Philip Rivers threw long on his first and last passes of Saturday night’s game at StubHub Center. Both landed in the arms of Baltimore defenders, interceptions that bookended the worst game of the season for the Chargers quarterback.
Constantly harassed by blitz-happy Ravens linebackers and ferocious linemen, hamstrung by penalties and an occasionally porous offensive line, Rivers could not work his usual late-game magic in a demoralizing 22-10 loss to the Ravens that all but eliminated the Chargers from AFC West title contention.
Nearing the end of one of the best seasons of his illustrious 15-year career, Rivers tossed a dud against the NFL’s best defense, completing 23 of 37 passes for 181 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
His season-low quarterback rating of 51.7 was almost 40 points lower than his previous low of 89.0 in the Dec. 13 comeback win at Kansas City. He was sacked four times for a loss of 34 yards and hit — usually with force — on four other occasions.
“Give them credit — they did some good things up front, and they did some good things in the secondary,” Rivers said of a Ravens defense that entered with an NFL-low 18.1 points and 290.2 total yards allowed a game. “We did all right at times. We just couldn’t sustain anything for the most part.”
Rivers dropped back from his 17-yard line on the first play of the game and threw deep down the right sideline to Mike Williams, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound receiver who caught seven passes for 76 yards and scored three touchdowns against the Chiefs.
The pass was underthrown, but Williams, among the Chargers’ best at winning 50-50 balls, had an aerial advantage over 6-foot, 210-pound cornerback Brandon Carr. Williams did not win this battle. Carr came down with the ball, an interception that led to a Justin Tucker 24-yard field goal.
“I kind of lost the ball in the lights,” Williams said. “I tracked it late. It was a little underthrown, but still, I’ve got to make the play regardless. I never had the ball.”
But three third-down conversions in the first half, including a 27-yard completion to Keenan Allen and a 28-yard pass to Williams, were nullified by penalties, an offensive pass interference call and an illegal-shift call on Allen, wiping out the big gains.
“Any time we got some momentum with a big play, we got flagged,” Williams said. “It seemed like every big play got called back.”
The Chargers, who were penalized eight times for 69 yards, struggled to flush the frustration.
“Penalties are part of game — you can’t be mad at refs, they’re human, too,” veteran center Mike Pouncey said. “You can’t change it. There’s no point of arguing about it.”
Not that the Chargers didn’t have their chances. Rivers completed a huge 17-yard pass to Allen on a third-and-14 play in the fourth quarter, but later in the drive, on a third-and-five from the Ravens 29, Baltimore linebacker Za’Darius Smith burst by Chargers right guard Michael Schofield and sacked Rivers for an 11-yard loss, forcing a punt.
The Chargers had one last chance when Desmond King returned a punt 24 yards to the Baltimore 39 with three minutes left.
But a holding call on left tackle Russell Okung pushed the Chargers back 10 yards, and veteran tight end Antonio Gates fumbled when linebacker Patrick Onwuasor punched the ball out of Gates’ hands just before his knee hit the ground.
Cornerback Tavon Young scooped up the ball and raced 62 yards for the clinching score with 2:40 left.
“I feel like we were having a pretty good drive before the fumble,” Williams said. “Gates has made so many plays. Sometimes the ball doesn’t fall your way.”
Adding to Rivers’ indignity, his final pass of the game, a last-gasp bomb intended for Travis Benjamin, was intercepted by Marlon Humphrey in the end zone.
“We got off to a terrible start, turning the ball over on the first play,” Rivers said. “Third-down conversions called back early that we couldn’t overcome. We got ourselves into third-and-super-long a lot.”
The loss, combined with one Chiefs win in their final two games, will send the Chargers into the wild-card round on the road.
”We didn’t come through tonight, but there will be no loss of confidence with this group,” Rivers said. “There’s only one thing that’s crossed off, one more game added to the slate to win the whole thing, and it won’t be here.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna