Colts at San Diego
Kickoff: 8:40 p.m. Monday in Qualcomm Stadium
Radio: WOWO, 1190-AM
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Here comes Philip Rivers, squeezed between Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning on the Indianapolis Colts schedule, flying under the radar yet flying high. The Colts defense should be worried.
This isn't the same old Rivers, prone to risk-taking and interceptions, a Pacific time zone version of Jay Cutler. Rivers has found his rhythm under new coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, rising into the Top 5 in the NFL in quarterback efficiency.
Rivers has weapons, he has confidence and he has a history of playing well and winning against the Colts.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck will be making his Monday Night Football debut, but the game could hinge on who prevails in the Rivers vs. Colts defense showdown.
“He's a game-wrecker,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said.
After the Colts' early-season diet of speedy, read-option quarterbacks, Rivers brings the more traditional, drop-back, read and fire approach. From the teams the Colts have played so far, Rivers is most like Miami's Ryan Tannehill, only with a wealth of experience. The Colts need no reminding that Tannehill is the only quarterback to beat them this year.
Whisenhunt has installed a no-huddle approach and Rivers has embraced it, completing 73.8 percent of his passes for 1,610 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Chargers are only 2-3, so they have their flaws. But Rivers is on pace for his best statistical season of his career.
“Trust me, I know what San Diego, especially Philip Rivers, what he's capable of,” Colts rush end Robert Mathis said. “We've had a lot of battles over the years. Definitely not a team we're sleeping on, because they can beat you and they can beat you good.”
Rivers is thriving in the no-huddle with a healthy Antonio Gates and other weapons, such as versatile back Danny Woodhead and receivers Vincent Brown and Keenan Allen.
McCoy praises Rivers' enthusiasm and embrace of the new system. The change is coaching staffs is one that has achieved what ownership always wants when it reboots – a fresh, vibrant approach.
“From the first day we were here with Philip, he wanted to know more,” McCoy said.
Rivers would pester Whisenhunt with questions about reads, options, protection changes, combination routes of receivers – everything possible that can run through a quarterback's head at the line of scrimmage – and McCoy saw a player intent on a career revival of sorts.
Rivers has long been one of the top NFL quarterbacks, yet it's always seemed like he was just below the elite level.
“The package we have is something that evolves over time,” McCoy said. “He's done a great job of just managing the offense and running the system and believing in the system.”
Rivers said he's enjoying the freedom and aggressiveness of the offense. It'll present a new look for the Colts, who have been dealing with the running and improvisation of quarterbacks such as San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Wilson.
“I think it keeps the pressure on the defense,” Rivers said of the no-huddle. “It allows you to, if you want to snap it in a hurry, go ahead and snap it and run the play. If you want to check in and out of plays, you have a lot of time to do that at the line of scrimmage.
“There's been games where you check to a play and then you check back to the original play, then check back out of it,” Rivers continued. “You just have time and then you can also go fast. I just think any time the threat of the ball being snapped is there, it allows you to keep the pressure on the defense.”
The Colts defense has continued to improve, particularly against the passing game, as the season has progressed. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois is expected back this week, but it's still uncertain whether safety LaRon Landry will play. The Colts secondary could use Landry's experience against Rivers, but Delano Howell has filled in well and Darius Butler has been solid when the Colts have gone to the nickel package.
Mathis acknowledges Rivers can gouge a defense if he gets into a rhythm and makes the no-huddle hum.
“Sometimes you've got to force your hand or show your hand a little bit, and if he knows what you're doing, it's a problem,” Mathis said.
Add an extra layer to the mix, too: As successful as Rivers has been, the Chargers can't afford to fall further behind the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.
“We've done some good things there, but ultimately we want it to translate into wins and we haven't done enough,” Rivers said. “We've won two of five and we know that's not going to get it done.”
Rivers and the Chargers have that daunting mixture of danger and desperation. The Colts can't afford any slip in defensive execution if they want momentum before Manning comes to town.