San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers threw for four touchdowns in Monday night's Chargers win over the Denver Broncos, a victory that put San Diego a game back of division-leading Kansas City. The Chargers next take on Indianapolis on Sunday night.
Rivers will surely focus on trying to get his team to the postseason, but there is something else on the line for the young quarterback: After Monday's action, he is almost exactly on pace to break Dan Marino's all-time record of 5,084 passing yards in a season, set in 1984.
Rivers has had only 528 yards passing in the past two games, and has attempted only 47 passes in that span. Still, he has a very real chance to break the record.
Will he do it? It's impossible to say for certain, of course, but there are certain reasons for hope. Here are 10 of them.
San Diego was supposed to run away with a relatively weak AFC West, and if they had actually done so, Rivers might not have good prospects of breaking the record. He would almost surely sit out at least a half during the season's final weeks, in order to save himself for the playoffs.
As it is, though, the Chargers will be fighting until season's end just to reach the playoffs, so Rivers should be on the field until the final gun blows. That maximizes his chances for success.
As recently as last season, San Diego's offensive identity was tied up in the ground game. Even as Rivers emerged as an elite passer and LaDainian Tomlinson faded, the team remained committed to using the pass mostly to loosen the defense up for Tomlinson and Darren Sproles.
Those days are gone, as is Tomlinson himself. The Chargers did draft Ryan Mathews in the hope that he would fill Tomlinson's shoes, but he did not even before getting hurt. Mike Tolbert has filled in decently, but there is no question now that this offense belongs to Philip Rivers.
Antonio Gates does about everything well as a receiving tight end, and Rivers knows he can throw it up for Gates at times when he might not be able to count on others. Gates leads the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns, and he gives Rivers a target with whom he is eminently comfortable.
The Chargers play Indianapolis Sunday, marking one of only two good pass defenses the Chargers will face during the final six games. Rivers had his way with Denver Monday night and should do so again in Week 17. The final three games especially seem to favor Rivers: San Francisco, Cincinnati and Denver can all be had.
All four of the running backs the Chargers deploy regularly are solid pass receivers, which opens up the flats for Rivers to make easy passes and pick up quick yardage. Darren Sproles is especially valuable in this respect, as he is second only to Gates in receptions among Chargers players.
Besides allowing Rivers to work with the screen game and check down in emergencies, the backs' consistent ability to make plays in the passing game may persuade San Diego to call more passing plays, the better to keep defenses guessing about how those backs will get the ball and where best to position themselves.
One of the most impressive things about Rivers' season so far has been his ability to light up the scoreboard without arguably the Charger's most talented pass receiver, wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Jackson was suspended and then held out, but Chargers beat writer Kevin Acee expects him to play in Indianapolis.
Jackson adds a new dimension to the Chargers offense and gives Rivers yet another target with whom he is familiar for the final stretch of the race for the record, and for the playoffs. Jackson caught 68 balls for almost 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns in 2009.
There is a reason that Marino is the one Rivers is chasing, rather than Tom Brady or Brett Favre: It's a heck of a lot easier to pass the ball in December in San Diego (or Miami, or Houston, or Indianapolis) than it is in an outdoor stadium in cold weather.
Of the top 20 seasons in NFL history by yardage, 15 were posted by passers who played their home games either in warm climates or weather-proof domes. Rivers has three home games and one (Sunday in Indy) weather-proof one left on the schedule.
The Chargers defense surrenders the fewest yards per game in the NFL, and shut down opponents quickly. That translates into more time with the ball in Rivers' hands. In fact, San Diego ranks fourth in the league with a shade over 33 minutes of possession per game.
Shaun Phillips remains an elite pass rusher, and though the defense creates relatively few turnovers, they have held opponents to the third-lowest third-down conversion rate in the league. That ensures Rivers will have enough opportunities to break the record.
In the end, Rivers is going to have to want to break this record in order to do so. It will mean throwing a few passes at times when a run might normally be called, and being willing to settle for six yards if he cannot get 10 on third down. The coaching staff will do its part, one would think, but Rivers must at least subconsciously pursue the record to break it.
That should be no problem, though: No quarterback has ever had more incentive to chase a record like this. Most (like Brady and Peyton Manning when they broke Marino's touchdown record last decade) are already superstars when the begin such quests, or are at least acknowledged as top-echelon passers.
Not so for Rivers. Most still rank Manning, Brady and at least two others ahead of Rivers, despite Rivers' stellar numbers over the last three seasons. Some even rate Eli Manning (who has overshadowed Rivers ever since the the 2004 Draft) and Drew Brees (whom Rivers had to displace to earn his starting job) before him. Rivers has a lot to prove, and a lot to gain by breaking the record.
It's Marino's record, so it's only fair to compare Marino's numbers to Rivers' numbers so far.
Marino completed 64.2 percent of his passes in 1984; Rivers has completed 65.2 percent of his so far in 2010.
Marino attempted 564 passes in 1984, the most in the league. Rivers, if you can believe it, is on pace to attempt 564.8, with 353 attempts so far.
Marino had 3,094 yards even after a 422-yard outburst in his tenth game; Rivers has 3,177 through 10 contests.
It's awfully close, but Rivers seems to have the inside track.