In the heat of nearly every moment on a football field, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers is said to be a man of many words — some more family friendly than others — whether his Chargers are winning big or getting their expletives handed to them.
It's that competitive fire that endears or irritates, depending on one's allegiance. But even in this, perhaps the most frustrating of his eight seasons in the NFL, Rivers has the full respect of the Ravens, who are sure to get an earful of trash talk in San Diego on Sunday night.
And of all the blooming verbal bouquets heaved at the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback this week, the one that sums Rivers up best came from soft-spoken defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
"He is a quarterback that hates to get hit and loves to win," Ngata said almost endearingly.
As the 10-3 Ravens look to lock down the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed — win out and it's theirs — Rivers and the 6-7 Chargers might be the tallest hurdle left for them to clear.
Clinging to postseason hopes they appeared to fumble away weeks ago, the Chargers exploded for 75 points in back-to-back wins over the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills. With six touchdown passes and no interceptions in those two games, it is Rivers, who looks rejuvenated, leading their charge back to the fringe of playoff contention.
"They're extremely talented," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of the Chargers' offense. "And when they're hitting on all cylinders, obviously, we've seen what they're capable of."
But earlier in the season — particularly during San Diego's six-game losing streak — few, if any, cylinders were in working order for the Chargers. They were ravaged by injuries on the offensive line and in the receiving corps, and doomed by a slew of turnovers by Rivers, who is second in the NFL with 17 interceptions and has also lost five fumbles.
One play in particular from the Chargers' 23-20 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 8 was a microcosm of his season. With the Chargers in position to kick their way to a win, Rivers botched an exchange from center. The Chiefs exited the ensuing scrum with the ball and went on to win. The Chargers went on to lose their next four games.
As Rivers struggled, speculation swirled that he was injured — Chargers coach Norv Turner insisted this week that he wasn't — or pressing to win the Super Bowl or save Turner's job.
"Unfortunately, if you go through a tough period like we did, like he did, it's what this game's about," the embattled Chargers coach said. "We haven't been at full-speed on the offensive line. We've had receivers in and out of there. And a year ago, he was unbelievable and it didn't affect him. I'd say this year, it probably affected him a little bit."
Tim Hasselbeck, an ESPN analyst and former quarterback who played six seasons in the NFL, has the same assessment of Rivers. Hasselbeck believes the 30-year-old didn't have enough time to find open receivers in San Diego's vertical passing attack. "The ball's going to bounce funny sometimes, too," he said. Now Hasselbeck believes Rivers, who has thrown for 3,745 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2011, is again spinning the football like one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.
"Before the season started, I thought there was a good shot that Philip Rivers was going to put together an MVP-type season," Hasselbeck said. "I think Rivers is that good."
And so do the Ravens, who still see a dangerous quarterback with a 96.5 career passer rating who has twice as many touchdowns passes in the NFL than picks. They are also weary of the tall, athletic Chargers receiving corps, including 6-foot-5 wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd and tight end Antonio Gates, who is an inch shorter.
"It's going to be an awesome challenge," Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "They've got a roster that's riddled full of talent. … They trot that group of receivers and tight ends out there, it's like the Lakers trotting out for warm-ups. They're giants."
Rivers was not made available to Baltimore media via conference call this week.
For the Ravens, the key to quieting Rivers, at least when it comes to his play, is to bring the noise with the pass rush. AFC sack leader Terrell Suggs — who admitted that the fiery Rivers is one of the few quarterbacks he likes — said that Rivers will play pitch and catch with his towering targets all night if the Ravens can't confuse and exploit the Chargers' makeshift offensive line.
"You don't want a quarterback to be in a seven-on-seven match, especially this one, with your defensive backs," he said. "It's going to be raining touchdowns and it doesn't feel too good."
Ngata added that if the Ravens get in Rivers' face and hit him often, he will really start chirping.
"He doesn't really like getting hit," Ngata said. "I think you can see that he really starts to get on his linemen and into the refs and talking about some hits. Once we can do that to him, get him frustrated, it's going to be a better game for us."
Some players around the NFL might not like it when Rivers opens his mouth and the expletives start flying — Jay Cutler, whom Rivers famously taunted a few years ago when Cutler played for the Broncos, comes to mind. But most of the Ravens, who also enjoy speaking their minds on and off the field, don't mind when Rivers talks the talk because he usually walks the walk, too.
"Some people can say they don't like it or whatever else about it, but I like it," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said. "The guy's a competitor and you don't see that too often at quarterback. And he's going to back it up with his play. That's one of the great things about him. And they wouldn't have paid him all that money that that they did if they didn't trust and believe in him."