INDIANAPOLIS – His new team was getting rolled Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium by Cincinnati but Philip Rivers’ mind briefly drifted back to when his old team was suffering a similar fate against these same Bengals.
Well, not the same Bengals. It was Nov. 12, 2006 and Rivers was starting his ninth NFL game for the San Diego Chargers.
It was 21-0 after one quarter, headed to 28-7 at the half.
Sunday, Rivers’ Indianapolis Colts were staring out of a 21-0 hole two plays into the second quarter.
“Over 17 years, you’ve been down 21-nothing before and sometimes it doesn’t go any good after that, sometimes it does,’’ he said Sunday on a Zoom conference call. “We’d only run eight snaps at that point. What I drew on a little bit was it was early in the game and I drew on 2006 at Cincinnati, my first year starting.’’
The Rivers-led Chargers overcame the early deficit and chased down Cincinnati 49-41. He passed for 338 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
“I was thinking on that,’’ Rivers said. “I was like, ‘Shoot, let’s repeat that one 14-15 years later. That sounds good.’ I didn’t say that to the guys. Said that to myself.
“But to the guys, we just said, ‘Let’s play. We’ve got three quarters and we spot ‘em 21. So what? What are we going to do?’’’
Do it again, that’s what.
Rivers passed for a 371 yards and three TDs, both season highs. And just to keep the symmetry intact, he suffered an interception.
Just like that: Colts 31, Bengals 27.
The 21-point chase-down is tied for the second-largest deficit they’ve overcome in franchise history – remember Andrew Luck rallying them to a 45-44 win over Kansas City in the 2003 playoffs after trailing 38-10 in the third quarter? – and the largest accomplished at home during the regular season.
From another dismal start to another dramatic finish. It was 29th fourth-quarter comeback of Rivers’ Hall of Fame-worthy career.
While he called on the Been there, done that experience, the comeback was made possible only because a sense of calm permeated the Colts’ sideline.
“There really was no panic,’’ Rivers insisted. “I’m new to these experiences with this football team. The culture and everything is set.
“I wasn’t feeling any panic from anyone.’’
However, the early deficit forced coach Frank Reich to seriously adjust the game plan. The idea was to attack the Bengals with a solid pass-run mix.
Trailing 21-0 made it virtually impossible to stick with Jonathan Taylor and the run game.
“You don’t want to totally throw the game plan away, but just kind of went to more of a pass emphasis and Philip was in the zone,’’ Reich said. “You could feel it, you could see it and I just felt like any pass we were going to call he was going to find a way to get a completion and make plays.
“Just put it in his hands at that point.’’
As Marcus Johnson put it, Rivers started “slingin’ it.’’’
But only after a futile start. The first three drives: Jack Doyle’s lost fumble and a pair of three-and-outs.
“We needed just to get some first downs to feel like we played,’’ Rivers said. “I don’t think anybody was sweating offensively.’’
Then, second-quarter fireworks. Rivers passed for 235 yards in the period, the third-highest total in a quarter in franchise history. Only Peyton Manning (247 yards in 2004) and Dan Orlovsky (240 in ’11) authored more prolific quarters.
After tight end Trey Burton broke the ice with a 1-yard TD run with a direct snap out of the Wildcat formation, Rivers delivered a 10-yard TD pass to Burton and a 17-yarder to Zach Pascal.
The frenetic finish to the first half narrowed things to 24-21 and set the stage for some more Rivers’ magic. They took their first lead of the game on the first play of the fourth quarter when Doyle atoned for his early drop with a diving grab in the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown.
Rivers kept things interesting with his only real miscue of the afternoon. Facing a second-and-10 at the Bengals 43 and looking to add to the lead, he forced a pass into double coverage to Pascal. Safety Jessie Bates came up with the drive-stalling interception.
“Doesn’t need to happen right there,’’ Rivers said. “A little too aggressive with a bad decision.’’
Bengals kicker Randy Bullock bailed him out by glancing a 48-yard field goal attempt off the right upright, and Rodrigo Blankenship countered with a 40-yarder that provided needed cushion at the end.
Rookie safety Julian Blackmon sealed things with his second career interception with 39 seconds remaining, but the day belonged to Rivers.
You know, the same guy who came under such heavy criticism for his error-filled outing last Sunday at Cleveland.
And while so many players insist they don’t read their press clippings to gauge the temperature of their surroundings, Rivers most certainly had.
He’s aware of the glaring spotlight that’s followed him to Indy after signing a one-year, $25 million contract.
“This is new for me, being in a new place,’’ he said. “Everyone wants people to be excited that you’re here. That’s not what’s driving me, but you want that, of course.
“And when you play like you played last week, you’re not going to get that and that’s understandable. There’s been a lot of really, really high level quarterback play here for a long time. Standard’s set pretty danged high.’’
Then, the Cleveland mess: two interceptions, one a pick-6, and a safety in a 32-23 loss.
Instead of going into bunker-mode, Rivers wanted to know what those in the media were writing and saying about him.
“I don’t know all you guys yet. I haven’t got to shake all you guys’ hands and talk to you guys, either,’’ he said. “I made the decision last week I’m going to read what they wrote. You stink it up, they’ve better write ‘Rivers better get with it.’
“You expect that.’’
And this is what Reich and general manager expected when they reloaded at QB1 in the offseason with a 38-year old Rivers.
“I’ve been around Philip enough to know that when he gets in the zone, which is more times than not, this is the kind of performance that we expect of him,’’ Reich said. “He played great.’’
Consider Rivers’ production in that three-TD second quarter: 14-of-21, 235 yards, two TDs, a 136.0 passer rating.
Every completion and yard were necessary – critical, in fact – because of the first half endured by the defense. Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow seemed to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Consider the yield on four Bengals’ first-half drives: three touchdowns, one field goal, 230 yards and 13 first downs on 35 plays.
Rivers insisted he never flinched.
“You just knew,’’ he said. “That’s the way this game goes, ‘Hey, the defense needs us right now and they’re going to get going.’ And they did. They got it going.
“What’d they give up in the second half? Three points? A big turnover to win it at the end. That’s what teams do. They have to lean on one another.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.