Chargers' Philip Rivers has been just bad enough

Reporting from San Diego -- San Diego's Philip Rivers, whose last six games represent the most challenging stretch of his football career, has been benched.

But not in the way you might think.

Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew isn't starting him as his fantasy quarterback this week.

"Tell Philip this," the Jaguars running back said Thursday during a break from preparations for Monday night's game against the Chargers. "I got him on my fantasy team. This week I'm going to have to bench him because he's playing the Jaguars. But tell him that I still believed in him when everybody else didn't, all right?"

Rivers can stomach a demotion like that. It's the real-world struggles — the six consecutive losses, the career-high 17 interceptions, the wilting defeats last month to AFC West rivals Oakland and Denver — that have him shaking his head.

The Chargers haven't been blown out of games. Five of their six losses during the streak have been by a touchdown or less. And yet every time they try to slam the door on an opponent, their own fingers are crunched in the process, often because of a late interception on a forced or errant pass.

"People are trying to figure out if there's this big, huge problem, this and that," Rivers said. "But it's like, hey, a handful of throws in these games have gotten away from me. Really, that's what it boils down to. Couple I shouldn't have thrown. Couple get tipped. There's a couple that were just bad throws."

Rumors have swirled that Rivers, for years the unshakable cornerstone of the offense, is hiding a secret injury. It couldn't be that he's really making bad decisions, could it, when he has done that far less frequently in the past?

"No, I'm not hurt," he said. "If it was something simple we could put our finger on, we wouldn't do it."

That's not to say this has been a virtuoso meltdown. Far from it. San Diego's offensive line has been a mess, with a revolving door of starters at three of the five spots. The left side of the line is particularly disastrous with a pair of Pro Bowl blockers, tackle Marcus McNeill and guard Kris Dielman, done for the season.

Consider left guard. The Chargers lose Dielman to a concussion, and with him goes the attacking attitude that makes him one of the best in football. He's replaced by Tyronne Green, who suffers a hand injury in his third game. In comes Scott Mruczkowski, who suffers a season-ending concussion in his first game. So now the job belongs to rookie Stephen Schilling, promoted from the practice squad.

Every team has injuries — the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl last season with nearly a third of their team on injured reserve — yet San Diego's cluster of problems up front has undeniably made Rivers' job a lot tougher. It's difficult to get good passes off when you're surrounded by the blocking wounded, even though Rivers is careful to never point a finger of blame in that direction.

Typical of Rivers, he remains upbeat. Even with all those maddening moments, he has pretty much kept his cool. Backup quarterback Billy Volek said he has still never heard the homespun Rivers curse — his language, at worst, powder blue.

Thing is, despite all the talk of the Chargers having one of the most talented teams in football, they just aren't very good. Their offensive line is a MASH unit. Their running backs are solid on their best day. Antonio Gates is not the elite tight end he once was. Their defense is devoid of playmakers.

It has largely been Rivers who has kept them in games, and it has been mistakes — often by Rivers — that have kept them from winning in the final minutes.

"Some of his mistakes are he's trying to do too much and make up for a deficiency we might have," Coach Norv Turner said. "He wants to make something happen that might not be there. That's human nature.

"People say, 'What's he doing? Is he hurt?' I could put a highlight film together of some of the throws he's made that would make you say, 'Wow! Look at that!' But then we've had critical errors at critical times."

Despite the losses, San Diego has the league's fifth-ranked offense and is tied for third in first downs. The team is 18th in scoring, however, which fits with the way it moves the ball well between the 20s but struggles in the red zone.

Under Turner, the Chargers have specialized in digging holes, somehow clawing their way out, and frequently making the playoffs. That's almost certainly not going to happen this year, considering how they trail Oakland (7-4) by three games, and the Raiders have shown no signs of slipping back into the pack.

This collapse will probably mean curtains for Turner, and perhaps for General Manager A.J. Smith, who hired him and has consistently backed him as the answer.

For Rivers, that's all background noise. He's focused on these final five games. Of course, he's disappointed by the last six, but he has seen some encouraging signs that the Chargers can get back to being one of the league's best December teams. That's unlikely to get them into the postseason, and it probably won't save his coach's job, but it would give the team something to build on.

And Monday's game aside, Jones-Drew wouldn't complain about that at all.

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