself the ring that changes everything.
Philip Rivers understands all this, just as he probably understands this will be only the second time he’s faced Brady having the better team behind him. Quite likely, it’s now or never for him.
The Chargers are the most balanced team in the AFC playoffs, powerful on offense and dominating on defense. They can run the ball, throw the ball, stuff the run, and get after the passer. If it’s ever going to happen for Rivers, it would seem this is the time.
“It's exciting to have a chance,’’ Rivers said. “Once you're in it, somebody’s going to win it. One of these eight teams is going to win it. To get a step closer this weekend will be a heck of a challenge, but we’re going to prepare like crazy and be there ready to go.’’
Although this will be the second straight week the Chargers have had to fly cross country to face a playoff opponent, planes are to their liking. While many long for home cooking NFL-style, the Los Angeles Chargers are 8-1 on the road, their only loss coming to the cross-town Rams in Los Angeles.
So while driving to a stadium may not be much of an edge for them, flying to one has been. Of course, awaiting them this time will be the defending AFC champions, a team that while seemingly less than it has been in past years remains 8-0 at home and fully aware of how to beat the Chargers.
Rivers insists his record against Brady isn’t on his mind because he doesn’t really play against Brady. While that is true, Brady’s shadow is a long one, and it has caused more than a few quarterbacks to lose their way – and their minds – from the pressure of feeling they constantly have to do more because, well, Brady is on the other sideline.
“It's not something you think about a whole lot,’’ Rivers claimed. “It exists and it's there but again, and I mean this: I don’t feel that I’m playing Tom.
“Certainly it's a Tom Brady led team, and we know how things work with the quarterback and the head coach that have the record attached to it. We've got a heck of a challenge, our offense, going against that defense and how disciplined they play and how well they play especially this time of year. We've got our work cut out on that side of the ball. Yeah, I think you're aware of that (0-7) stat that is out there, but it’s not something I spend much time thinking about.
“I’ve got to focus on their defense. I’m not playing Tom, by any means. But is it special to go to New England against a Hall-of-Fame coach and arguably the best quarterback ever to play and get another shot at them? Heck, yeah. Heck, yeah, it is. It is special.’’
Anthony Lynn, Rivers’ latest head coach (he’s played for four while Brady has known only Belichick), professes to have no idea of Rivers’ record against Brady, and perhaps that is true. Most coaches possess tunnel vision rather than peripheral vision so maybe so.
But I doubt it.
“No, I was not aware of that,’’ Lynn claimed Wednesday. “But that’s in the past. That’s what I think about. It’s in the past. We have an opportunity to do it on Sunday, so let’s make the most out of it.
"I’m going to be focused on my 11 [players] against their 11. I think that’s good for the fans to look at the quarterback matchup. Fans like that. But I kind of see it as our team against their team, to be honest with you.’’
To be honest with you, that may be, but it’s now how the world will see it on Sunday. Like it or not, this one is Brady vs. Rivers, chapter 8, and if it doesn’t go Philip Rivers’ way this time, it may be the chapter that defines his career.
Winning a divisional playoff game in itself brings no jewelry, so there will be more work to do to define himself the way Parcells and many others define greatness in a quarterback. But the simple truth is this: Philip Rivers has to win Sunday, or he becomes just another quarterback with a lot of big numbers that meant nothing.
That may seem harsh, and it may not be fair. But the NFL is a harsh landscape, one that defines you if you don’t define yourself in moments like this.