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For Philip Rivers, Saturday Night Is a Potential Career-Defining Moment

The Week 15 tilt in Kansas City is about so much more than just a divisional victory.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Author’s Note: As I was typing this, I read Jamie’s piece about the Chargers needing to prove they’ve changed. Sorry if a lot of what I say ends of repeating/echoing what he wrote about, as it was purely coincidental.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane, back when Antonio Gates was snagging 12 touchdowns on the season and the dynamic duo of Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal were the ones moving the chains as Philip Rivers’ main targets.

Wow, 2014 feels like so long ago.

Anyway, the last time the Chargers played on Saturday Night Football was the last time the Chargers were playing meaningful football in December. You might recall the torrid start to the season, where Rivers was a surefire MVP candidate leading the club to a 5-1 mark. They hit a bump in the middle of the season but entered that critical final month having to go just 2-2 in order to qualify for the playoffs.

Losses to AFC juggernauts in the Broncos and Patriots left the team at 8-6, needing to win their last two. They would get the first one in an epic overtime bout in Santa Clara, as the Bolts waltzed out of the Niners’ shiny new stadium with a victory.

It was a huge statement win, and Chargers’ faithful couldn’t have been more excited for the win-and-they’re-in scenario. The Chiefs, at home, without Alex Smith? It seemed like a foregone conclusion that the team would be playing come Wildcard Weekend.

Then, Justin Houston happened. 7 sacks later, Philip Rivers and the Chargers were sitting at home on the couch, wondering to themselves how they let such a unique opportunity slip from their grasp.

2015 and 2016 blended together in their respective terribleness, as the talent around the quarterback crumbled and Top Ten picks were the subsequent reward. Mike McVisor was fired, and Anthony Lynn came in with minimal fanfare.

Of course, this year’s team has been a revelation. A talented team from the get-go, they overcame coaching blunders and growing pains within the new regime to get to this moment: a chance to win the division.

Though miracles happen, don’t be fooled—should this Chargers team not take care of business in Kansas City on Saturday night, the playoffs are all but a goner. Sure, it’s possible for the Titans to lose out or something else incredible to happen, but if we as fans think this 2017 outfit is as strong as we believe it to be, then this game absolutely needs to be a win, no questions asked.

So, back to the brunt of this piece: why do I believe this game is so very important for one Philip Rivers?

NFL: San Diego Chargers Stadium Initiative Rally Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Just look at these last three seasons. 2014 saw the Chargers fade at a crucial point, not even qualifying for the playoffs after starting 5-1. Starting five different centers over the course of the season certainly didn’t help.

2015 and 2016 were seasons marred by injuries and distractions. The stadium drama was superfluous; don’t forget about management beefing with players, either (Eric Weddle and Joey Bosa, anyone?).

Remember how we thought 2013 was the beginning of a new era, and a divisional round playoff appearance was the first of many to come under Mike McCoy? Yeah, that didn’t happen. Just because the future looks bright with Lynn at the helm does not mean anything is guaranteed.

It rarely is in sports. A year ago, the Cowboys looked set up to dominate for years. So did the Raiders. Both teams were and are chock-full with young talent, yet their chances of making the postseason in 2017 are slim due to inconsistent play (Carr and Prescott, along with smaller pieces such as Gabe Jackson and Amari Cooper) and off-the-field distractions (the Cowboys organization as a whole). All in all, in the salary cap era, true dynasties like the Patriots are pretty difficult to come by.

An appearance in the NFL’s playoff system cannot be understated or undervalued because it doesn’t matter what your record is or how many touchdowns your quarterback has thrown. Time and time again, we’ve seen a team with the hot hand scorch their way to a championship appearance.

This Chargers team is on fire right now. Philip Rivers is on fire. Keenan Allen is on fire. The whole defense is on fire. But most importantly, they have two rare and vital traits working in their favor: health and luck

Therefore, for Rivers to finally get that ring that’s eluded him for so long, there is no better year than 2017. Yes, I think the club is set up for success for the next several years, but whether Rivers can keep up this level of production is suspect at best.

Besides, a whole slew of question marks approaches future teams. What if we enter next year expecting dominance from Joey Bosa, only for him to tear his ACL in the preseason? What if another team is stupid enough to woo Gus Bradley away and hand him the keys to his second head coaching gig? What if Dean Spanos does something only Dean Spanos would be dumb enough to do?

Wow, that last hypothetical is just a little too realistic for my liking. Sorry guys.

Anyway, Eli Manning didn’t get a chance to be in the limelight for very long, but he capitalized on his brief stint and has two memorable Lombardi hoists to show for it. His otherwise durable yet mediocre career is commonly overlooked, and the younger Manning will likely end with a bust in Canton.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Once the NFL calendar hits December, every game matters so very much. There is no next week; the score is 0-0. You need to hunker down and win, or else dreams of playing in February vanish in the cold, Minnesota wind.

People who don’t watch many Chargers’ games categorize Philip Rivers as a loser. They say he doesn’t show up in big moments. They say he’s not clutch.

They point to the years in which he had #21 pacing the backfield and say that if Rivers couldn’t win then, he’ll never win. They say he’s a fringe Hall-of-Famer at best.

That’s why Saturday night is a career-defining moment for Philip Rivers. Should he show up big in a prime-time slot like he did on Thanksgiving, detractors will look twice. Should the Chargers win, the road to an AFC West title and a playoff game in Carson just got that much easier.

And should the Bolts succeed in qualifying for the postseason tournament, all bets are off, and the powder-blue-and-gold have the talent to make a serious run at the title.

Or Andy Reid could game-plan perfectly like he’s wont to do in his team’s last seven triumphs of this one-sided rivalry. Philip Rivers could throw three interceptions like he did in Week 3, and another star-studded Chargers team could end up sitting at home on the couch, wondering to themselves how they let such a unique opportunity slip from their grasp. The doubters will smirk, and the focus will move on to Robo-Brady and his attempt at Big One Number Six.

Rivers might never field a team this qualified again, and he’ll wrap up his career playing in a soccer stadium with the opposing fans jeering his name. Sure, the statistical accolades will pile up, and he’ll finish his career in the top five of almost every major passing category. But he’ll never satisfy those asking one question: where’s the hardware?

Make no mistake, a lot hangs in the balance this Saturday for the legacy of #17. For the team’s sake, our sake, and his sake let’s hope and pray for a win at Arrowhead.

Nathan Graber-Lipperman is a die-hard Chargers fan that already bought tickets to the Chargers-Jets game in Week 16. He’s gonna be really sad—and cold—if the Chargers lose against the Chiefs tomorrow night and his second-ever NFL game features two teams jockeying for draft position. You can follow him @nathangl99