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Column: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers stays cool under fire to find redemption for himself and team

KANSAS CITY, MO., THURSDAY, DECEMBER 13, 2018 - Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers taunts fans from
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers taunts fans from the bench after leading the team to a 29-28 lead with four seconds left in the game against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Signed, sealed, delivered.

Thursday night’s victory over Kansas City was a signature win by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who had waited so long for redemption in this frigid house of horrors.

The epic comeback by the Chargers was a total team win, of course, with receiver Mike Williams having a career night, Travis Benjamin reeling in two clutch catches in the final drive, and the Los Angeles defense hardening like cement in the second half.

But it was a brilliant performance by Rivers, who methodically battled back from a 14-point deficit to win 29-28, beating the Chiefs for the first time in 10 tries. The Chargers hadn’t won at Arrowhead Stadium since 2013, when the then-San Diego team pulled off a season sweep. The victory secured a playoff spot for the Chargers.

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The game started in a grimly familiar way for the visitors, with the Chiefs intercepting the first pass of the game — Rivers was picked off twice in the first half — and Kansas City taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Naturally, Rivers caught an earful from the crowd bundled in red coats and hats behind the sideline.

“Those guys behind our bench, I don’t recognize all of them, but they’re hounding you all game long,” he said. “They were hounding me, as they should have, throwing those two early interceptions. But once we got it to 21-14 [midway through the second quarter], in my typical fashion I hollered up there and said, ‘This is going to be just like 2013!’”

The thermometer read 37 degrees at kickoff, but by game’s end, Rivers’ blood was sub-zero.

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“I told him, ‘Man, you cold as ice!’” left tackle Russell Okung said of Rivers, who orchestrated an incredible ending, a one-yard touchdown pass to Williams with four seconds to play followed by a two-point conversion pass, again to Williams, that gave the Chargers their first lead of the game. “I’m screaming at him, ‘You cold as ice!’”

That gutsy conversion, on which Williams was absurdly wide open because of busted coverage by the Chiefs, will be a timeless memory from this thriller. The Chargers’ kicking team began to run onto the field after that touchdown, and Rivers was perfectly content with that.

“I was going to the sideline, going to overtime,” he said. “And Coach [Anthony] Lynn said, ‘Let’s go win it right now. Let’s go for two.’ When he said that, there was so much conviction from him, it was, ‘Yeah, let’s go win it!’ I immediately turned around. If we didn’t win it, we didn’t win it. But I think it was his conviction.”

Rivers was looking for that old familiar target, tight end Antonio Gates, or the scorching-hot Williams, who had run for a touchdown and caught two more.

“In those situations it’s the guy who’s caught more touchdowns than any tight end ever in football, and Mike Williams who’s on fire,” Rivers said. “So let’s give these two guys a shot, and win and lose with them right there.”

So many Chargers games this season have come down to the wire, and so often, this team has made the clutch plays.

“We won a close game in Seattle, we won a close game against the Titans in London, we lost a close game against Denver, we went to Pittsburgh and found a way,” Rivers said. “I don’t think that there’s anything that this team believes we can’t do. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to do it, but …

“It wasn’t a very happy sideline for most of this game, but it wasn’t a dejected sideline like, ‘Here we go again.’ It wasn’t that.”

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Eleven times in his career, Rivers has led his team back to victory after trailing by 14 points or more. That’s the most of any active quarterback in the NFL. Thursday night was an example, and so was two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, when the Chargers came back from being 15 down.

“The old us a few years ago, you’d get that feeling when you go down that you’re just going to be fighting, you might get close, but you’re never really going to crack the edge and win the game,” defensive end Joey Bosa said. “But this year everyone truly believes that we’re going to win the game and that we’re the better team.”

Clawing their way back from huge deficits to win at Pittsburgh and Kansas City, two of the most inhospitable places in the league, is a resounding statement.

“I don’t know what more we can face to be ready for January football,” Rivers said. “I’m not jumping ahead. We’ve got work to do still. All this did was get us a spot. We still need help from Kansas City — and we need to win our next two to win the division. But I don’t know what else we can deal with from a battle-tested standpoint.”

Because Kansas City still owns the tiebreaker over L.A. by virtue of a better division record, the Chargers need a loss by the Chiefs either at Seattle or at home against Oakland for a chance at that No. 1 seed.

StubHub Center doesn’t offer much of a home-field advantage for the Chargers, Rivers acknowledged that, but it would beat the alternative.

“It would be different if we get it, we all know that,” he said. “But ain’t no doubt it’s better than if we had to play here, or in Pittsburgh, or in Baltimore, Houston, or anywhere else we’d have to go. At least we’d be able to hear a little bit.”

Thursday night, the Chargers made some noise.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer


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