When the Oakland Raiders last saw the San Diego Chargers more than two months ago, Philip Rivers threw the football all over the Coliseum, gashing the host’s defense for four touchdowns.
On a day when the Raiders would escape with a 34-31 win, the veteran quarterback also handed out a pair of picks, while his offense coughed up a couple of fumbles. The afternoon was a microcosm of the season to come for both the hopeful AFC West champs and the division’s bottom feeder.
Entering Week 15 of the season, the Raiders own the game’s best turnover differential (+15) and the Chargers lead the league with 30 giveaways.
“If you take away our turnovers, we’re a pretty good offense,” Chargers’ offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt told reporters in San Diego.
Unfortunately for the Bolts, there is no taking away the team’s 13 fumbles and Rivers’ league-leading 17 interceptions.
“The biggest problem we’ve had offensively, that I’ve had, is protecting the ball,” Rivers said at his weekly press conference. “When you lead the league in turnovers, probably your record’s not going to be really good.”
During a season in which the Raiders’ quarterback has emerged as an MVP contender, Rivers stands out as the anti-Derek Carr.
While Carr has yet to turn in a multi-interception performance, Rivers has five such outings on his ledger. Rivers has aired out 10 picks in his last four games — twice as many as Carr has accounted for all season.
With injuries wrecking Rivers’ supporting cast, the Raiders are poised to take advantage of the five-time Pro-Bowler’s charitable ways. The Chargers have 17 players on injured reserve. The Raiders have six.
That list of 17 doesn’t include running back Melvin Gordon, who the Chargers have already ruled out due to a strained hip and sprained knee.
The loss of Gordon, who is three yards shy of becoming the league’s seventh 1,000-yard rusher, is especially problematic for Rivers — a non-factor with his legs.
With Gordon missing and Rivers lacking mobility in the pocket, Raiders’ defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. should be able to dial up an unusually aggressive pass rush, featuring Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.
“I put him in a lot of spies,” Norton told reporters at the team’s headquarters in Alameda, explaining why Irvin has recorded just five sacks. “We have a lot of quarterbacks who like to move around and run. So, he becomes the spy guy and while Khalil gets to do the sacking.”
“This week, obviously, this quarterback isn’t the type that’s going to run a lot. So, you might see Bruce rush a lot more.”
Even with Mack and Irvin swarming, Rivers will take his shots at a Raiders’ secondary that will be playing without strong safety Karl Joseph for the second time in as many weeks. The touchdowns will fly, but so could the picks.
If the defense can force Rivers to turn the ball over, the Raiders will be on their way to going 11-3 and becoming playoff participants for the first time since 2002.
Such an outcome would cap a dramatic rise for a Raiders team that was 3-13 just three years ago during Carr’s first season in the Silver and Black.
“Starting 0-10 was not fun,” Carr said during his weekly press conference, thinking back to his rookie season. “So, it makes these moments so awesome. It makes these moments really cool to already have 10 wins and those things.
“But I know for our team, our sole focus is beating the Chargers because if we don’t, we’re still sitting there hoping and wishing.”