As opening kickoffs approached, few teams were trending downward as dramatically as San Diego.
Of late, the star-studded Chargers have been an ongoing tease – underachieving in play-offs for years, then descending into mediocrity with an aggregate break-even record the past three seasons.
Much scrutiny had fallen on Philip Rivers, an elite quarterback who passed the eye test, but whose leadership skills came into question when the Chargers’ trophy case did not fill up. The past two seasons, his passer rating, typically more than 100, plunged into the 80s. He suffered the fourth-most sacks in the league, rendering him occasionally, and understandably, in panic mode.
With a fresh coaching staff this season and an offensive line riddled with holes, San Diego were thought to have entered rebuilding mode. Two weeks in, they are 1-1, but Rivers and the offence have dazzled, racking up 61 points.
His QB rating is 115.8, fourth in the league, and he is tied with Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers with seven touchdown passes. The ground game, second-worst for yards per rush a year ago, seems resuscitated. The line is safeguarding Rivers, whose only historical flaw has been abandoning his throwing mechanics when under pressure.
The Chargers are wearing redesigned uniforms for the first time in a decade, but the players in them made the difference in a close loss to the mighty Denver Broncos and an equally close win over the potent Philadelphia Eagles.
“When you have had three years like we’ve had, being just about a .500 team, you lose a little bit of respect from other teams around the league,” Rivers said. “We’ve taken a step toward getting some of that back.”
So has Rivers. Some view the veteran as a contentious figure, which mystifies him.
“No, I don’t see myself as polarising,” he said, rejuvenation with the new coaches evident. “I play with a passion and a love for the game. It’s the only way I know. And it’s real. It’s genuine.”
Rivers’s targets this season have been something old, plus something fairly new to him.
The tight end Anthony Gates, drafted by San Diego a year before Rivers in 2003, has amassed 173 receiving yards. Eddie Royal, a slot receiver and second-year Charger after four seasons in Denver, has converted 10 catches into five touchdowns, two more than any other player.
Malcolm Floyd, last seen leaving the field on a stretcher for the hospital with a neck injury in Philadelphia, is due back, which would restore the full complement of receivers around Rivers.
Keenan Allen, another Chargers receiver, said Rivers is “a great player and one of the smarter guys I’ve been around ... He can read coverages and change calls at the line of scrimmage. He’s really great to play with.”
Polarising? Not with his teammates.
Sunday’s top games
X-Green Bay Packers at Cincinnati Bengals One of these Super Bowl hopefuls will slip to 1-2. The Pack’s pass attack is as vaunted as ever, while RB James Starks steps in for concussed rookie Eddie Lacy. The Bengals defence has fared far better and Andy Dalton is knocking on the door of the elite-QB class.
X-Atlanta Falcons at Miami Dolphins Falcons are as beat up as a team in the season’s stretch run. The loss of TB Steven Jackson and blocking back Brady Ewing, combined with a transitioning offencive line, will expose bruised QB Matt Ryan to more hits. Injury epidemic for Atlanta could make for a festive home opener for the undefeated Dolphins.
X-Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens Texans are living on the edge, having overcome deficits of 21 and eight points to stay unbeaten. Offence has been spasmodic, though carries for star TB Arian Foster, above, have been trimmed to preserve him for the long haul. Ravens’ defence carried the day in last week’s win as QB Joe Flacco learnt of his son’s birth an hour before kick off.
Sunday’s other games
St Louis at Dallas
San Diego at Tennessee
Cleveland at Minnesota
Tampa Bay at New England
Arizona at New Orleans
Detroit at Washington
NY Giants at Carolina
Buffalo at NY Jets
Indianapolis at San Francisco
Jacksonville at Seattle
Chicago at Pittsburgh
Oakland at Denver
Stat of the week
In the previous four seasons, 29 teams started 0-2 and none reached the play-offs. In 2008, three of 11 teams that opened 0-2 won their divisions.