And, maybe, a season as well.
Rivers’ shovel pass under pressure finished a 42-point second half by the Chargers on Sunday, setting up a 49-41 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals that left everyone at a loss for words.
Where to begin?
“Being involved in that game, it was about like it was a cartoon or something,” said LaDainian Tomlinson, who tied his career with four touchdowns. “Exhausting. I can’t wait until I get on the bus, where I can think and wonder what happened today.”
Here’s what happened: San Diego overcame a 21-point halftime deficit, matching the biggest comeback in franchise history, behind a first-year starting quarterback who kept reminding his teammates that anything was possible.
From now on, they’ll believe him.
The Chargers (7-2) played as poorly as they have all season, allowing the Bengals (4-5) to score touchdowns on their first three possessions. Cincinnati led 28-7 at halftime, but Rivers was unconvinced.
“As he grows as a player, he’s unbelievable,” tight end Antonio Gates said. “He’s doing a tremendous job leading this team. He was on the sideline saying they were going to need to score more than 28 points to beat us. What more could you ask for in a leader?”
What came next was characteristic of the old Air Coryell days in San Diego, when Dan Fouts led a light-it-up offense. This time, it was Rivers running the show in his best performance yet: 24-of-36 for 337 yards and three touchdowns.
“We didn’t panic,” Rivers said. “We didn’t point fingers like some teams around the league do.”
The Bengals (4-5) have been pointing fingers for weeks. The defending AFC North champions fell three games behind Baltimore with their fifth loss in six games, one that resulted in personal bests but not much else.
Receiver Chad Johnson set a club record with 260 yards and a pair of long touchdowns, and Carson Palmer had the first 400-yard passing game of his career. It didn’t matter because Cincinnati was helpless to stop the Chargers’ two offensive stars in the second half.
“It’s not good,” said Palmer, who was 31-of-42 for 440 yards and three touchdowns. “It’s a tough situation to be in. We just have to keep fighting and we might be able to scrape into the playoffs. You never know—9-7 could get in.”
Cincinnati would have to win five of its last seven games just to have a winning record. Given the current state of mind, that’s a long shot.
“There are a lot of unhappy people,” Johnson said. “There are reasons why we lost today.”
Rivers and Tomlinson lead the list.
Tomlinson ran for a pair of touchdowns in a 15-second span of the fourth quarter, taking advantage of Palmer’s fumble on a sack. He ran for 104 yards and had a team-high six catches for 54 more yards.
In the last five games, Tomlinson has 15 touchdowns.
Rivers pulled off the decisive play with 2:29 to go. He scrambled to his left to avoid the rush and, with two defenders ready to deck him, floated a shovel pass to unguarded tight end Brandon Manumaleuna in the end zone for a 5-yard score.
“I was going to run it, then I remembered how fast guys are in this league,” Rivers said. “I just flipped it.”
The Bengals had a final chance, but Palmer overthrew a covered Glenn Holt on fourth-and-10 from the Chargers 15-yard line with 44 seconds to go.
“It’s disappointing,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “We’re not happy or satisfied about anything.”
The NFL’s highest-scoring offense had pulled it out, putting up its highest point total in 20 years.
“It took me back to the old AFL days where you just try to find a way to have one more point than they do,” Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer said. “It was the kind of game that makes the NFL the most popular sport in the world. If you couldn’t enjoy this—other than coach Lewis and his crowd—then you might not enjoy football.”
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only other time the Chargers have overcome a 21-point deficit was Oct. 9, 1983, when they fell behind 21-0 before beating Seattle 28-21 in San Diego. … It was San Diego’s highest point total since a 50-28 win over Miami on Sept. 7, 1986. … It was the seventh 400-yard passing game by a Bengals quarterback and the first since Jon Kitna did it in 2001. … Chargers WR Eric Parker left the game with a neck injury in the second quarter. … Bengals CB Deltha O’Neal hurt his right shoulder and missed much of the second half, but returned. … WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh didn’t return after a hard hit by S Marlon McCree drew a pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter.