By Mike Chappell
INDIANAPOLIS – On one hand, it was another postmortem.
With little time to decompress, it was time to reassess what went wrong, bemoan the missed opportunities, rehash this play or that play in your mind and prepare for an offseason that came much too soon.
Philip Rivers’ eyes seemed to dart back and forth as the Xs and Os swirled in his mind.
I missed Pitt.
Just missed T.Y. on the long one on third-and-7.
Think I threw the ball behind Mike on the slant before the missed field goal.
Shoot, you look at the end of the day, we didn’t quit fighting, we kept rollin’ and lose by 3 points.
That was the analytical, calculated Philip Rivers. It was QB1 discussing the Indianapolis Colts’ 27-24 loss to the Buffalo Bills in an AFC wild-card playoff game at Bills Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.
But on several occasions Saturday, emotions seeped – poured? – to the surface. How could they not?
This wasn’t Philip Rivers, a yappy, ultra-confident 25-year old leading the San Diego Chargers into the 2006 playoffs against the New England Patriots, or even a more mature but still trash-talking 32-year old leading the Chargers into the ’13 postseason against Cincinnati.
This was Philip Rivers, 39, in his 17th season and very much closer to the end than beginning of a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
The longer you play and the more times you fall short and fail to reach the Super Bowl and hoist the Lombardi Trophy, the deeper the pain.
That’s why the Xs and Os talk eventually was overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment.
“Is it more emotional when it’s your 17th season and you’re about to be 40 and you’re not sure if you’ve walked out of your last tunnel? Yeah,’’ Rivers said, choosing his words carefully as if to give himself time to keep everything under control. “Heck yeah it’s more.
“It was a heckuva fun season. There is zero regret moving to Indiana and, shoot, playing for this franchise and having a chance and meeting a bunch of new guys that I’ll keep a relationship with.
“We fell short today, but I’ll walk out of here today with head held high for sure.’’
The overriding question: as Rivers asked, did he walk out of an NFL tunnel for the last time?
When the Los Angeles Chargers decided to move in a different direction last offseason, Rivers relocated to Indy with a one-year, $25 million contract. The idea all along was for this to be at least a two-year relationship, but year 2 would be a discussion for when the season ended.
And now it has.
That was the first topic of Rivers’ postgame Zoom conference call. Has he decided on 2021?
“It’s not that easy,’’ he said. “I don’t go this route with any answer often, but I think this probably sums it up: whatever God’s will is for me and my family. If it’s here in Indy playing another year, then we’ll be here.
“And if it’s not, I’ll be on the sideline somewhere – I know where – with a ball cap coaching the heck out of a high school football team in south Alabama. If I go on and on with that answer, it’ll be nothing but a bunch of emotion talking. But I think at the end of the day, that’s clearly what will guide the decision.’’
Rivers’ post-NFL career already is lined up. He’ll be the head coach at St. Michael, a private Catholic school in Fairhope, Ala. Plans already are in place for him to be an Ol’ Ball Coach for his son, Gunner.
But Rivers hasn’t hidden his desire to play behind 2020. And the Colts always have taken the approach they’d like him back for ’21 as long as his first season in Indy unfolded as expected.
Coach Frank Reich was one of the driving forces behind Rivers’ move to Indy. Does he expect him back next season?
“Yeah,’’ Reich said. “ I mean, Philip’s . . . yes. Philip’s a great player. I have a great relationship with him. He’s a great leader on this team. Those things will have time to work themselves out. He’s got a one-year contract. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into that decision.
“But very excited. He exceeded expectations in my mind about what he was bringing to the team this year on and off the field.’’
Rivers produced a nice bounce-back season from his turnover-plagued final season with the Chargers: 24 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, a 97.0 rating.
Saturday, he was 27-of-46 for 309 yards with no interceptions, touchdowns to Jack Doyle (27 yards) and Zach Pascal (9 yards) and a 93.5 rating.
According to NFL Research, Rivers joined George Blanda as the only QBs 39 or older with at least two touchdown passes in a road playoff game since 1950.
It’s worth noting the Rivers-led offense generated 472 total yards, the 5th-highest total in the team’s postseason history. It didn’t commit a turnover in the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The Colts were penalized just twice.
But the slew of strong numbers couldn’t compensate for the glaring shortcomings.
“It’s playoff football. Every play matters,’’ Reich said. “A few too many self-inflicted wounds, coaching and playing. Hard to overcome against a good football team.’’
There were at least a half-dozen dropped passes. Rookie kicker Rodrigo Blankenship splashed a 33-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter off the right upright. There was a more gaffe by Kemoko Turay, was jumped offside on a fourth-and-3 on the Bills’ late second-quarter drive. Three plays later and with just 20 seconds remaining in the half, Josh Allen capped a 96-yard drive with a 5-yard TD.
Aware efficiency in the red zone would be critical against the explosive Allen-led Bills offense, the Colts were 2-for-5. They settled for Blankenship’s 30-yard field goal in the first quarter, but then opted against another chip-shot late in the second quarter. Five trips, 16 points.
Leading 10-7, Rivers got the Colts to a first-and-goal at the 4 with a 31-yard completion to Michael Pittman Jr., a 10-yarder to Doyle and a 16-yarder to Mo Alie-Cox. A 2-yard flip to Trey Burton and a 1-yard run by Nyehim Hines out of the wildcat produced a third-and-goal at the 1. Then, a pitch to the left to Jonathan Taylor that Buffalo smothered for a 3-yard loss.
There apparently was discussion whether to kick the field goal or look for the fourth-and-4 TD, but Reich’s reliance on analytics prevailed.
He called it a “strong go.’’
Rivers seemed to agree.
“We had a chance to go up 17-7 at their place, here, on the road, and didn’t get it done,’’ he said.
The Bills would capitalize with 17 unanswered points, beginning with the 96-yard journey following the failed fourth down when Rivers’ pass to the left corner of the end zone was just off the fingers of a diving Pittman.
“I have to catch those,’’ he said.
After Buffalo settled into a 24-10 lead early in the fourth quarter – Reich’s decision to challenge a fumble by Zack Moss cost him a timeout that would have come in handy later – Rivers kept bringing the Colts back. His 9-yard TD to Pascal brought them within 24-16 and, after Tyler Bass’ 54-yard field goal pushed the Bills back in front 27-16, Rivers’ 27-yard connection with Doyle and subsequent 2-PAT pass left Indy trailing 27-24.
Yet another stop by the defense – this one aided by Denico Autry’s sack and forced fumble on Allen that resulted in a 23-yard loss – gave Rivers one last shot.
“Shoot, I really thought coming down to the wire we would have a chance,’’ Reich said.
That chance was snuffed out by Rivers’ incompletions on the game’s final three plays.
Just like that, it was over.
Just like that, Philip Rivers found himself battling his emotions.
His first season with the Colts, he mentioned more than once, was special.
“It was a heckuva year. We won 11 games,’’ Rivers said.
Again, emotions oozed out.
“It’s a really neat team,’’ he said. “Under these circumstances I know personally for me, to develop the type of bond and camaraderie that we had was pretty special for sure. All the protocols and not being here until August, it was a heckuva team to be a part of.
“Certainly disappointing finish like this when you just believe it’s the year. That’s the competitor in me. I’ve never not believed it was the year.’’
All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard led the Colts with 12 tackles, including nine solos. But he lamented not making that one play that might have turned the game.
And he bemoaned not helping get Rivers to his first Super Bowl.
“You know Philip don’t have any Super Bowl rings,’’ Leonard said. “In your mindset, you’ve got to win this guy a Super Bowl ring. He’s putting everything on the line. He comes out there with a broken toe and everything and still playing, giving us his all.
“So in turn we’ve got to continue to work and get him a Super Bowl ring. For us not to give him one this year, man, it sucks. But hopefully it’s not his last year. I pray it’s not. Hopefully he comes back and hopefully we get this thing going again.’’
Seventeenth season. At age 39. New team. Renewed hope.
“It was a special team to be a part of,’’ Rivers said. “We didn’t pull in here today expecting for it to be over, that’s for sure. It’s always tough.
“Every day matters. Every relationship, every interaction matters. It’s never a wasted year by any means. But yeah, you’re playing to win it all or they wouldn’t keep score. You’re always disappointed. It’s always emotional.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.