FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- I have written several times this year that Philip Rivers is the best player in the NFL who doesn’t own a Super Bowl ring.
Sunday, he showed he may not be quite ready to shed that complimentary, yet potentially haunting title.
The fact that the San Diego Chargers traveled three time zones and lost to the New England Patriots in Week 2 of the NFL season doesn’t mean a whole lot. The Chargers’ season is not shot. They are still the favorite to emerge from the AFC West. However, Sunday’s defeat was a reminder to San Diego, which can get well quickly with back-to-back home games against Kansas City and Miami in the next two weeks, there is one thing missing from its quest to be the best:
As long as Brady is quarterbacking the New England Patriots, the San Diego Chargers can’t be considered an AFC favorite to play in February. The Chargers can’t stop Brady on defense and Rivers can’t keep up with Brady on offense. Until those facts change, the Chargers will be a level behind the Patriots.
Sunday’s game proved that once again.
The Chargers were not blown out. They had their chances. They failed when it counted. Brady didn’t.
Rivers, who took over San Diego’s offense in 2006, is now 0-5 in head-to-head matchups against Brady. The only time Rivers has beaten New England was in 2008 when Brady was out with a torn ACL.
Rivers was good Sunday, as he usually is. But he wasn’t flawless. He threw two interceptions, both in key situations. In all, the Chargers had four turnovers, including a killer fumble by running back Mike Tolbert in New England territory with San Diego attempting to take the lead.
New England? It didn’t have any turnovers.
Miscues have long killed the Chargers, who have played the role of the lesser team in this rivalry for a solid half decade. San Diego coach Norv Turner has preached the importance of eliminating key turnovers early in the season, where the Chargers stumble most. It was another sloppy effort that has caused the Chargers to fall to 7-9 in September under Turner. The Chargers haven’t started 2-0 in five seasons under Turner.
Watching the film of this game will burn the Chargers. They made it into New England territory on all eight of their possessions. Yet, they scored just three times. San Diego punted the ball once. Turner will have to find a way to stop the mistakes.
Bill Belichick has no such concerns. Brady doesn’t seem to make mistakes. He surely capitalizes on them.
While Rivers was forced to ruminate on his two picks (he also lost a fumble late in the game on a sack), Brady took advantage of San Diego’s offensive miscues.
When San Diego couldn’t punch the ball in from inches on fourth down in the second quarter (the Chargers were primed to take a 14-10 lead), Brady engineered his offense on a 10-play, 99-yard touchdown drive to give the Patriots a 10-point lead.
Shortly after, when Vince Wilfork intercepted Rivers, Brady jumped off the bench to hit Deion Branch for two short passes on two plays to spark a field goal and give New England a 13-point lead at the half. Moments earlier, it was Rivers who seemed poised to lead his team to a crucial field goal. He failed. Brady pounced.
When Tolbert fumbled at the New England 39, Brady smelled blood. His team was up by six with just over 10 minutes to play. The Chargers’ defense was actually starting to have their way with Brady. The Patriots were stopped in their first two series of the second half after scoring on all four of their first-half possessions.
Brady put an end to San Diego’s momentum by leading his team on a four-play, 61-yard touchdown drive to convert the Tolbert mistake into a 14-point lead. After San Diego struck quickly to pull within seven, Brady led the Patriots on an 80-yard touchdown drive to seal the win.
In the end, Rivers just couldn’t keep up with Brady.
Rivers, who led San Diego on 10-of-12 third-down conversions, threw for 378 yards on 29-of-40 passing with two touchdown passes, highlighted by connecting with receiver Vincent Jackson 10 times for 172 yards. But Brady was better as he also unleashed 40 passes. He completed 31 for 423 yards. He threw three touchdown passes.
Rivers’ defensive teammates didn’t do him any favors. After keeping Donovan McNabb to 39 yards passing last week and holding Minnesota to 26 yards of offense in the second half of a comeback win, the San Diego defense simply couldn’t harass Brady enough. Brady completed a team-record 23 passes for first downs.
“You never knew what the call was,” San Diego pass-rusher Antwan Barnes said. “I didn’t know what it was.”
When Brady had to be stopped, he wasn’t. When Rivers had to be perfect, he wasn’t.
That’s the difference between these two quarterbacks right now, other than the three Super Bowl rings in Brady’s possession.
“We lost a game and the guys hate to lose. But we know this season is a 20-week deal, at least that is what the goal is to make it a 20-week deal, and we are only in two weeks,” Rivers said.
Rivers is right. This loss wasn’t the end of the season for the Chargers. Still, it has to be in the back of their heads. If they are going to finally get a chance to play in the Super Bowl, the Chargers must get past Brady at some point.
They simply weren’t ready to do it Sunday.