Philip Rivers, the only passer in the Class of 2004 left standing, jogged off the field in his grass-green Charger uniform late Sunday afternoon …
Whoa. Chargers wore white against Baltimore. “Grass-green?”
Grass-stained, from shoulder pads to nameplate to numbers, front and back. Equipment guys aren’t getting that baby pristine unless they wash it six times.
Lots to unpack after this game. It starts with that defensive plan. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley threw the changeup of the NFL season at Baltimore, making a dominant run game feeble with a seven-defensive-back alignment from the first snap of the game to the last. When Bradley first discussed it with coach Anthony Lynn early in the week, Lynn said, “Are we insane, or what?” Nope. It worked. The Chargers (13-4) flummoxed Baltimore with 58 snaps (out of 59) of seven-DB defense.
The Chargers did this for health reasons—they’re beat-up at linebacker—but also for strategic ones. Instead of playing 240 pounds-250-251 across as their three ‘backers, Bradley wanted to go 195 (Jahleel Addae), 210 (Adrian Phillips), with rookie all-pro safety Derwin James (215) coming into the box at times—like the first defensive snap of the game. Lamar Jackson, the biggest running threat in the league at quarterback right now, broke for the right end on the first play from scrimmage in front of a jacked-up crowd.
Loss of one. James stoned him.
“The momentum of the defense rose from there,” James told me afterward. “When that play happened, we just got so jacked.”
Midway through the first quarter, an NFL GM acquaintance of mine texted me: “Chargers playing with 7 DBs. What’s this all about?” Speed. Quickness. Playing Lamar Jackson. That’s what it was about. “I wasn’t sure how this was gonna hold up,” Lynn said afterward. “They were running for 300 yards lots of games with Lamar playing. Gus felt like getting speed on the field could help contain Lamar. It could help in the passing game, dropping back and taking over routes that our linebackers usually cover. It worked. Our guys, they embraced it. It was risky, but it paid off. We’re talking about going up against a rushing attack that no one can stop right now. And we’re gonna do it with two 200-pound guys?
“What was cool,” said James, “is our DB room, we got seven or eight guys in there everyday. And today, every one of them started and played the whole way, basically.”
It’s infectious being around James, who will compete with Indianapolis linebacker and NFL tackles leader Darius Leonard for Defensive Rookie of the Year. You can tell he loves his space in life. He talked to every media member for as long as he could Sunday, punctuating it with talking on FaceTime to a slew of friends, at one point introducing one to Melvin Ingram. It’s cool to see someone who loves the game and wants to be great acting out his dreams.
“So you guys haven’t lost all year outside L.A.,” I told James. “Why are you so good away from home?”
“It’s fun being around guys who love being into football 24/7,” he said. “We love football. We love it, we love it, we love it. When we get on the road, we get to spend more time together talking football, being together.”
James, Desmond King, Ingram, Michael Davis … The Chargers have picked a bunch of players recently who love football the way Philip Rivers does. That showed up play after play Sunday. Did you notice Rivers acting out Sunday? He got whacked hard by Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon twice in the second half—and Rivers thought both hits came a little late, after he’d released the ball on a pass. So Rivers got fired up at Judon, and they jawed, and Judon at one point looked hurt and struggled to get up. “That’s what you get!” Rivers hollered at him.
And so on the Chargers’ last scoring drive of the game, early in the fourth quarter, Rivers, a plodder, escaped trouble and lumbered nine yards for a first down on third-and-eight. When he got up, Rivers looked like Steve Smith. He thrust his chest out for the 45 Ravens and 70,432 fans to see.
By his locker afterward, no longer grass-stained but still filthy (and deliriously happy), Rivers did his best to dissect how it happened. He did a terrific job of dumping off passes milliseconds before a cover-zero rush would get to him. “They brought cover-zero again on us some, and we took advantage when we got an opportunity for big plays. I told [friend and Baltimore safety Eric] Weddle and [defensive coordinator] Wink Martindale after the game they did a heckuva job. What did we have? A little over 200 yards of offense.”
Now the Rivers will head back to the East Coast late Friday after a full week of prep for the Patriots. And Rivers knows this could be his last shot at the elusive Super Bowl. One of the most annoying NFL storylines, to Rivers, is that his 2004 draft-mates Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning have a total of four Super Bowl wins. He has zero.
So, I asked him, will the trip to Foxboro be especially important, with the sands of time running out of the hourglass?
“I think … definitely, probably, maybe I’ll be even more excited. I think probably even a little bit more emotional. You know? So you’re going to Foxboro … That gets me a little bit. Last time we were there in the postseason was 2007, or January ’08, but 2007 season. That’s 11 years ago, you know. Now we’re going back in there … I went in there at 26 and go back in at 37. You know. With a totally different team.
“But because you’re going against a Bill Belichick defense, a Bill Belichick team, and Tom Brady-led team … you’re talking about arguably the greatest of all time. I’m not playing Tom. But it’s always special. Peyton Manning was always a favorite to play. It was special to look over and say, ‘Peyton Manning’s leading that team over there!’ That was special to me. Tom Brady’s gonna be the guy leading that team over there this week. That’s special. I’m not going against Tom, but it’s special.
“I think this team is just … I think we’re a little more weathered. You know? We just been through a lot. We’ve been all over the place. We’ve been to London. We’ve been everywhere on the road and won. We’ve won with defense. We’ve won with offense. We’ve won with kick returns. We’ve won with field goals. There’s no other way we can win. I don’t know that we can be put in a situation and go, ‘Oh gosh, how are our guys gonna respond?’ That doesn’t mean you always win. But I don’t know anything that can come our way that can make us go, ‘Help!’ “
Good vibe out of the Chargers’ cramped locker room Sunday. They’re one-third of the way down the Super Bowl road. That second trip, though. It’s a doozy.