Column: Philip Rivers stays in first place — and helps ex-Chargers teammate Drew Brees in process


As he headed off the field, Philip Rivers was as enthusiastic as ever.

“Huge win, huge win — great team win, what a second half!” Rivers, in his 17th NFL season, hollered into a Colts camera.

Because Rivers stayed on a good playoff track, Drew Brees could feel better Sunday night, too, in what was a big day for both former Chargers quarterbacks.

Start with Rivers, who’ll turn 39 next month and seeks his first division title in 11 years.

With the former San Diegan throwing three touchdown passes in the Midwest, the Colts (7-3) stayed atop the AFC South by defeating the Green Bay Packers in overtime, 34-31, in Indianapolis.

Brees, who’ll be 42 in January, should send new cowboy boots to his down-home friend and former San Diego teammate because the injured Saints quarterback now has a direct road to a playoff bye, a potentially huge advantage in the Super Bowl tournament .

With Brees sidelined while ESPN reported he has 11 rib fractures — six more than reported last week — the Saints (8-2) defeated the Falcons and moved past the Packers (7-3) for the NFC’s top seed thanks to Rivers and Co. overcoming a 14-point halftime deficit.

Count on Brees returning to the Saints next month, said former San Diego Chargers team physician Dr. David Chao last week. Brees, added Chao, should benefit from the down time.

As Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers heated up in the first half, driving his team to a 28-14 lead, it seemed Rivers was headed to second place.

The Colts have a better defense, though, than what the Chargers often supplied Rivers.

Fourth in the NFL in points, Indy’s D stopped Green Bay’s first three drives of the second half, eleven on fourth down.

When Colts rookie safety Julian Blackmon forced a fumble in overtime, the Colts turned the takeaway — their fourth of the game — into the winning points via a 39-yard field goal.

Reich and Rivers

Reunited this year with Frank Reich, a former Chargers quarterbacks coach and coordinator, Rivers has rebounded from a dismal 2019 season that sent him to a new franchise.

The divorce has worked out for the Chargers, who turned the sixth pick of the draft into impressive rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, and for Rivers, whose team already has two more victories than Team Spanos finished with last season.

Reich won a Super Bowl with the 2017 Eagles after leaving San Diego following head coach Mike McCoy’s dismissal. Eagles quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Nick Foles thrived under Reich, who backed up Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly for several years. Reich’s beyond-the-norm harping on fundamentals as his positional coach, said Rivers, paid off in the 2013 season. I viewed the same season, including a turnover-free outing in a playoff victory, as Rivers’ best yet.

This year, Reich’s emphasis on short passes and the ground game has taken some heat off Rivers while helping to cut his sack percentage in half from last year.

Reich was part of an Eagles staff that embraced analytics, especially not punctuating on fourth-and-short. Late in the fourth quarter with the Colts ahead 31-28, Reich trusted Rivers to convert on fourth-and-4. Rivers got 13 yards with a pass to running back Nyheim Hines.

So it appeared the Colts were in full control — up three points at Green Bay’s 23 with 1:55 left.

Two holding penalties by Colts blockers and an incompletion, though, led to Rodgers and Co. getting the ball with 1:25 left and a timeout in hand.

The Packers drove for a typing field goal. They won the coin flip, returning a tired Colts D to the field.

Blackmon still looked fresh. The Utah alum closed fast on a perimeter screen and swatted the ball from receiver Marquez Valdez-Scandling, setting up the victory. “I have a lot of love for Marquez,” Rodgers said. Then he noted the receiver held the ball “a little loose” after catching the second-and-2 pass.

Brees needed a Packers defeat for a big reason: Green Bay’s earlier victory at New Orleans gave it the tiebreaker against the Saints.

With Green Bay’s defeat Sunday, quarterbacks Tom Brady and Russell Wilson of the Bucs (7-3) and Seahawks (7-3) also saw their chances improve to land the NFC’s top seed and only playoff bye. Rodgers, for his part, pointed to his offense’s strong first half against a good defense.

“Today actually gave me a lot of confidence in our guys and I know that might sound weird,” he said. “I still feel really good about our chances, our squad.”

A victory next weekend over the visiting Titans (7-3) would put Rivers and Co. alone atop the South, while giving them a tiebreaker edge. Indianapolis is facing road games next month at Las Vegas and Pittsburgh.