Philip Rivers finally has his chance. For what feels like the first time in 10 seasons in the NFL, he can show people that maybe he's the best quarterback in the 2004 draft class. It can start Monday night, when the San Diego Chargers host the Indianapolis Colts.
Surely you remember his class. The 2004 NFL draft featured one of the greatest quarterback classes in the history of the game. The one where everybody else has rings and Hall of Fame-caliber resumes and Rivers has been left in the proverbial dust? Well, things can change for him this year.
Eli Manning was selected first overall by the Chargers but forced a trade to New York, in part because his dad didn't want him sitting for two years behind Drew Brees. Rivers was taken fourth by the Giants, who swapped quarterbacks and a few picks with the Chargers (and proceeded to sit two years behind Brees), while Ben Roethlisberger was taken with the 11th overall pick by Pittsburgh and immediately turned them into a Super Bowl contender.
The three quarterbacks have been linked together ever since, and while Rivers has had several Pro Bowl-caliber seasons in San Diego, his overall success hasn't come close to that of Manning or Roethlisberger. As good as Rivers has been at times, he has always stood within the immense shadow of those drafted around him.
Until this year, perhaps.
Manning has the lowest completion percentage in the NFL (53.7) of any quarterback who has attempted more than 100 throws. He has been a turnover machine this season, throwing a league-worst 15 interceptions and losing two fumbles through six games, all losses for the Giants, while playing behind a depleted offensive line with little production from the running game.
Manning is on pace to throw 40 interceptions in 2013, two shy of George Blanda's record, set while playing for the Houston Oilers in 1962. Blanda's record will probably be safe, as he threw 10 percent of his 418 passes that season to the other team, while Manning is currently at a relatively sparkling rate of 6.5 percent.
Roethlisberger has similar problems to Manning this season, playing behind a Swiss cheese offense with an unproven and often unproductive running attack. Through five games, Roethlisberger has thrown six touchdowns to five interceptions, losing another four balls by way of fumble.
Roethlisberger has been sacked 18 times through five games, the fourth-worst per-game average in the league. Roethlisberger's passing numbers have admittedly not been terrible this season, completing over 65 percent of his passes for eight yards per play. But the team around him is in shambles, and his turnovers have killed the Steelers in games they could have—and perhaps should have—won.
And then there are the Chargers, sitting at 2-3 in the toughest division in football. Rivers is hoping this is the season he can finally stick it to the two most successful quarterbacks of his class.
Through five games in 2013, Rivers is having a a career year. His 73.7 completion percentage is nearly eight points higher than any other season of his career, and his yards-per-game average is almost 30 yards more than his career best.
Rivers has 13 touchdown passes on the season, the second-best per-game percentage behind Peyton Manning, and while his quarterback rating has dipped a bit after a Week 5 loss to the Raiders, he still has the second-best mark in the league for a quarterback who has thrown more than 100 passes.
If not for Peyton Manning, Rivers would be a legitimate early season MVP candidate. It's a far cry from his '04 draftmates.
Stats are great. But completing three out of every four passes will mean nothing if the Chargers don't start winning. Heading into Monday night's game against the Colts, the Chargers are stuck in a division with two undefeated teams through six weeks of the season.
If Rivers really wants to make his numbers matter and get back to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, this Colts game is a must-win.
That's what this whole thing is about for Rivers. He can put up all the numbers in the world, and it won't matter a lick if he can't lead the Chargers back to the playoffs. There is no 10-year validation over his 2004 NFL draft classmates if he is stuck at home watching the playoffs.
Since last making the playoffs in 2009, the Chargers are a below-.500 franchise, winning 26 of their last 53 games. In that same time frame, Roethlisberger has led the Steelers to a 32-20 record—granted, just 28-17 in games he actually played—while Eli's Giants have been 28-26 over that span.
The difference? The playoffs. Eli won a Super Bowl, and Ben went to the playoffs twice in that time.
Rivers sat for two seasons after being drafted and has played fewer career games than the other two, but in his eight full seasons as a starter, he has better career numbers—and a much higher career winning percentage (.615 to .553)—than Manning. It's just those pesky Super Bowl rings and MVP honors that Manning gets to carry around with him.
There are only 11 quarterbacks in NFL history to win more than one Super Bowl, and both Manning and Roethlisberger are on that list. Eli is 8-3 in all playoff games in his career, proving twice that if the Giants win one game in a postseason tournament, they will win them all. Roethlisberger is 10-4 in the playoffs, reaching three Super Bowls and four AFC title games.
Rivers, by contrast, is 3-4 in the playoffs, reaching the AFC Championship once—in 2007—and never getting to the Super Bowl. It's amazing how playoff success so distinctly defines a career. Or three careers.
It's also amazing that the trio of Manning, Roethlisberger and Rivers has had just two losing seasons among them in their collective careers. Manning's Giants went 6-10 in 2004, and Rivers' Chargers went 7-9 last season.
This season, it sure looks like both Manning and Roethlisberger will add losing seasons to that list, while Rivers is playing the best football of his career.
Having said that, his team is still below .500. So, for his legacy as a quarterback and his unfair but never disappearing career competition with Eli and Ben, Rivers needs to win—not just on Monday night, but all season long, especially in the playoffs.
After all, the guy could really use something to brag about at the 10-year reunion, especially with all the rings across the table.