Don’t feel bad if you counted the San Diego Chargers out.
They were counting on it.
Forgotten for dead and left to rot after a brutal spat of early season injuries, San Diego went 1-4 out of the gate. Their carcass became chum for sports columnists and opposing defenses alike. Forget written off, they were simply ignored.
That the four losses came by a total margin of 14 points seemed to be but a footnote.
That the offense seemed to not skip a beat despite losing Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver for the season was somehow bypassed.
That the guy behind center has as good a grasp on the locker room as anyone in the game was all but dismissed.
Lo and behold, the Chargers have won two straight, including a home win against the then-undefeated Denver Broncos, and a win last Sunday at the then-5-1 Atlanta Falcons.
And that guy behind center – Philip Rivers – is the reason why.
Rivers entered his 13th pro season with 160 straight starts under his belt, dating back to 2006, when he took the reins from the departed Drew Brees. Coming off back-to-back seasons with 93.8 passer ratings, Rivers finally had a healthy, full supporting cast.
This was the year.
Turns out, it still could be.
Rivers has upped his game to a 102.4 rating, with 2,018 yards and 13 touchdowns to 4 interceptions, and he’s almost single-handedly kept the Chargers afloat.
“When it comes down to crunch time, Philip is like Kobe (Bryant),” San Diego defensive lineman Brandon Mebane told ESPN.com. He is clutch, man, so I’m rooting to give him the ball, and he is going to take care of us.”
Now he’s drawing Kobe comparisons?
Not too far off, considering what he means to his team and his city.
Rivers wore every hit on his face during Sunday’s press conference after beating the Falcons, but he looked like a guy who is more than happy to shoulder the load. Only he sounded just as relieved talking about a San Diego defense that allowed the high-flying Falcons only 3 points after the half.
“I know it’s easy to say this after a win, everybody can say this after a win, but we came in at halftime, and I must have said it seven or eight times, we’re gonna win this game,” Rivers said. “Of course I say it now, but I really was saying that. It was that no panic, we’re gonna find a way.”
And now he has to do it again.
For the second time in three weeks, the Chargers must solve a Denver defense that ranks among the league’s best, if not at the top.
Rivers puts it plainly – “I don’t think either of us are a ton different in a week span,” he said in a Wednesday press conference – but the key difference is the Chargers were 1-4 then and 3-4 now, with a lot more on the line.
“Our challenge is to keep that edge, keep that saltiness we had when we played Denver the first time,” he said. “We trotted out there 1-4, coming off a brutal loss at Oakland, sick of losing, sick of everything, really.”
Things can change lightning-quick in the NFL, and now the Chargers find themselves in the thick of it. At 3-4, they are two games back of Oakland and Denver, and a game behind Kansas City.
Winning in Atlanta went a long way in convincing them to hang tough.
“We haven’t won two in a row in a long time, haven’t had a road win in a long time, and we’ve lost a lot of games that have been close, (where) somebody has the ball late in a drive and we’ve lost them,” Rivers said.
Not this time.
Not with Kobe Rivers under center.