Separating what is real and what is the product of the media “narrative” is sometimes one of the hardest things to do in sports. People have trouble accepting the truth when they believe differently based on their own experience or recent history.
Outside of Tony Romo, there probably isn’t a quarterback in the NFL more misunderstood or underrated as San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. The one missing piece for both quarterbacks is a Super Bowl ring to legitimize their play.
By some kind of football miracle, Rivers is going to get his fifth crack at a ring starting Sunday at 1:05 p.m. ET when the Chargers travel to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals. Rivers has the opportunity to either reinforce the narratives that have plagued him or prove all the doubters wrong.
The tough part is figuring out what Rivers really has to prove in the playoffs and what isn’t real. So, what is fact and what is fiction when it comes to Rivers in the playoffs?
Rivers is a Choker: Fiction
Every quarterback who has been to the playoffs a few times without winning the Super Bowl is inevitably labeled a choker. Peyton Manning is still a choker to his critics despite the fact that he won a Super Bowl. It’s anyone’s guess how these things get started, but they are probably the bastard child of production and expectations.
“They can’t win the big game.”
In reality, Rivers is probably the poorest excuse for a choker in NFL history. In December, Rivers is arguably the best quarterback to ever play the game. When the season is jeopardy and the team needs to win, Rivers chokes up production and wins.
With 66 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and 8,337 yards in the month of December, Rivers is quite possibly one of the most clutch quarterbacks to ever play the game depending on how you define it. Some people might define clutch in a moment, but anyone can have a moment of brilliance. It’s undoubtedly more clutch to perform consistently week-to-week when the season—not just one game—is on the line.
The Chargers are 30-7 in December with Rivers at quarterback—the third-highest winning percentage of any quarterback in NFL history in December behind Tom Brady and Roger Staubach, and just in front of guy named Joe Montana.
Rivers also has a higher passer rating in those games than Brady or Staubach and the third-highest in December behind Manning and Aaron Rodgers overall. Passing rating and quarterback wins are obviously flawed, but only Rodgers has a better touchdown-to-interception ratio than Rivers in December (minimum 20 games).
Just to get into the playoffs this year, the Chargers had to win five of their final six games. Every game was do-or-die for Rivers. Not only did Rivers win 83.3 percent of those games, but he threw 13 touchdowns to just three interceptions while averaging 248 passing yards per game.
Rivers was able to produce those stats and win in the NFL’s best ball-control offense. The Chargers had just 167 offensive drives in the regular season, the fewest in the entire league. In some ways, the Chargers offense was better than the record-breaking Denver Broncos but just had fewer opportunities.
The Chargers won nine games during the regular season, and Rivers had four fourth-quarter comebacks and four game-winning drives. This includes two drives in the final two minutes on the road—one in Week 2 vs. the Eagles and a 78-yard touchdown drive against the Chiefs in Week 12.
Trailing by 10 last week to a bunch of the Chiefs’ backups, Rivers led the Chargers to 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to clinch a spot in the playoffs. The Chargers obviously didn’t play well, but Rivers was able to lead them to scores on their final three possessions.
Rivers may be prone to having a poor performance every so often, but there’s absolutely no evidence that he’s a choker. It's actually quite the opposite.
Rivers hasn’t produced in the playoffs: Fact
The one thing Rivers can’t escape is his playoff performances. In seven postseason games, Rivers is 3-4 with just eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. That’s not great; there’s no way around it.
Of course, the only performances that people remember are the ones that come in losses. No one cares that Rivers had a poor performance in a postseason victory over the Indianapolis Colts in 2009.
Of Rivers’ four postseason losses, only two can really be considered poor performances by how we normally define them—his first postseason appearance and a 21-12 loss in January 2008 to the New England Patriots.
All the rest of Rivers’ postseason performances were wins, good performances or average. Even the illustrious Brady has had some poor playoff performances over the years and plenty of average ones, but as long as he wins the game they are forgotten.
It’s not fair to put all the weight of wins and losses on the quarterback either. Quarterbacks are the most important player on the team, but there are plenty of things they can’t control and don’t have that much of an impact on. For example, defense has been a major problem for the Chargers this season, otherwise Rivers' performance should be good enough for more wins.
It's also easy to look past Rivers' great performances in the postseason because of a few bad ones. One of Rivers’ four postseason losses was actually a great performance. Rivers threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers—the No. 1 defense in the league—in a 24-35 loss in January of 2009.
|Year||Opp||D Rank||Comp %||Pass Yards||TD (Tot)||INT||QB Rating||YPA|
In total, Rivers lost to a top-five defense in the playoffs four times, but he's 3-0 in the postseason against teams with defenses that were not in the top five. None of the playoff teams in the AFC have a defense ranked higher than fifth this year, but as luck would have it, it’s the Bengals—Rivers’ opponent on Sunday.
Still, Rivers is 3-1 in the postseason against defenses other than those ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the league. There's a small sample here that says that Rivers is very good against in the postseason when not playing one of the top couple defensive teams.
Rivers hasn’t been as brilliant in the postseason as he has been during the regular season. There’s no denying it, but it’s a lot more common than people think. Rivers’ performance in the playoffs has been less than stellar because of the defenses he’s played. Rivers is like most quarterbacks in that they pad their stats against bad defenses during the regular season.
Brady is considered the best postseason quarterback alive, but his postseason numbers (completion percentage, yards per game, touchdown rate, interception rate, etc.) are worse than his regular-season numbers too. Brady has also only faced the league’s top-ranked defense one time in the postseason in 24 career games.
Against top-five defenses in the postseason, Brady is just a game better than Rivers at 4-3. A lot more depends on matchups than people think. It's not necessarily the ability or performance of one of 53 players.
This is a do-or-die postseason for Rivers: Fiction
Obviously, there is no way to predict how many opportunities a quarterback will get in the postseason. Rivers certainly needs to seize the moment, but even if the Chargers fall flat on Sunday—he’ll likely get another opportunity.
The Chargers weren’t even expected to make the playoffs this year, and a month ago no one thought it was realistic. How can we say that it’s now a do-or-die postseason if it wasn’t even a do-or-die regular season?
Rivers is 32, which is still pretty young for a quarterback—especially in a league that is hellbent on protecting a quarterback's health. San Francisco 49ers’ great Steve Young played half of his 20 postseason games age 33 or older. Brady has played six at age 33 or older and Manning five—both will be adding to that total in two weeks.
In total, 57 different quarterbacks have played in at least two postseason games at 32 or older. That number drops by 11 quarterbacks to 46 at age 33. On average, for every year older a quarterback gets, the odds of him starting at least two postseason games goes down roughly 20 percent.
Of course, this ignores the quality of the quarterback. Good quarterbacks tend to play a lot longer. Manning, Brady and Brees are all older than Rivers and made the postseason this year. All of them are also still playing some of the best football of their careers.
Rivers has also made the postseason five times in nine years as the starter. Even if we assume he only makes the playoffs one out of every two years or so, he should make it again with the Chargers before his contract expires in 2016.
Does anyone really think that the Chargers will not give Rivers an extension if he keeps playing like he did this season? Chances are Rivers has plenty of good years left and at least a couple more playoff appearances.
Rivers clearly needs to perform better in the playoffs, but a lot of his past poor performance was probably due to the strength of the defenses he faced. He should find it a little easier to perform against the Bengals or any of the other AFC teams.
We know that Rivers is a good quarterback and that he's not a choker—he wouldn't have this opportunity if he was. Rivers carried the Chargers and a bad defense this season, winning games he needed to win and having several clutch moments along the way.
If anything, this is a bonus year for Rivers. It’s not do-or-die; it’s do-and-delight. Maybe this can be the magical year that has eluded Rivers for his entire career. As the opponent in the Philadelphia Eagles' home opener—the last four of which have won the Super Bowl—maybe it's Rivers’ destiny.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.com.