The Cincinnati Bengals have knocked off Aaron Rodgers. They’ve topped Tom Brady and snapped his touchdown streak in the process. They’ve beaten Ben Roethlisberger, the reigning AFC Player of the Month. And while they did let Matthew Stafford throw for 357 yards and three touchdowns, they made the big stop when they had too and eventually took him down, too.
But the toughest test yet may be awaiting the Bengals Sunday in San Diego, where the rejuvenated Philip Rivers is putting up some of the best numbers of his 10-year career under the new regime of head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.
“It’s fair to say that this offseason went from disappointment and sadness, really – you lose a coach in Norv (Turner) who’s a friend and really more than a friend because of how he was all those seasons – and then you go to the excitement and challenge of a new offense and a new coaching staff and being around some new people that you grow to trust and appreciate and respect,” Rivers said.
“I’ve enjoyed the change,” he continued. “It doesn’t diminish any appreciation I have for what we’ve done here and the experiences I had with the previous coaches. But it has been a positive change.”
Through 11 games Rivers has thrown for 3,381 yards, putting him on pace for 4918, which would eclipse the career high of 4,710 he set in 2010. His 22 touchdown passes have him on pace for 32, which would be two shy of the 34 he threw in his 2008 season.
And his 397-yard performance last week in a 41-38 upset win at Kansas City was his fourth game with at least 390 yards this season, tying and NFL record shared by Hall of Famers Dan Marino (1984) and Joe Montana (1990).
“From the very first day we got here as a staff, we talked about how it’s not just Philip, it’s everybody,” said McCoy, who was Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator in Denver last season. “The offensive line had to protect better, to receivers needed to create separation and get to their spots quicker and let Philip be who Philip is. What he’s doing is not surprising anybody here.”
But it is surprising some people in Cincinnati, with Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis being one of them.
“I don’t know many times I’ve ever seen a quarterback completing over 70 percent of his passes,” Lewis said. “He’s doing more than I’ve ever seen him do in his career.”
Rivers has completed 70.8 percent of his passes (281 of 397) this season, which is well ahead of his career-best mark of 65.3 percent in 2008.
“We’re throwing a lot more short to intermediate passes ,” Rivers said. “For years here we’ve really pushed it up the field, and we’re still getting some chunk plays but we pushed it down the field a lot. One of the most in the league. The combination of those two things have been a positive so far.”
Another big reason for the revitalization has been what Rivers has been doing with feet in addition to his arm, as he’s also on pace to set a new high in rushing yards.
“He’s always been a guy who steps up in the pocket and makes throws, but now he’s extending those plays a little bit longer,” Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. “He’s not afraid to get out of the pocket more. His guys are getting open, too. It all works together. The receivers have to get open, the offensive line has to protect and they run the ball pretty well, too.”
Last month Stafford broke the Bengals’ streak of 21 consecutive games without allowing a 300-yard passer, but defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has seen his group start a new, modest run of four since then.
If Rivers merely meets his average Sunday, he’ll reset the mark to zero again.
“We’ve played a lot of good ones, but they’re an explosive offense,” Zimmer said of the Chargers, who rank sixth in the NFL in total offense and fourth in passing. “We’ll definitely have our hands full.”