By Mark Gaughan
Two quarterbacks speeding in opposite directions meet today in Denver.
Peyton Manning has the Broncos on a four-game winning streak and in position to put a stranglehold on the AFC West with a win over slumping San Diego. A win by Denver (6-3) gives the Broncos what amounts to a four-game lead with six to play.
Manning’s comeback from neck surgery is one of the feel-good stories of the year in the NFL. Philip Rivers’ struggles for the Chargers is one of the confounding stories of the year.
Rivers is an elite quarterback who is capable of leading the Chargers to the Super Bowl. He has elite accuracy, great instincts in the pocket and fantastic intangibles.
Yet Rivers has been burdened with what San Diego media have taken to calling a case of the “yips,” the golfing term used to describe a jerking motion that causes the missing of easy putts.
A case in point came last week in Tampa. Rivers was 22 of 26 for 271 yards early in the fourth quarter before he threw a terrible interception along the sideline. The Bucs’ Leonard Johnson returned it 83 yards for a game-breaking touchdown.
Rivers has 15 TD passes and 12 interceptions this year. His interception rate is the highest in the league. Last season Rivers ranked third in the NFL in interceptions with 20, part of the reason the Chargers finished 8-8.
In his first five seasons as a starter, Rivers had 136 TDs and 58 interceptions, which at the time was the second best TD-to-INT ratio of all time. His career passer rating of 97.2 entering last season was the highest in the league for QBs with more than 2,000 passes.
The problem is Rivers’ supporting cast has deteriorated and he keeps pressing to compensate. Last season Rivers lost the left side of his offensive line. Left tackle Marcus McNeill had to retire because of neck problems. Left guard Kris Dielman had to retire because of concussions. Replacement left tackle Jared Gaither hasn’t been able to stay healthy enough to play at a high level.
Meanwhile, tight end Antonio Gates has gotten older. The Chargers lost starting wideout Vincent Jackson in free agency, and his replacement, Robert Meachem, so far has been a disappointment. The Chargers outbid the Bills for Meachem, who has just 13 catches.
The Chargers defense was a big disappointment last season, slumping to 22nd in the league in points allowed. Rivers last season played like a guy who thought he had to make every play in order to carry the defense on his back. The Chargers defense actually is much better this year. It’s seventh in yards allowed, second against the run and 11th in points allowed. But Rivers still seems to be trying to make plays when nothing is available.
“He’s obviously trying as hard as he can to go win,” Chargers coach Norv Turner said this week. “In a couple of cases, he’s trying to do too much. As I said, it’s not 20 plays. It’s one or two plays in two or three of the games.”
It’s Turner’s job, as an offensive-minded coach, to get Rivers to stop putting too much pressure on himself.
“It’s frustrating,” Turner said. “It’s frustrating for him and it’s frustrating for all of us. We’re spending a lot of time working on it. We handle the things that we need to handle and we’re coaching. As I said, he’s working hard at it.”
If the Chargers don’t catch the Broncos, Rivers will have somebody else trying to get him to play more relaxed next season.
The pressure meter never leaves the red zone for the coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Jason Garrett already is a marked man with his Cowboys (4-5) at the back end of the playoff race. There’s speculation that suspended Saints coach Sean Payton, the former Dallas aide and Dallas resident, would be a logical replacement for Garrett since Payton is due to become a free agent at the end of the season.
This week Dallas owner Jerry Jones added more gasoline to the fire after a rumor floated that lame-duck Browns president Mike Holmgren would be interested in the Dallas job. Jones initially expressed his respect for Holmgren and said he was flattered if Holmgren were interested. Then Jones moved to dismiss the talk by telling a Dallas radio station he is “fired up about” Garrett and his future. Jones and Holmgren get to exchange greetings when their teams meet today.
Garrett has one big factor in his favor in his effort to keep his job. Jones would have to relinquish a significant amount of power in making football decisions if he were to turn to Holmgren or Payton.
The Chiefs performed a public service in the loss to Pittsburgh by showing young athletes how ridiculous it looks to celebrate when you’re on a losing team. Team captains Eric Berry and Derrick Johnson, among others, got an excessive celebration penalty when the Chiefs returned an apparent fumble for a TD. But the fumble was ruled an incomplete pass on review. Chiefs Tamba Hali and Justin Houston did the “Kid ‘n Play dance” after a sack on Ben Roethlisberger.
“It was a surprise to me to see some of those celebrations, per se,” KC coach Romeo Crennel told the Kansas City Star. “The rules are explicit about no celebrating, particularly group celebrations. You cannot have those. ... With the record we have, we really can’t afford to be dancing.”
Wilson’s food drive
Bills safety George Wilson will host the third annual Thanksgiving Food Drive for Buffalo families from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Northwest Community Center. Wilson will help distribute more than 2,000 pounds of food to 150 families in need. Wilson’s SAFETY Foundation works with the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County to select families for the drive. The foundation stands for Saving Adolescents from the Everyday Trials of Youth.
Winning close ones
San Francisco’s showdown with Chicago pits the top two ranked defenses in the league. Niners coach Jim Harbaugh has the best winning percentage in the league in games decided by one score.
“It’s because of the heart of the players,” says Harbaugh. “Just down after down, to never tire mentally and to keep fighting.”
The active head coaches with the best records in one-score games (minimum 10 such games): San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh 10-2-1, Atlanta’s Mike Smith 27-11, Tennessee’s Mike Munchak 8-5, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin 29-20, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh 21-15.
• The Buffalo Bills Booster Club elected its officers at a meeting last week. Dick Zolnowski is president, and Don Bartz vice president. The other officers: Josie Nola, treasurer; Donna Cutrona, secretary; Tom Nola, Bill O’Hara, Brian Hapeman, Cathy Nathan, trustees. Call 685-3247 to join.
• The Steelers have had more passing yards than their opponent for 16 straight games at Heinz Field. You’d think Dan Marino or Joe Montana might have done that. But no. It’s tied for the longest such streak in NFL history. The Rams did it in their Greatest Show on Turf era.
• Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is 30-4 at home in the regular season.
• Tampa rookie running back Doug Martin has 858 yards from scrimmage the past five games, the most since Edgerrin James had 914 in a five-game span in 1999.