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Philip Rivers could feel his aggravation rising. Trailing by seven with just under three minutes to play in New Orleans on Sunday night, the Chargers had moved from their 15-yard line to the Saints' 45 when suddenly it all went wrong. On first down right tackle Jeromey Clary was beaten badly, and defensive end Cameron Jordan sacked Rivers. On second down a 28-yard completion was negated when tight end Antonio Gates was called for offensive pass interference. On the next play a holding penalty on center Nick Hardwick wiped out a 23-yard gain to wideout Malcom Floyd.
Rivers stepped away from the huddle and found an open patch of turf near his 40-yard line. He needed to gather himself because, despite facing second-and-37, the Chargers, with three timeouts and 1:40 to play, had a chance to force overtime. As the officials sorted through the yellow flags, Rivers lowered his head and stood motionless, saying a Hail Mary in his head. Then he traced a cross on his chest and returned to the huddle. When Saints defensive end Martez Wilson was called for illegal use of the hands on the next play, resulting in an automatic first down, San Diego's sins were miraculously wiped away.
Rivers pounced, with consecutive completions of 11, 7, 6 and 10 yards to advance to the New Orleans 33. But the Chargers would get no closer to the end zone, as back-to-back incompletions and a lost fumble on a sack ended the drive and gave the Saints their first win of the year, a 31—24 victory.
As Rivers walked off the field, a trail of what-ifs behind him, the game could be seen as a metaphor for his career. He had been good but not good enough. The Chargers came close but fell short.
Since the beginning of the 2006 season, when Rivers became a starter in San Diego, he ranks second among NFL passers in yards (25,388) and wins (66), third in touchdowns (170) and yards per attempt (8.0), and sixth in rating, at 95.7. However, the 2004 first-round pick has yet to appear in a Super Bowl—a point that was driven home by the circumstances on Sunday. The game was played in the Superdome, site of this season's Super Bowl. The opposing quarterback was Drew Brees, with whom the Chargers parted ways in favor of Rivers in '06 and who led the Saints to a win in Super Bowl XLIV. Brees threw four TDs on Sunday, his 48th straight game with at least one TD pass, eclipsing Johnny Unitas's 52-year mark.
In January 2006 Brees underwent major shoulder surgery, and the Chargers let him go in free agency. Rivers had been sitting on the bench for two seasons, since San Diego acquired him in a blockbuster draft-day trade. On that April 24 morning in 2004, San Diego drafted Eli Manning with the first pick, then traded his rights to the Giants for Rivers, taken fourth overall by New York. Seven spots after Rivers, the Steelers selected Ben Roethlisberger.
Manning, two Super Bowl wins; Roethlisberger, two in three appearances; Brees, one championship. With each season the shadows of those three quarterbacks grow longer over Rivers. Not only has he not reached a Super Bowl, but he also has yet to put his signature on even a memorable playoff win. He is 3—4 in the postseason, with only one 300-yard performance to show, and has more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (eight).
The phrase elite quarterback is tossed around endlessly, but there's no denying that the standard for greatness at the position is changing. In this age of wide-open offenses that revolve around the quarterback, big numbers are not enough to distinguish a passer. "Philip was as good as there was in the regular season for a period of four or five years," says Warren Moon, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who never played in a Super Bowl, "but you're seeing that the postseason does matter more today. You've got to raise your game in the playoffs."
Rivers doesn't run from the issue (although you could joke that he's too heavy-footed to escape it). Does he need a Super Bowl win not just to ensure his elite status but also to justify the Chargers' preference for him over Manning (who said he would not sign with San Diego), Roethlisberger and Brees?
"I don't want to win more now because those guys have won titles," he says. "That's not my primary motivation. For me it's about the journey with these guys in the locker room and helping all of us achieve that goal together."