The most dazzling offensive play of the afternoon — the one Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers called a huge momentum changer in Sunday’s 26-10 victory over the Oakland Raiders — was one little bobble, one split-second hesitation away from never materializing.
With the score tied 3-3 late in the second quarter, Rivers lined up in shotgun formation from the Raiders’ 44-yard, with running back Austin Ekeler to his left.
The snap of normally accurate center Mike Pouncy was too high, too hard and too far to Rivers’ right, forcing the 36-year-old quarterback to spin clockwise, about three-quarters of the way around, to gain possession.
“Oh, God, my heart stopped,” Pouncey, an eight-year NFL veteran, said of his errant snap. “I’m usually right in the center, so it was my fault. I was a little off on the snap, and it was too hot. Phil made a heck of a play stopping it, grabbing it.”
Sensing pressure from both edges, Rivers knew his first — and really only — option was to fire a quick pass to Ekeler, who was supposed to release into the left flat if he saw the linebacker on his side blitzing.
Rivers got the pass off, Ekeler made the catch near midfield, and what followed was something right out of a sandlot game.
Raiders linebacker Tahir Whitehead and cornerback Daryl Worley had clear shots at Ekeler at the 40-yard line. Ekeler deked the defenders with a Houdini-like hesitation move. Whitehead got a left hand on Ekeler’s hip as the back scooted past him and down the left sideline. Worley missed Ekeler completely.
A block by wide receiver Keenan Allen on safety Marcus Gilchrist at the 20-yard line helped clear Ekeler’s path through the red zone, and Ekeler stiff-armed Worley at the five-yard line before completing a 44-yard touchdown play, punctuating the score with his usual air-guitar celebration.
“We draw up all of these plays, and sometimes you get a look you’re not expecting, and you have to go out there and play football and make it happen,” Ekeler said. “It’s something we always work on in practice. ‘OK, where are they coming from, and what tools do I have in my toolbox to use here?’
“Making moves in open space … that’s how you can make your money in this league as a running back. I think that’s what I excel at.”
Rivers, who is pretty good at making something out of nothing, was just trying to avoid a loss on first down.
“I dropped the snap, and then it was a little bit of a panic mode to get it,” Rivers said. “Once I got it corralled, I knew where Austin was as kind of an outlet and just thought, ‘Minimize the negative play.’ Then I look up and it’s a 44-yard touchdown.”
Rivers marveled at Ekeler’s move to shake the two defenders, but the speed of the second-year running back out of Western State University in Colorado did not surprise him.
“He’s got some juice, man, he can really run,” Rivers said. “You don’t realize how fast he is until you have to chase him, and I’ve never had to chase him.”
Ekeler touched the ball only seven times Sunday, rushing for 15 yards on six carries, but his only reception — and his sixth career receiving touchdown — gave the Chargers a 10-3 lead with 4:04 left in the second quarter.
The Chargers forced a fumble and recovered on Oakland’s next possession. Rivers connected with Melvin Gordon on a 34-yard screen pass, and Gordon scored from one yard out for a 17-3 lead with 2:15 left in the first half.
“We weren’t playing that great offensively … and that touchdown kind of sparked the whole deal,” Rivers said of Ekeler’s score. “We got another stop, we got another big screen to Melvin and punched that one in. We felt like we were in control the rest of the way.”
Rivers kept the Raiders at arm’s length with another huge game, completing 22 of 27 passes for 339 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His quarterback rating of 143.4 was the fourth-best mark against any opponent with more than 25 attempts and a career-best against a Raiders team he has feasted on.
Rivers had 14 completions of 10 yards or more, including passes of 16 yards to Mike Williams, 17 yards to Allen and 16 yards to Antonio Gates on a third-quarter drive that ended with a Caleb Sturgis 30-yard field goal.
Rivers aired out a 48-yard bomb to Tyrell Williams and fired a 26-yard strike to Mike Williams across the middle on a drive that ended with a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Virgil Green and gave the home team a 26-3 lead with 9:42 left.
Allen caught eight passes for 90 yards. Gordon caught four passes for 62 yards out of the backfield.
“They hurt us with screen passes,” Oakland coach Jon Gruden said. “They converted some long yardage situations where we had them way behind on down and distance.