It looked like it was going to be a disaster.
Heck, it probably should have been a disaster.
But that’s the value of having a 15-year vet behind center, starting his league-leading 197th consecutive game.
With 4:04 remaining in the first half and the score knotted at three all, Philip Rivers bobbled the snap from Mike Pouncey. He reached up to his right to haul it in, turning his body completely around as it looked to all like a play that would end in an incompletion, sack, or even worse, a fumble.
Instead, Rivers showed off his savviness, throwing a dart to Austin Ekeler in the flat milliseconds before taking a hard hit to the ground. His goal was to mitigate what he thought for certain would be a negative play, hoping to at least turn it into a short gain.
It turned into a dazzling 44-yard touchdown to give the Chargers a lead they’d never relinquish.
“I knew we had a blitz coming to the side of Austin and (Antonio) Gates,” Rivers said. “I believe it was. We got that squared away, then they were running from both sides. They ended up bringing a saw blitz. I just dropped the snap, and then it was a little bit of panic mode to get it. Once I got it corralled, I knew where Austin was as kind of an outlet, and just thought, ‘Minimize the negative play.’ Then, I look up and it’s a 40-yard touchdown.”
Rivers sat on the turf and was helped up by Sam Tevi, and he watched as Ekeler made the entire Raiders defense look silly, weaving in and out while dodging tacklers as he zoomed into the end zone.
So, just how close was the play to being a complete disaster?
“It was pretty close,” Rivers said. “It was another little bobble away from me just getting down…. Once I just lost it, I should have caught the snap, then it was a little bit of, ‘Don’t turn the ball over, get the ball.’ Then, once I got it, I figured I could get it to him. I didn’t know it was going to be that good of a result, though.”
While Chargers fans roared, watching a near disaster turn into a touchdown, Ekeler actually had no idea how close the play came to being blown up.
“I didn’t realize that he was about to get hit or almost got tipped or anything like that,” he said. “I just saw the pressure coming off the edge, and it was a hot ball, so it’s coming to me right away. (I) ended up just catching the ball and looking downfield from there…. It was a free release for me, so if they blitz, I’m not blocking. I’m out (as a receiver) regardless. So, if the guy I was supposed to block comes, then he’s got to throw it to me right away. That’s what ended up happening.”
What Ekeler did with the ball in his hands was equally remarkable to Philip somehow getting it to him.
The running back simply made the defenders look silly with a bevy of jukes and cuts before hitting the turbo button. He was also aided by a monster downfield block by Keenan Allen.
“You work on your moves in the open space,” Ekeler explained. “That’s how you can make your money in this league as a running back out in the field in open space. That’s where I think I excel at and keep doing. Winning one-on-ones.”
That play completely turned the tide for the Bolts.
The defense came through a short while later as Jatavis Brown forced a key fumble that Jahleel Addae recovered. A few plays later, Melvin Gordon barreled into the end zone to give the Chargers the two score lead they’d maintain the rest of the day.
“(That play changed the momentum) because we weren’t really playing that great on offense,” Rivers said. “We were playing okay. First (drive), it was better. We didn’t go three and out, finished with points, but we weren’t playing great (after that). We had some third downs where we weren’t great, and then (Ekeler’s touchdown) kind of sparked the whole deal. At least it felt that way. Then we got another stop, then we got another big screen to Melvin and punched that one in. Then we felt in control the rest of the way.”