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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Rivers' pre-snap reads pose big problem for Bills

The Buffalo Bills face one of the greatest “diagnosers” of defense in the NFL on Sunday.

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is in the Tom Brady class when it comes to reading the rush and coverage before the snap and finding the open receiver on time and on rhythm.

Watch Rivers at the line of scrimmage at New Era Field communicating with his teammates to get the Chargers in the best possible play.

“He does a great job of running the play clock down all the way to the low digits as he’s trying to see our defense,” Bills cornerback Phillip Gaines said. “He also does a good job of hard-counting you to get you to show what you’re doing at the snap. We have to be disciplined and work hard to give him different looks.”

Rivers and the Chargers’ pass offense ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season, averaging 277 yards a game through the air. Since the start of the 2016 season, Rivers has a league-best 64 touchdown passes. (Bills QBs have 33.)

It’s obviously a tough matchup for a Bills’ secondary that still is sorting itself out after a poor showing in the opener at Baltimore. Slot cornerback Taron Johnson is likely out, which probably pushes veteran Vontae Davis into the top three with Gaines and Tre’Davious White. Davis has yet to show he’s back to his high-quality form since returning from a serious groin injury from last season.

What makes Rivers great, besides his ability to read the defense, is his anticipation. Rivers “throws people open” about as well as any QB in the NFL.

Chargers coach Anthony Lynn played with Hall of Famers John Elway and Steve Young and says Rivers’ “work ethic is right on par with those guys.”

“He knows the offense inside and out,” Lynn said. “When a guy can get to the line of scrimmage and get you in the right play and get everyone on board – that’s the key – the really good quarterbacks make everyone around them better. That’s what Philip does really well. He’s going to go down as one of the great ones one day. His work ethic is one of the reasons why.”

Rivers is especially adept at working the middle of the field, and the Chargers are known for running a myriad of crossing routes, both against man and zone coverage.

“They have a really good system,” said Gaines, who prepared for Rivers twice a year the past four seasons as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. “They overload a zone, and when someone else is coming back across, he’s open. You have to play with good eyes and understand what he’s trying to do to you.”

Hall of Famer?

Virtually all the NFL’s career passing lists are dominated by the current generation of quarterbacks. Rivers, 36, ranks sixth all-time in TD passes, ninth in passing yards and 11th in attempts. He’s fifth in net yards per attempt (7.0), behind only Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Kurt Warner and Drew Brees.

Here’s a stat that transcends eras: Rivers never has missed a start since taking over the QB job in 2006. His 193 consecutive starts are fourth-longest ever, behind Brett Favre (297), Eli Manning (210) and Peyton Manning (208).

The hole in Rivers’ Hall of Fame resume is postseason success. He’s 4-5 in the playoffs, never has made the Super Bowl and made the AFC title game only once. One could make a good case it’s not his fault.

In 2006, the top-seeded Chargers lost in the divisional round due to an epic, fourth-quarter comeback by Brady. In 2009, the Bolts lost the AFC final in New England. Both LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates were hurt, and Rivers played despite having knee surgery the previous Monday. In 2009, the 13-3 Chargers lost at home to the Jets when Nate Kaeding missed three field goals.

Rivers’ career numbers don’t make him a slam-dunk Hall of Famer.

“I’m on the fence,” said Fox Sports senior writer John Czarnecki, a longtime Hall voter and a member of the Hall’s senior candidate committee. “I know all these guys have great numbers. I think you’ve got to win to get in the Hall of Fame. ... I think he’s played at a high level for a long time.”

“I think he’s in the conversation,” said longtime Hall voter Clark Judge, one of the hosts of the weekly Talk of Fame radio show that focuses on the Hall. “I’m on the fence. We typically measure quarterbacks and head coaches by rings. I love watching him play. He’s piling up a ton of numbers. Is compiling numbers enough to get you in the Hall of Fame? I think there’s got to be more than that. Yet Philip Rivers has done everything he can to lift that team to the next level. It just hasn’t happened.”

Where does Rivers rank vs. his contemporaries? He’s behind Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger. He’s probably behind two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning, though that’s a hotly debated subject.

Is there room for six QBs among that generation in the Hall? That will be the decision roughly a decade from now. I’d lean in favor of Rivers.

“Since I work in television, I’ll say too many people on TV throw that phrase out – future Hall of Famer, definitively, without any caveat,” Czarnecki said.

The 30,000-foot view: The Chargers have two more seasons in the 27,500-seat StubHub Center before moving into the new stadium at Hollywood Park for the 2020 season. That’s a $5 billion project, and it’s almost sure to be a financial windfall for the franchise. Yet the Chargers are struggling to develop any kind of home-field edge, since visiting fans are a huge weekly presence at the StubHub Center. Last week’s home opener against Kansas City was played before a sea of red in the stands. By conservative estimates, Chiefs fans counted at least 10,000, maybe more, of the paid crowd of 25,351.

The Chargers have 11 competing franchises for the sports fan’s attention in the L.A. market, counting the Rams, plus two teams in the MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS and big-time colleges USC and UCLA.

Weak link: Right tackle Joe Barksdale suffered a knee injury early in last week’s game and had to be carted off the field. He’s replaced by Sam Tevi, a sixth-round pick in 2017, who struggled a bit against the Chiefs. The Bills need to win that right tackle matchup.

Matchup Watch

Bills CBs vs. Chargers WRs: The depleted Bills face a difficult test. The Chargers are led by exquisite route-runner Keenan Allen. He caught 102 passes last year and won NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Mike Williams, the No. 7 overall pick in 2017, is back from injury and looked good last week. Then there are 6-4 Tyrell Williams and 5-11 Travis Benjamin, who each had key drops last week.

Chargers interior OL vs. Bills’ DTs: The Chargers’ guards, Michael Schofield and Dan Feeney, are ordinary. But the team upgraded at center, signing Mike Pouncey from Miami in free agency. Rivers is strictly a pocket passer. The Bills must get some heat up the middle to throw off his rhythm, whether it’s from the defensive tackles or via A-gap blitzes.

Bills WRs vs. Chargers CBs: The Chargers lost former Pro Bowler Jason Verrett to an Achilles tear, the third straight season he’s out with an injury. Yet corner is a position of strength. Casey Hayward is a quality No. 1 CB who is long and can play outside or in the slot. No. 2 Trevor Williams and slot corner Desmond King are capable.

Stat for the road: The Chargers’ special teams ranked 29th in the NFL in 2017 and 32nd in 2016. They gave up a punt-return TD to the incomparable Tyreek Hill. Rookie J.J. Jones fumbled a punt return on his own 2-yard line to hand Kansas City its final TD.

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