History didn’t stand a chance, not with the way Philip Rivers was throwing the ball.
The Chargers quarterback played his way into the record books Sunday, completion by pinpoint completion. He connected on his first 25 passes in a 45-10 rout of Arizona at StubHub Center, the most by a quarterback in a single game in NFL history.
Rivers looked as casual as a guy throwing darts with a sweet tea in his off hand. The ball simply never touched the ground.
“We’re fortunate to experience greatness,” said left tackle Russell Okung, who occasionally caught a glimpse of those passes screaming out of the pocket. “Phil is a top-of-the-line, premium sort of player. With the work he puts in every day, week to week, I’m not surprised that he gets that sort of result.”
Rich Gannon isn’t surprised, either. He held that league record for four years, having completed his first 21 passes for the Oakland Raiders against Denver in 2002. Washington’s Mark Brunell eclipsed that in 2006 with 22 in a row against Houston.
Chargers receiver Mike Williams hauls in a second quarter touchdown pass over Arizona Cardinals cornerback Bené Benikere at StubHub Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
The stands were less than full as the Chargers and the Arizona Cardinals play at StubHub Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler finishes a 13-yard run to the two yard line during third quarter action against the Arizona Cardinals at StubHub Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers safety Derwin James wrestles Arizona Cardinals tight end Jermaine Gresham to the ground during third quarter action at StubHub Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Melvin Gordon and Philip Rivers celebrate on the sideline after Gordon scored on a 28-yard run in the first half at StubHub Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson is tackled by Chargers safety Derwin James during fourth quarter action at StubHub Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers rolls out to throw a four-yard touchdown pass to Keenan Allen in the third quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at StubHub Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers defensive back Michael Davis whiffs on the ball in the first quarter as Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald pulls in a 25-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Josh Rosen at StubHub Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is sacked by Arizona Cardinals defensive linemen, Chandler Jones, right, and Robert Nkemdiche during first quarter action at StubHub Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers safety Derwin James intercepts a pass from Arizona Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen in the second quarter at StubHub Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers running back Melvin Gordon Jr. breaks past Arizona Cardinals linebacker Josh Bynes for a 28-yard touchdown run in the first half at StubHub Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is tackled after scrambling out of the pocket during first half action against the Cardinals at StubHub Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers yells at an official after disputing a call during first half action against the Arizona Cardinals at StubHub Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
“I think Philip is the best quarterback out there operating from a muddy pocket,” Gannon said by phone after Sunday’s game. “You’ve got bodies flying everywhere, arms in front of your face, and Philip doesn’t flinch.”
Cool heads are paramount for the Chargers now, with the AFC playoff race as tight as a Rivers spiral. This team plays at Pittsburgh on Sunday night, at Kansas City on Thursday night of Week 15, and at Denver in the season finale — against a Broncos team that’s coming off back-to-back upsets of the Chargers and Steelers. Their other two games are at home against Cincinnati in Week 14 and Baltimore in Week 16.
The surgical precision of Rivers is especially valuable in light of a knee injury of undisclosed severity to Melvin Gordon, who hobbled off to the locker room in the second half Sunday favoring a gimpy right knee. Being able to run the ball and control the clock becomes increasingly important as the weather turns nasty in a lot of NFL cities, and the postseason nears.
But the way Rivers was passing Sunday — and how his receivers were reeling in acrobatic catches — almost made the running game superfluous. He put the football in spots where only the receiver could catch it, as if standing across the street and throwing it through a mail slot.
Rivers, spelled by backup Geno Smith down the stretch, completed 28 of 29 for 259 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. His 96.6% completion rate was the best by a quarterback in league history, eclipsing the 92.3% of Arizona’s Kurt Warner against Jacksonville in 2009.
“That was nuts,” Cardinals rookie Josh Rosen said. “I went up to him after the game and said good game, and I was like, ‘Bro, that was crazy.’ That’s why he is who he is.”
So how does it feel when everything — rhythm, play-calling, receivers, accuracy — comes together? Rivers tried to put it in words, referencing a mercilessly efficient touchdown drive at the end of the first half when the Chargers moved 80 yards on 10 consecutive completions.
“I wasn’t a great basketball player, but every now and then you feel pretty good shooting a basketball,” he said. “I think it’s kind of like, you keep throwing to our guys, and we may not miss. I didn’t know it was that many, but after that two-minute drive I said, ‘Shoot, I don’t think the ball’s hit the ground.’ You kind of think that to yourself. Not that you’re worried about that. But you know, man, we’re in a pretty good flow.”
All good things must end, even for a hand as hot as Rivers’ right one. His first incompletion came with 5 minutes, 59 seconds left in the third quarter, when, with an Arizona defensive lineman rolling into his legs, he misfired on a short pass over the middle to running back Austin Ekeler.
“Almost had that one too. Could have kept it going,” lamented Ekeler, conceding he had no idea Rivers had completed that many in a row.
“He’s always blocking out there, selling out no matter what,” said Ekeler, smiling at the recollection. “That’s just the competitor in him. I kind of chuckle when I watch the film. ‘Look at Phil out there blocking!’ Makes me happy.”
In truth, the block probably won’t make Rivers’ career highlight reel. It was more of an awkward dance with Cardinals cornerback Leonard Johnson than a trucking. Regardless, it got the job done.
“I’ve had a couple good [blocks] this year, but that one wasn’t my best,” Rivers said. “It’s a frightening thing outside the hashes in space. Bunch of big fast dudes running around.”
After the record-breaking performance of Rivers on Sunday, those big men could name something scarier.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer