All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson has been the centerpiece of the San Diego Chargers' offense throughout his stellar eight-year career. But with Tomlinson slowed by a nagging toe injury, San Diego has been leaning more on its passing game.
And that's just fine with Philip Rivers.
The four-year quarterback has been more than up to the task of carrying the offense.
He heads into Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills as the NFL's top-rated passer (109.4). He was brilliant in the Chargers' 30-10 demolition of the New England Patriots last week, completing 18 of 27 passes for 306 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a season-high 141.9 passer rating.
Rivers is currently tied for the NFL lead with 14 touchdown passes and has thrown only four interceptions. He threw for 21 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last season. He has at least three touchdown passes in four of the Chargers' six games.
And here's something for the Bills to think about: Four of Rivers' five career 300-yard games have come on the road.
"Philip's been awesome," Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson said after catching five of Rivers' passes for a career-high 134 yards against the Patriots. "He's been our leader."
Those leadership traits were evident during his record-setting career at North Carolina State. They were also revealed last season when he played in the AFC Championship Game with a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament.
He hurt the knee the previous week, but had arthroscopic surgery to help stabilize the knee enough for him to play.
"To be honest with you, the pain was not terrible in the game," Rivers said during a conference call with Buffalo media this week. "It was just the sensation and the uncomfortableness of your leg feeling like it's giving on you. Without the ACL there, when you plant that foot you kind of feel wobbly. So I think it was just getting past that."
The Chargers lost that game to New England, but what they gained was a leader who was willing to put it all on the line for his teammates.
"Our guys know what he's about in terms of his leadership," head coach Norv Turner said. "But I think it showed everybody how important this is to him. I think for everyone who plays it's important to them, but he put himself out there and put himself at risk because he knew we had a chance to win a football game and had a chance to go to the Super Bowl."
Rivers had reconstructive surgery in the offseason, but he shows all the signs of being completely healthy. He has particularly excelled at making big plays downfield. He has a league-high nine completions of 40 or more yards and is third with 23 pass plays of 20-plus yards. He also leads the league in yards per pass attempt (9.0).
"I think just as a whole we feel better with Norv and what we're doing," Rivers said. "We finished pretty hot last year and made it to the AFC Championship Game and we kind of hoped we'd pick up where we left off. I think in some ways we have, but in the big way, which is in the win-loss record, we haven't. So we still have some room to improve. But I think the pass game is a lot better than what it was at this point last year."
Rivers is smart enough to know that his success is due in large part to the people around him. He is well protected by a good offensive line and he also throws to a talented receiving corps. And then there's Tomlinson, who despite his toe injury remains the focal point of opposing defensive game plans.
Still, Rivers has been everything the Chargers expected when they got him from the New York Giants in exchange for Eli Manning in the celebrated 2004 draft-day trade. The Chargers took Manning first overall, but Manning didn't want to play for them. The Chargers were impressed with Rivers after Marty Schottenheimer coached him in the Senior Bowl. The Giants wanted Manning, so after taking Rivers with the fourth pick, the blockbuster deal was struck.
It obviously has worked out for both teams. Manning has evolved into a championship quarterback, leading the Giants past the Patriots in the Super Bowl last year. Rivers reached the Pro Bowl in 2006, his first year as a starter, and his 28 regular season wins since 2006 are tied with Indianapolis' Peyton Manning for second-most in the NFL, behind New England's Tom Brady (29).
"I loved [Rivers] coming out of college, but when the circumstances came down I think it became more obvious my feelings for him as a quarterback," Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith said earlier this season. "It's in the beginning stages here. I'll just say his record stands for itself right now as the Chargers' quarterback. Time will tell on this, but I think we've got a special one."
The 6-foot-5, 228-pound Rivers is a smart, accurate passer with a quick release. He's also more mature, which has helped the Chargers' offense evolve from an attack that counted on Tomlinson's running to take pressure off the passing game to one that relies on Rivers' passing to keep defenses honest with Tomlinson.
"He's playing with great confidence," Turner said. "He has the experience of playing in the league and having the comfort level of knowing what happens in games. I think he has a great understanding of what we're trying to do and a great understanding of what defenses are trying to do."
Rivers was a backup to Drew Brees during his first two years. It was a different experience for Rivers, who started an NCAA-record 51 games at N.C. State. But he believes there were some benefits to sitting and watching a seasoned pro like Brees.
"I think the one thing I took from Drew was he had a very consistent routine-like approach every week," Rivers said. "The way he went about his preparation, his daily routine. I don't necessarily follow the same one, but I certainly saw how important it was. You have to be in the same routine that gives you the best chance to succeed."
Rivers also knows he'll always be compared to Manning as well as fellow draft classmate Ben Roethlisberger. They've all had similar success except for one big difference: Manning and Roethlisberger have Super Bowl rings.
"I don't think there's any extra motivation, but certainly you compete amongst guys in your position and even more so guys in your same draft class," Rivers said. "I realize those two guys got a little bit of a head start, and got what everybody else wants and what I want and what this team wants. What we hope is there's a lot of football left in my career and a lot of these guys' careers and hopefully we can get one."