Philip Rivers’ mouth always moves faster than his feet, but even for him this was a jaw-jacking, lip-smacking sprint.
The words fired out of his mouth in quick succession, the “shoots” and the “y’alls” being propelled in bursts resembling a rocket engine. And as the breaths in between the sentences were getting deeper, a grin worked its way across the face of the Chargers quarterback.
“I am excited right now,” Rivers said. “You can probably tell.”
Rivers and the Chargers have real reasons to be excited after a 19-10 victory Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.
They avenged last season’s embarrassing loss in Cleveland. They’ve returned to .500 after starting 0-4, winning six of their last eight games. And, in an incredible twist, they are somehow tied for first in the AFC West and in control of their fate. Win the next four games and they win the division and guarantee a playoff game on their home field.
It’s all a lot to handle and comprehend, which is why the leadership on the Chargers is changing its tune. For weeks they’ve been trying to convince everyone in the locker room that they’re still in the race — now they’re trying to deflate the situation a little.
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Chargers defensive end Melvin Ingram said. “We’re still grindin’. We know what it is. We’re still going. … We still got some [stuff] we’ve got to do.”
It’s why Rivers knows he needs to temper the natural excitement that comes from playing on a football team staring at meaningful football to close the season.
Sunday’s win got the Chargers to 6-6 and moved them into a three-way tie for first place in the AFC West with Kansas City and Oakland. Eight weeks ago, the Chargers were four games back.
“I didn’t think we could get there,” Rivers said. “I’m not saying that like I was throwing the towel in on the division. I just didn’t think that they’d fall back to us that far. I remember sitting there at 0-4 and having the thought, ‘Heck with Kansas City and the division. Let’s just see if we can fight our way back into the mix.’ That’s why you keep going, though.”
Sunday’s win wasn’t perfect. The Chargers’ first six drives all went inside the Cleveland 25-yard line but they scored just one touchdown. New kicker Travis Coons, who replaced an injured Nick Novak on the roster Saturday, salvaged four of the trips with field goals.
And while the game was a big play by the Browns away from being very interesting down the stretch, the Chargers’ defense delivered.
Defensive end Joey Bosa caught Cleveland quarterback DeShone Kizer from behind and knocked the football loose (it eventually ended up in Denzel Perryman’s hands). The next Cleveland drive ended with Adrian Phillips intercepting Kizer to seal the win.
“I love the way they closed it out,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “They finished the game.”
The Chargers’ defense, more comfortable in new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s system, has begun to seek turnovers with ferocity. In the Chargers’ last eight games, they’ve forced 19. During that stretch, the Chargers have turned it over just five times.
“If your turnover margin is where we are, you should win six of eight,” Rivers said. “That is a direct correlation to winning. Not turning the football over and getting turnovers, that’s as direct as you’re going to get.”
Before the defense dominated the final moments, wide receiver Keenan Allen continued his rampage through the NFL’s defensive backfields.
Allen caught 10 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown, making him the only player in NFL history to have at least 10 catches, 100 yards receiving and a receiving touchdown in three straight games.
“We’ve always wanted to push him the football. Will he be able to keep this pace?” Rivers said. “…I don’t know it’s a pace we can keep. It’s obviously a streak that’s never been done. But, we always try to get him the football.”
Allen also moved past 1,000 yards receiving this season — a milestone he’s accomplished just once, as a rookie in 2013. In his last three games, Allen’s caught 33 passes for 436 yards and four touchdowns.
“I really want to stay in the moment and enjoy it because I know how quick it can go to missing him three times and throwing three interceptions,” Rivers said.
And if that sounds like a downer, it should.
Three games doesn’t make a season. Getting back to .500 won’t guarantee a spot in the postseason. Beating the Cleveland Browns and being tied for the division lead in early December doesn’t mean a whole lot.
And inside the locker room, those accomplishments were met with a yawn.
“OK. You know, it is what it is. Every week, none of it matters if we lose next week. That’s what I’m focused on,” veteran offensive tackle Joe Barksdale said. “That’s been our reaction to a lot of stuff — it’s great but you’ve got to keep going.