KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There's been something different about Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers all season, a critical change that became even more evident on Thursday night. A player known for being a reckless gunslinger at times has evolved into a crafty leader who has grown tougher with age. The people still waiting for Rivers to implode in the most crucial moments must learn to expect more of him these days. The Kansas City Chiefs certainly understand the importance of that after the way their latest game ended.
The Chargers' 29-28 win over Kansas City is the biggest victory Rivers has enjoyed in years. Along with ending a nine-game losing streak to the Chiefs, it enabled Los Angeles to improve to 11-3 and move into a first-place tie with Kansas City in the AFC West. The victory also allowed Rivers to exorcise some brutal demons from his own career. After all, he played a huge role in those previous losses to Kansas City, as he threw nine touchdown passes and 13 interceptions during that well-documented stretch of futility.
That confidence has plenty to do with the fact that Rivers is arguably enjoying the finest season of his career. He's always been prone to pressing the issue and making mistakes that hurt his team in the end. This year, though, he's become more trusting of his supporting cast -- and more willing to let them carry a larger part of the burden in winning games. That mindset has helped make the Chargers one of the most balanced teams in football, a squad that can win in a variety of ways.
The most telling aspect of Thursday's win wasn't that Rivers completed 26 of 38 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns; it's that he rallied his team once again when defeat seemed all but certain. The Chargers trailed the Pittsburgh Steelers by 16 points at halftime two weeks ago and managed to grind out a 33-30 win. This time, they were down 28-14 with 8:15 left in a game that would've clinched the AFC West title for Kansas City had the Chiefs held on for the win.
That should've been the time when Rivers and his teammates fell apart. Instead, that moment galvanized them, with their quarterback leading the charge.
"It was awesome," Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. "To have two interceptions and then come back and play the way he did, leading the team down the field, was awesome to see. But he's been doing it all year long."
"I'm not surprised Philip had this kind of result," added Chargers left tackle Russell Okung. "The guy is phenomenal in his preparation. He demands a lot out of us and, more importantly, himself. So when he can make a couple plays at the end of a game, that's what we expect. That's the standard for him."
The Chargers needed Rivers to be at his best in the final eight minutes. After Chiefs running back Damien Williams scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to make the score 28-14, Rivers led Los Angeles on an 11-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown run by Justin Jackson with 3:49 left in the game. Rivers completed six of nine passes on that possession. When the Chiefs couldn't gain a first down on their next possession, they gave the Chargers one last shot with 2:37 left on the clock.
There were basically two plays that exemplified everything Rivers was in the second half of this contest. The first came with the Chargers facing first-and-20 from their own 30-yard line after a holding penalty. Rivers dropped back, saw wide receiver Travis Benjamin racing up the middle of the defense and fired a pass that resulted in a 39-yard gain. Rivers never hesitated on the throw and hit Benjamin in stride between three defenders. The second play was even more crucial. With Los Angeles facing a fourth-and-8 from the Chiefs' 36-yard line, Rivers sailed a perfectly thrown pass into Benjamin's hands again, this time for a 26-yard completion. Anybody who has watched Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes understands that such plays have become his trademark in what is likely to be a season when he wins the league's Most Valuable Player award. Anybody who has watched Rivers play against the Chiefs since 2013 realizes he hasn't had any feats like those in five long years.
"They busted the coverage," Rivers said. "We had Travis over there with [Williams]. When we motioned Travis, they had to communicate. They were playing man coverage. They went in and out and we had two coming in. So Mike went back out. It was the same play we ran for Mike's first touchdown (in the second quarter). We just dressed it up a bit."
In fairness to the other Chargers, there was plenty of credit to share in this win. Williams had seven receptions for 76 yards and scored three touchdowns, numbers that were vital to a team that lost its best wide receiver, Keenan Allen, to a hip injury in the second quarter. Jackson and fellow rookie running back Detrez Newsome combined for 92 yards on 22 carries and helped compensate for the loss of injured veterans Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler. The Los Angeles defense also contained Mahomes and the Chiefs' prolific offense, limiting Kansas City to a season-low 294 yards.
As significant as all those contributions were, the Chargers still needed Rivers to be something more than he's been in a long time. He's now in his 15th season and it's no secret that his career hasn't matched those produced by the other notable quarterbacks who entered the NFL with him in the 2004 draft. Both the Giants' Eli Manning and Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger have won two Super Bowls since that time. Rivers has only reached the AFC Championship Game once and that was all the way back in 2007.
"I don't know what more we can face to be ready for January football," Rivers said. "I'm not jumping ahead because we have work to do still. All this did was give us a spot. We still need help from Kansas City and we have to win our next two to win the division. But I don't know what else we can deal with. I don't think there's any situation we can get in that we haven't seen. That means you feel equipped and ready."
There used to be a time when many people questioned if the Chargers would ever be ready for a deep playoff run with Rivers again. They saw the mistakes, the inconsistency, and simply figured his time was slowly passing by. That used to be the narrative that Rivers had to fight every year. Now he's writing a new tale every week, one that might just lead to the kind of ending he's always wanted.