COSTA MESA, Calif. -- The Chargers and Dolphins were tied 24-24 late in their 2016 game at San Diego when Philip Rivers, having brought his team to the brink of field goal range, worked the play clock from his senior command post in the shotgun formation.
The suspense built with every tick of the clock as the Chargers' career passing leader searched for whatever answers he could pry from the Dolphins' defense. Finally, with 10 seconds left before the Chargers needed to snap the ball, network TV microphones picked up Rivers calling out a familiar audible.
Thus began a tactical battle that would span two seasons, leaving Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke with a story to tell -- and an appreciation for Rivers that so many in the game share.
This 36-year-old quarterback with a league-leading 195 consecutive starts recently passed Fran Tarkenton for sixth on the NFL's all-time list for touchdown passes. Only Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Dan Marino have more. Rivers ranks in the NFL's all-time top four for passer rating, yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt among the 26 quarterbacks with at least 5,000 career pass attempts.
Yet there is no stat representing what Rivers enjoys most about the games themselves, and what makes him so fun for opponents to play against. The tactical battles with opposing players and coaches bring special pleasure to those competing at the highest level. Especially Rivers.
"No question," said Rivers, now in his 15th season. "Beyond the camaraderie and being with the guys, my favorite part is the game within the game."
So the next time you see an exultant Rivers running along the opponent's sideline after a big play -- a "flyby," as one opposing coach put it -- remember that there's probably a reason deeper than the play's result itself. Rivers probably won the game within the game as well.
'Watch the screen! Watch the screen!'
Back to that 2016 Dolphins-Chargers game in San Diego. Fourth quarter, tie score, Chargers ball, first-and-10 from the Miami 42. Game clock at 1:21 and rolling, play clock at 14 seconds. One timeout left for the Chargers.
Rivers, leaning forward in a ready position from the shotgun formation, will soon be heard making a "Mickey" call that has been a staple of his pre-snap audible game.
"Easy, easy," the broadcast audio reveals Rivers enunciating.
Rivers' teammates now know to expect the snap soon, and to listen for last-second changes. The play clock is down to 12 seconds now.
"Easy, easy ... EASY, EASY," Rivers repeats with growing urgency.
"Mickey easy," Rivers says abruptly.
The quarterback is the only one speaking, but that is about to change.
"Mickey Phil! Mickey Phil!" Rivers shouts, and now it's on.
Linebacker Jelani Jenkins reacts as though he has just caught Rivers exiting the Dolphins' team hotel with their defensive game plan in a briefcase. Jenkins jumps up and down, arm raised in a desperate attempt to alert his teammates before the snap.
"Hey, watch the screen!" Jenkins screams from his position outside the offensive right tackle, maybe 7 yards away from Rivers and well within the quarterback's line of sight.
"Watch the screen! Watch the screen!"
Chaos has replaced the calm before the snap. Rivers' voice has ceded to a cacophony. Two seconds remain on the play clock. The moment of truth is near.
Rivers burns the Chargers' final timeout. He walks to the sideline knowing this battle was lost.
The Dolphins were wise to the audible. One of their linebackers at the time, Donald Butler, had spent the previous five seasons with the Chargers, so he had heard all the calls from Rivers: Tiger, Mickey, Massachusetts, Chocolate ...
Both teams changed their playcalls during the timeout. Things couldn't have worked out better for the Dolphins. On the very next play, linebacker Kiko Alonso dropped into coverage and gathered Rivers' pass for a pick-six interception. This Week 10 game was all but over, but the game within the game was only beginning.
'You won't get Philip Rivers twice'
Rivers would exact some revenge when the teams played again in Week 2 of the 2017 season. The score was 3-3 in the second quarter of the rematch when Rivers, drawing upon the screen call that Jenkins sniffed out in the previous season, convinced the Dolphins he was audibling to another screen, just like last time.
"We went through the same verbiage, signaled and everything," Rivers said.
Two Miami defenders swarmed to cover a potential receiver screen at the snap, blanketing Travis Benjamin just outside the yard-line numbers. Alonso raced toward Benjamin as well. The hook was set. By the time Alonso realized his mistake, reversed course and sprinted into coverage on Keenan Allen, the receiver was 4 yards behind him and pulling away. Rivers fired a strike to Allen up the seam for a 24-yard gain to the Miami 4-yard line.
"I will never forget," said Burke, the Dolphins' defensive coordinator. "We are like, 'Watch the screen!' He hits the screen-and-go on us and does the little flyby on the sideline and it was just like, honestly, I think he relished winning that mental battle, tricking us, as much as he enjoyed having a 30-yard completion on us or whatever it was."
The Chargers would get a touchdown out of the drive.
"You won't get Philip Rivers twice," Denver Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. "He is the son of a coach and he gets it. We got him one time years ago with this pressure off the slot. The next time we played him, we ran the same pressure and the only tell was how the front was aligned. Philip checked to a screen in the slot and got a touchdown. A lot of quarterbacks, when they win, they don't even know why they beat you. Philip knows why he beat you."
'Guys just relish those moments'
Burke has a bachelor's degree in psychology from Dartmouth and a master's in education from Boston College, so we might expect him to relish these mental battles as well. He said Rivers is particularly skilled at using every available second on the play clock, knowing that the defense will usually panic before Rivers ever does.
When Burke was linebackers coach with Cincinnati in 2015, the Bengals' Vincent Rey, a Duke graduate who also embraces the mental side of the game, spent all week reminding himself what coaches had been telling him: not to let Rivers goad him into declaring the defense's alignment too long before the snap. Like Peyton Manning, Rivers can be especially dramatic at the line of scrimmage. Is he changing the play or just messing?
A big test arrived on a third-and-6 in the fourth quarter. Rivers unleashed a triple cadence with an early leg lift. Was the snap imminent? Rey resisted the temptation to adjust the defensive front to the Bengals' preferred alignment. Who would blink first? As the play clock wound down, Rivers was the one who appeared out of sorts, clapping his hands feverishly to initiate the snap. The Bengals got a sack out of the play.
"Vinny was just so excited that he was able to outlast him and hold it down where Philip was clapping and trying to get the snap," Burke said. "We get the sack and Vinny goes crazy on the sideline, running over, 'I got him! I got him!' Guys just relish those moments."
'I'm about to die a slow death'
Recently retired 11-year NFL linebacker Paul Posluszny compared the feeling to a slow death -- that moment before the ball is snapped when the defender knows the veteran quarterback across the line of scrimmage has solved the puzzle and placed the most vulnerable defender in his crosshairs.
Posluszny experienced one of those moments during a 2016 game between his Jacksonville Jaguars and Rivers' Chargers.
"We are in a zone pressure and Philip sees it based off our alignment, how the safeties are down, very small details like that -- details that him and Brady can pick up, but so few others can," Posluszny said.
The tight shot of the quarterback's face moments before the snap can be the analytical TV viewer's enemy, hiding the shifts and motions that dictate the action when play begins. In this case, the camera captured Rivers' eyes locking in on his unshown prey -- Posluszny -- like a hawk spotting a bunny in a meadow. There was no secret what play Rivers was checking into.
The Chargers' Benjamin, 175 pounds and the owner of a 4.36-second time in the 40-yard dash, aligned as the No. 3 receiver -- directly across from a certain 232-pound former Butkus Award winner.
"He starts making his checks, looks at me and makes sure nothing changes on my side," Posluszny said. "I said, 'He's coming at me. I'm about to die a slow death.'"
Rivers' pass to Benjamin gained 43 yards.
"Even if you have a super-sharp Mike linebacker like Luke Kuechly and Philip is making his check, you need to be so instantaneous to counteract that," Posluszny said. "There is not enough time to communicate it across the board unless you go to something that is so, so simple -- your base defense, Day 1 install."
Even then, it can be difficult to communicate the changes to cornerbacks who are locked into their matchups on the perimeter.
"Against other quarterbacks, maybe younger ones that don't have the command of the offense or the ability to make that check, we're fine," Posluszny said. "We are bringing a zone pressure, pressure is going to get home, plenty of time for me. But Philip sees that right away, gets the ball off in time, knows where the pressure is coming from, knows where he needs to move in the pocket for that extra split second to give him time to get the throw off. It's uncanny."
'He got it word-for-word, actually'
The Chargers and Seattle Seahawks played an epic game in the September heat of San Diego back in 2014, when Seattle was the defending Super Bowl champion. With the on-field temperature reaching 120 degrees at kickoff, Rivers completed 28 of 37 passes for 284 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions as the Chargers won 30-21 -- one of only three times a Seahawks opponent reached 30 points from 2012 to 2014, a span of 48 games.
This game surely must have featured some advanced gamesmanship, but when I asked Seattle's Bobby Wagner for his favorite Rivers story, the All-Pro middle linebacker reached back days, not years.
"This preseason, we were running a blitz against him, we walked to the line of scrimmage and he called out our blitz," Wagner said. "He couldn't check it, so he called timeout. And he walked up and he was like, 'Y'all running such-and-such, huh?' I was like, 'Nah,' but I was thinking, 'Dang, he got it word-for-word, actually.' You see a guy at that age still putting in the work, it is impressive and inspiring."
Lessons from 19 games vs. Rivers
Derrick Johnson faced Rivers 19 times when the linebacker played for the Kansas City Chiefs, and he'll add to the total this season after signing with the Oakland Raiders. The 14th-year veteran called Rivers a master of looking off defenders, especially when tight end Antonio Gates was involved.
"That used to kill me -- I hated it," Johnson said. "Most quarterbacks, you go through a progression. He is like, 'Nope, I am going to hold you here.' He holds in the middle for a couple seconds, then keeps his shoulders right at Gates in the middle, and then he throws it outside the hash to somebody else on a curl route or some in-breaking route or even a running back on the outside."
Johnson echoed the Dolphins' Burke when he said sometimes teams will make borderline random defensive calls just to make it impossible for Rivers to decipher them.
"His knowledge of the game is out the roof, his passion for the game is unbelievable -- just a very fun guy to play against," said Johnson, who has a 9-10 career record in those 19 matchups against Rivers. "He talks a little noise. He is jawing back at you -- not cussing, but talking trash. And after the play, he is laughing with you at times."
"Honestly, he has gotten me more times than I've gotten him, but one time he was in the shotgun, there was only one linebacker in the box [Johnson] and he was checking to a run," Johnson said.
It could have been one of those slow-death experiences Posluszny described, but Johnson adjusted his alignment just enough to get a piece of the running back. What became a forgettable 2-yard run for everyone else is a lasting memory for the linebacker involved. That's the game within the game.
"If you see the film, you are saying, 'My goodness, if I didn't move over, 40-yard touchdown right there,'" Johnson said. "Right after I hit the guy, Philip Rivers said, 'Oh my goodness, you should have seen that play. That was a touchdown!'"
'There is nothing like it'
In a time of relative tumult for the NFL off the field, Rivers is a weekly reminder that the game itself can be as fun and rewarding as ever. On the field, in the moment, the emotion that animates Rivers' competitive streak has endured through nearly 200 consecutive starts and even a franchise relocation to Los Angeles.
"Philip loves the game and he loves to compete and you can tell," retired Chargers center Nick Hardwick said, "but deep down, the essence of his enjoyment on game day comes through his preparation that ends up paying off, where it was almost an 'I got you' or 'I knew it' moment, where the film matches up with the playbook, with the practice study, with what he sees in the game. That fist bump that you do after it all comes together, there is nothing like it."
It's a feeling Rivers hopes to enjoy in Week 3 when he faces a highly ranked Rams defense featuring former AFC West adversaries Wade Phillips, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. There are danger signs. Peters picked off Rivers four times while with Kansas City, tied for the most interceptions off Rivers by a single player. Talib has one pick in eight matchups between the two.
We'll know that game's winner Sunday.
As for finding out who won the games within the game? That could take a while.