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Drew Brees still creating challenges for Philip Rivers; looking at NFL playoff picture

Drew Brees still creating challenges for Philip Rivers; looking at NFL playoff picture
Philip Rivers is sacked by Baltimore's Patrick Onwuasor (48) in the third quarter at StubHub Center in Carson on Saturday. (K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Sure, it’s not the same as having a local team in the hunt, but San Diegans will have a say in who raises the Super Bowl trophy in Atlanta.

Start with Drew Brees, a longtime Del Mar resident who started his NFL career in Mission Valley.

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On the verge of his 40th birthday, Brees is still surfing with the Saints and nailed down the NFC’s top seed Sunday with a scoring pass that ultimately downed the Steelers

Be sure that several other San Diegans noticed, starting with Brees’ former backup Philip Rivers, who saw his Super Bowl path veer uphill when Brees rallied the Saints

In Baltimore, meantime, two San Diego transplants, Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, no doubt cheered when Brees tossed the pass that stood as the winning score.

Rivers-Ravens 2.0?

Because Brees rallied his team — with an assist from a phantom violation for pass interference — Rivers probably will draw the strong Ravens defense in his first playoff game in five years, instead of facing an ordinary AFC defense such as Pittsburgh’s.

Trust that Rivers, to borrow from his lexicon, is fixin’ to get both himself and his guys back on track.

He was having a fun season — even making big plays in the three defeats — until the hard-edged Ravens came to Carson, under a full orange moon, and bullied their way to the 22-10 victory.

Matchup problem

The Ravens have the AFC’s top defense, clearly. Only the NFC Bears rival them.

Ravens bosses plowed tens of millions of dollars into pass defenders, spending more on defensive backs than any other NFL team. The talent has weathered the long season.

A trio of cornerbacks showed the size and skill to check Rivers’ large pass-catching corps headed by Keenan Allen (6-foot-2), Mike Williams (6-4), Tyrell Williams (6-3) and wide-bodied Antonio Gates (6-4).

Winning a good number of duels, Ravens cornerbacks Jimmy Smith (6-2, 211), Brandon Carr (6-foot, 207) and Marlon Humphrey (6-foot, 197) forced Rivers to hold the ball a beat or two longer. Carr, snatching the ball in front of Mike Williams, punished Rivers for not seeing Gates run by Weddle near the line and flinging a floater that stalled in the chilly air, much like his first pass at frigid Kansas City that also was picked off.

Who stands between the Ravens and the North title? The rising Browns (7-7-1).

San Diego tandem

Able to match wits with Rivers, safeties Weddle and Jefferson are veteran chess masters who, along with landing massive contracts worth $26 million and $34 million, respectively, from the Ravens, share an affinity for San Diego.

Jefferson wore “619” eye black and shoe decorations Saturday to honor San Diego.

“I’ve got much love for my city,” said the alum of Chula Vista’s Eastlake High. Jefferson said San Diego “not having a team” in the NFL “is kind of sad” and that he “repped San Diego” as best as he could against Team Spanos.

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Weddle, a Poway resident, said he was grateful that some 100 San Diegans attended the game to support him.

As Weddle last week downplayed the emotional element of facing his former club, teammates Smith and Jefferson weren’t having it. “Doesn’t everybody want to flex on their ex? There you have it,” Smith said last week. “Sour note, sour ending, something to prove.”

Jefferson revealed Weddle was studying tape of the Chargers last May.

If there’s a rematch, do you think Rivers will let Weddle out-study him? Not a chance.

NFL exhales?

Think NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners who employ him are relieved that Team Spanos likely will begin the Super Bowl tournament on the road?

The alternative is the Carson soccer stadium that’s not half the size of any other NFL venue.

A crowd of some 25,000 fans, roughly half of whom cheer the visiting team, is not what the NFL has in mind for its marquee event.

Even with their loss to the Seahawks on Sunday, the Chiefs (11-4) will win their third consecutive West title if they defeat the Raiders or the Chargers lose to the Broncos. The Raiders (3-11) gave the Chiefs a tough game last month, losing 40-33, but will go to Kansas City on short rest this time. The Broncos (6-8) have lost two standouts, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and Chris Harris Jr., since winning at Carson last month.

Extra points
  • Several Redskins teammates have lauded USD alum and San Diego Fleet draftee Josh Johnson, who, in his second start and third week with the club, was having a pretty good game Saturday until he threw a high pass that was intercepted, nixing a potential winning drive. “[He’s] a guy that’s just confident in his game,” running back Chris Thompson said, per the Washington Post. “Confident in what he does. . . . In my opinion, I think he’s a really good quarterback. I think he’s got some leadership qualities that probably has never been noticed in his whole NFL career. I really enjoyed playing with him. . . . Some guys just have got that thing about them and you can’t explain it.”
  • While Brees certainly would be a fair choice — the man has completed 74.4 percent of his passes — the league’s MVP ought to be Patrick Mahomes. Less reliant than most quarterbacks on his blockers and required to play a number of games in windy or wet weather, Mahomes has offset the steady erosion of what had been a solid Chiefs blocking unit while also coping with a bad Chiefs D.
  • It’s convenient, in the aftermath of Kansas City’s defeat Sunday, to conclude that the loss to the Ravens (9-6) cost Rivers and mates the West title. Think on this: Did the Chargers’ loss Saturday night create slack for the Chiefs? Yes. Did it affect the Chiefs’ approach to the game? Almost certainly, but to what end, can’t be known. See, butterfly effect.
  • Keenan Allen looked hindered Saturday not only by Ravens defenders but perhaps also the hip injury that had sidelined him nine days earlier in Kansas City. Holding Allen out for part of the finale at Denver could make sense, as could finding extra rest for veterans such as Russell Okung, Gates, Brandon Mebane, Casey Hayward, Jahleel Addae and Melvin Ingram (who probably would insist on a full plate, but faded as he carried a huge workload during Joey Bosa’s nine-game absence).
  • The offense has received solid work from two rookie backups but also has missed running back Austin Ekeler, sidelined the past two games due to a neck-head injury. Gordon wasn’t back to full form from his knee sprain sustained Nov. 25, but could get there soon. Here’s a weird stat: The team is 4-0 without Gordon and 7-4 with him.
  • Darren Sproles of the Eagles, still making plays, says 35 is the new 25. Fit him for a gold jacket.
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