COSTA MESA, Calif. – Perhaps the most surreal special moment of the Los Angeles Chargers’ improbable season came last week, deep in the wild-card victory that would secure a shot at the New England Patriots this Sunday.
In the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens and leading 20-3, Philip Rivers, 37 years slow, suddenly took off into open space. He tottered his way to nine priceless yards, absorbed a tasty hit at the end of the play, then spontaneously unraveled the move that would launch a thousand social media grins.
Rivers rose to his feet, tilted his head to the side, paused statue-like for a moment, then theatrically thrust out his arm to signify “first down.”
The 15-season veteran is no-nonsense and practical to a fault, pretty much the last guy you expect to take off and (kind of) sprint and an improbable candidate for an on-field celebration. All of which made it all the more wonderful, of course, unless you are a Ravens fan.
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In pro football, where the loosening of restrictions on how players respond to big plays has provided gif gold and shifted the No Fun League into the Now Follow League, Rivers’ jab was the celebratory version of a dad joke. Hammed up, unashamedly so. Utterly dorky, and completely lovable. Predictably the internet adored it, and so did everyone else.
And the underlying message to it all? In case you hadn’t noticed, Rivers and his barnstorming Chargers are having fun, and shaping up as smiling assassins in the process.
San Di….sorry, L.A., is coming off a 12-4 thrill ride of a campaign and poses a threat the five-time champion Patriots are refusing to take lightly. Tom Brady has a career 7-0 record against Rivers but has never faced his fellow future Hall of Famer in form like this. Or as relaxed as this. Celebrations and all.
“The little 15-year-old boy came out in me,” Rivers said on Wednesday, when quizzed about his impromptu dose of showmanship. “It was good. It was the first thing my wife said when I got home, she was just so happy to see (me) having so much fun.”
The value of Rivers’ focused but low-key approach to the postseason is not lost on second-year coach Anthony Lynn, who unlocked the puzzle of the surging Ravens two weeks after losing at home to the same team.
“Guys who haven’t been in this situation, he can help them out,” Lynn said. “He is relaxed. He can slow things down.”
For the second week running the Chargers will head to the East Coast for a game that kicks off, according to their body clocks at least, at 10 a.m. The antidote, says Rivers, is enjoying the process.
“You have to (have fun),” he added. “It is a job, an important one. There are families and many people involved, but at the same time … it is a game. That was important for us last week, to not feel that all of a sudden we have got to play a perfect game, because this is the playoffs. Let’s just play.”
Rivers brings veteran leadership and a steady hand to the camp. His ninth child is on the way, the oldest of whom was born when third-string quarterback Cardale Jones was just 9. He dresses in cowboy boots and listens to country but his fellow signal-callers, Jones and Geno Smith, think he’s plenty cool.
“Rivers has swag man,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports. “He is the swag master. That celebration? That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”
Rivers has miserable memories of the Patriots, and it is in some ways fitting that if the Chargers are to go a step further in what has been a golden season that nearly landed them the No. 1 seed in the AFC, overcoming New England should be part of the journey.
It all started with a heartbreaking divisional-round defeat in January 2007, ending a Chargers’ season that had seemingly unlimited promise after LaDainian Tomlinson spearheaded a 14-2 regular-season record.
A year later came the only other playoff meeting and another unsatisfactory conclusion. Rivers, playing through a torn ACL, repeatedly took the Chargers down the field – but not into the end zone – resulting in a 21-12 defeat.
It was a long time ago now, and a lot has changed. Mock the Chargers if you like for leaving San Diego and parking temporarily at Dignity Health Sports Park, a 30,000-seat soccer stadium. But underestimate this team, with its exquisite defense and Rivers’ solid guidance, at your peril.
At a combined age of 78, Brady and Rivers will be the oldest pair of starting quarterbacks in playoff history. It will be a rare occasion in which Rivers is the comparative youngster, four years shy of Brady in both age and NFL longevity.
“It doesn’t happen so much anymore where I’m the young one,” he said.
Maybe it is appropriate then that Rivers, invigorated by the Chargers’ return to significance after years in the doldrums, has the vibe and enthusiasm of a rookie as one of his long career’s greatest opportunities approaches.
“If it becomes not fun,” he said, pausing for a moment with a beaming smile, “then we’re in the wrong deal.”