Philip Rivers' cerebral approach lifts carefree San Diego Chargers

CINCINNATI -- Philip Rivers walked around the locker room, muddy uniform pants on, cleats off, goofy smile on his face.

He stopped at Shareece Wright's locker, laughed over the cornerback's third-quarter interception of Andy Dalton and moseyed on. He grabbed at Eric Weddle, still smiling.

Way across the bowels of Paul Brown Stadium, in a much more funereal home locker room a few minutes later, Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson shook his head -- in admiration -- and said, "They put Philip Rivers in a position to succeed."

The NFL's leader in completion percentage attempted just six passes in the first half. He threw another six in a gutting second-half opening drive and then just four more all day. The Bengals' strength was their wicked pass rush; if Rivers had dropped back all game, he'd have been a lot more black and blue. Instead, he and his Chargers teammates flew cross-country to win 27-10 in this Wild Card Weekend stunner.

There is another piece here. Before this game, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said the big difference between the Rivers they beat in Week 13 and the one who'd rattled off four straight wins since was cerebral. Over and over, with marked consistency, he put his offensive line in the right protections. Over and over, he made the right calls and checks. He didn't force anything. Mike McCoy, the quarterback whisperer who coached Jake Delhomme to a Super Bowl appearance and Tim Tebow to a playoff win, was making Rivers better.

And making sure he looked better. All those cutback runs Sunday? The Bengals did not foresee them; they didn't fill their gaps correctly in the first half and were gashed, by a mix of Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and even Ronnie Brown.

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the San Diego Chargers' 27-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals from Wild Card Weekend on Tuesday, Jan. 7 at 3 p.m. ET.

» NFL Network schedule

Tight end Antonio Gates gushed afterwards, "For (Rivers), it isn't always about throwing. All day, he knew exactly what play to get us into."

Contrast that to the game plan for the Bengals' third-year quarterback, Andy Dalton. Cincinnati, 8-0 at home during the regular season, had hit the 40-point mark four times in a row in this building before settling for 34 in the regular-season finale against Baltimore. And yet, Donald Butler and Melvin Ingram both said Sunday there wasn't one surprise, not one tweak to the Bengals' offense.

"They weren't doing anything we didn't practice for," Butler said, in the biggest indictment of all. "It was very vanilla."

One week after the Ravens picked off Dalton four times (and still lost), Ingram picked off a Dalton pass and wouldn't give himself much credit. After all, he said it was a wholly predicted move.

And somewhere in here, somewhere between where the Bengals -- stacked with playmakers and boasting a dominant defense -- were the runaway favorites who turned fatally bland, the Chargers showed they're way more than a team Lady Luck has shined on.

Yes, they needed two teams to lose, a Chiefs kicker to miss a last-second field goal and the seat of their pants to qualify for this postseason dance. But they've prepared like contenders. They've bought in to their plans and each other. And they've been playing these elimination games for weeks. To use Bengals coach Marvin Lewis' phrase, they haven't flinched.

"Go ahead and write us off," Butler said. "There's been no pressure on us. We get to go out and play like we're in the backyard."

Late in the first half, the Bengals were rolling. Deep in Chargers territory, rookie running back Gio Bernard beat Butler and the Chargers' zone defense, taking a Dalton pass 12 yards before Butler -- "pissed off," in his own words -- reached after the ball and knocked it loose.

"That was a game changer, a game saver," Weddle said afterward, remembering the touchdown it saved and the momentum it stalled. "He was beat and he didn't give up. That epitomizes this team."

Pepsi NEXT Rookie of the Year
Keenan Allen emerged as a go-to receiving threat for the Chargers, catching 71 passes for 1,046 yards. Was it the best rookie performance of 2013?
VOTE NOW

There's a fight and there's a faith and a belief. Weddle said he thinks this is more of a team than he's ever been on, because there are no runaway superstars and players have to rely on each other. Wright said there had to be an intrinsic belief in each other because "no one else believes in us."

Gates said there's a "swagger" about this Chargers team, and in this up-and-down season, San Diego's certainly showing a freewheeling confidence of late -- while riding a definite upswing.

And so, now in a bolo tie, cowboy boots and a blazer, as Rivers readied for the flight home to San Diego and then on to Denver, he proudly named his team's game: "It's Charger ball. It's playoff ball."

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.