When Philip Rivers says the San Diego Chargers have “kind of seen it all” since he took over for Drew Brees in 2006 - including squandering home-field advantage, making the playoffs with a .500 record and going on their current seven-game winning streak - he’s right. Except when it comes to the final month of the season.
The Chargers have seen only one thing in December - wins.
San Diego (9-3) has taken control of the AFC West and opened its favorite month with a victory at Cleveland last week. The Chargers improved to 15-0 in December with Rivers as their starting quarterback.
“As a team, obviously, we’re playing our best football,” he said. “It’s been a year where it’s probably taken more guys contributing in many roles throughout the streak than at any other time I can remember.”
Banged up during a 2-3 start, the Chargers haven’t lost since Week 6. On Sunday they visit Dallas, a team with the opposite final-month history recently. The Cowboys are 5-9 in December since 2006.
The Chargers quietly have become the second-best team in the AFC behind Indianapolis. San Diego gave up 30 or more points three times in the first five games; that hasn’t happened since. And the offense has reached 21 points in every game.
Leading the way hasn’t been the Darren Sproles-LaDainian Tomlinson running game - the Chargers average only 3.3 yards a carry (down from 4.1 last year) and 88.7 yards a game (down from 107.9). Rivers, however, is having another great year. On the cusp of clinching a fourth playoff berth in as many seasons as the starter, he has completed 64.7 percent of his throws for a 104.9 passer rating, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. During the winning streak, he has 14 touchdowns against only three picks.
Rivers doesn’t get nearly as much notoriety as Brees, Tony Romo and Super Bowl winners Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Brett Favre, but he should.
“[Opponents] all know they better play at a high level against him,” coach Norv Turner said. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s obviously going to deliver the ball to the right place.”
Said Rivers: “I’ve been as consistent as I’ve been, but there’s still room for improvement, room to get better, room to keep ascending.”
The Chargers as a whole are used to operating under the radar.
“It’s almost better that way,” Rivers said. “As a team, we’ve been down that road of getting the offseason hype, and it didn’t quite work out the way we wanted it to.”
In 2006, San Diego went 14-2 to clinch home-field but lost to New England in the divisional round. In 2007, the Chargers beat Tennessee and then won at Indianapolis before falling to the Patriots in the AFC title game. And last year, they won four straight to capture the division at 8-8, upset the Colts in the opening round and then lost at Pittsburgh.
“We feel we’ve put ourselves in a position to do something in the postseason year after year,” Rivers said. “Every team as they grow have a different personality and a different makeup. The group of players we have… we’ve kind of seen it all. All that experience we’ve gained has developed a mindset and a lot of knowledge of how to get things done. If we can keep that where it is, we’re going to give ourselves a real chance.”
The Chargers face a challenging remaining schedule - at Dallas (8-4), vs. Cincinnati (9-3), at Tennessee (5-7) and vs. Washington (3-9) - and the Bengals game likely will decide who gets the No. 2 seed in the conference.
“There’s a lot of things that have to happen for you to play well in December,” Turner said. “Your guys have to hang in there and believe in what you’re doing. You have to have good fortune and stay healthy. And the last two years, we’ve been healthier in December than September.”