When the Patriots host the Chargers this Sunday, it will mark the eighth head-to-head meeting between the teams’ two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers. Yet it would be impossible to characterize this as a back-and-forth, neck-and-neck rivalry between two greats: Rivers has never beaten Brady.
Apart from then–San Diego’s 30-10 win against a 2008 Patriots team quarterbacked by backup Matt Cassel (who was filling in for an injured Brady), the Rivers-led Chargers have lost each of their seven matchups with Brady-helmed teams dating back to the 2006 season—including two pivotal playoff games. But while the Patriots have dominated the wins column in this series, the majority of Rivers-Brady duels throughout the years have been closely fought tilts that always seem to come down to the wire, often decided by one or two big plays.
With Brady vs. Rivers VIII just around the corner, let’s look back at the history between these two quarterbacks to see if the previous seven matchups indicate whether anything will be different this time around—or whether it’ll just be more of the same.
January 14, 2007: AFC Divisional Round
Rivers’s winless streak against Brady got its start with perhaps the most devastating playoff loss of the Chargers quarterback’s career. San Diego went into the playoffs as the AFC’s no. 1 seed and clear-cut Super Bowl favorites after dominating the regular season. The Chargers, helmed by head coach Marty Schottenheimer, finished 14-2 in Rivers’s first full year as a starter. Rivers, then 25, had gotten plenty of help, of course, from a roster that featured league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson and totaled nine Pro Bowlers and five All-Pros.
After enjoying a first-round bye, San Diego drew a Patriots squad that had gone 12-4 that year and had just knocked off the Jets in the wild-card round. The game was a hard-fought grudge match between two closely matched squads that was defined not by its two star quarterbacks, but by a handful of big-time defensive plays, one crucial fumble, and—you guessed it—a missed field goal. With the Chargers leading 21-13 with 6:25 to go, the Patriots chose to go for it on fourth-and-5 from San Diego’s 41-yard line. Brady dropped back to pass, looked left, and whipped a pass up the numbers; San Diego safety Marlon McCree jumped the route and picked off the ball (Brady’s third interception of the game)—which appeared to give the Chargers a game-sealing takeaway.
But, as McCree tried to make his way upfield on the interception return, receiver Troy Brown closed quickly and ripped the ball out of the defender’s hands. The fumble was recovered by the Patriots, giving them new life and a fresh set of downs. New England went on to tie the game up five plays later with a touchdown pass from Brady to Reche Caldwell and a subsequent two-point conversion.
After holding the Chargers to a three-and-out on their next drive, the Patriots marched back down the field (with the help of a 49-yard catch from Caldwell), and Stephen Gostkowski kicked the go-ahead field goal to give the Patriots a 24-21 lead with 1:14 to go. Rivers answered and led the Chargers back into New England territory to set up what could’ve been a game-tying 54-yard field goal with 8 seconds on the clock. But it was all for naught: Nate Kaeding, a second-team All-Pro that year, missed, signaling an anticlimatic end to the team’s promising season while foreshadowing what would become a Chargers tradition of special teams adventures.
Adding insult to injury, the Patriots danced on the Chargers logo at midfield after the game, sparking a skirmish between the two teams. New England lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Colts in the AFC championship the next week.
Final score: Patriots 24, Chargers 21
September 16, 2007: Week 2
The Chargers retained most of their talented foundation to start the 2007 season, but a mass exodus among the coaching ranks changed the complexion of the team. Schottenheimer was unceremoniously dismissed by team president Dean Spanos in mid-February, who cited a “dysfunctional situation” between the coach and then–general manager A.J. Smith. Smith reportedly hadn’t been happy with Schottenheimer’s decision to let his coaching staff interview with other teams following that Patriots loss, and after defensive coordinator Wade Phillips left to be the head coach of the Cowboys, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron left to coach the Dolphins, tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski became the Browns’ offensive coordinator, and linebackers coach Greg Manusky the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, Smith decided he had had enough. Norv Turner was named as Schottenheimer’s replacement, and after beating the Bears in the team’s Week 1 opener, San Diego got itself a rematch with New England in Foxborough.
In what was advertised as a chance for the Chargers to enact their revenge, San Diego ended up being nothing more than a minor speed bump for a Patriots squad that’d go on to finish the regular season with a perfect 16-0 record on the back of its revolutionary, new-look offense.
New England jumped out to a quick early lead, with Brady throwing touchdowns to Benjamin Watson and Randy Moss, and when Rivers threw a pick-six midway through the second quarter, the rout was on.
Final score: Patriots 38, Chargers 14
January 20, 2008: AFC Championship Round
The Chargers shrugged off that early-season blowout loss to New England and finished the year 11-5, riding another All-Pro performance from Tomlinson and a breakout campaign from cornerback Antonio Cromartie (who picked off a league-high 10 passes) to a playoff berth. San Diego dispatched Jeff Fisher’s Titans in the wild-card round then knocked off the defending-champion Colts the next week to set up a playoff rematch with the undefeated Patriots in the AFC championship game. And, like the team’s postseason grudge match the year before, this game―which was billed at the time as a David vs. Goliath–type matchup―was a hard-fought affair that came down to a few crucial late-game plays.
San Diego’s defense managed to hold the Patriots’ high-octane offense mostly at bay, but their beaten-up offense struggled to take advantage; Tomlinson played just two series before leaving the game with an aggravated knee injury, and Rivers, playing through a torn ACL, finished with just 211 yards and two picks on the day. In the end, despite holding Randy Moss to just one catch and picking Brady off a season-high three times, the Chargers fell short.
Final score: Patriots 21, Chargers 12
October 24, 2010: Week 7
Rivers started the 2010 season on a tear—he threw for more than 2,000 yards in the team’s first six games, racking up 12 touchdowns and five picks while averaging 9.1 yards per attempt for a 100.7 passer rating—and the 2-4 Chargers came into this Week 7 tilt at the 4-1 Patriots as the league’s most prolific passing offense. In the first half, though, that runaway train of an offense went off the rails, turning the ball over four times to fall into an early-game hole. By midway through the third quarter, New England held a comfortable 20-3 lead on the back of a Rob Gronkowski touchdown catch, a BenJarvus Green-Ellis touchdown run, and a pair of Gostkowski field goals.
The Chargers fought their way back. Rivers led San Diego on three consecutive scoring drives to help cut the lead to 23-20 with 4:01 to go. In an attempt to ice the game, the Patriots went for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 49-yard line with 2:00 to go, but got stuffed, giving Rivers the ball back. Rivers found Antonio Gates on a pair of passes, picking up 20 yards to move the team into field goal range. Kicker Kris Brown, signed four days earlier to replace an injured Kaeding, set up for a 50-yard attempt with 27 seconds left on the clock, with a chance to tie the game up.
He hit the right upright.
Final Score: Patriots 23, Chargers 20
September 18, 2011: Week 2
New England showed early on in this game that the innovative two-tight-end scheme it unveiled in 2010 wasn’t going anywhere. Brady and the 1-0 Patriots picked apart the Chargers defense in this Week 2 matchup at Gillette and passed for 423 yards on 40 attempts in a scheme centered around Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. That duo combined to catch 11 passes for 148 yards and three touchdowns, which proved to be too much for the San Diego defense.
The Chargers found themselves in a big early hole, in part due to more kicking game misfortune. After kicker Nate Kaeding went down with a torn ACL the week prior, the team signed Nick Novak as a replacement. In what turned out to be a turning point of the game, San Diego, trailing 10-7 midway through the second quarter, elected against kicking a field goal and decided to to go for it on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line instead. That play was stuffed, and the Patriots answered with a 99-yard touchdown drive of their own to build a two-score lead.
From there, turnovers and sloppy play doomed the Chargers. Despite Rivers tossing a pair of picks, San Diego managed to hang around, finding themselves within striking distance with 10:27 to go in the fourth quarter, trailing 20-14 with a second-and-5 from the New England 34-yard line. But running back Mike Tolbert fumbled the ball away, and the Patriots capitalized. Brady hit Gronk for a score on the ensuing drive, and that was that.
Final Score: Patriots 35, Chargers 21
December 7, 2014: Week 14
Like just about every game on this list, this Week 14 game was decided by the team that executed better down the stretch. The 8-4 Chargers (under the direction of head coach Mike McCoy, who’d been hired at the start of the 2013 season) carried a 14-13 lead into the fourth quarter against a 9-3 Patriots squad, propelled by a Malcom Floyd touchdown grab and a 53-yard fumble return touchdown by safety Darrell Stuckey.
But the Patriots poured it on in the final frame: Gostkowski hit a field goal early in the quarter to give New England a 16-14 lead, and then Julian Edelman took a slant 69 yards for a score on their next possession. With the Chargers unable to get anything going on offense, Brady and Co. then ticked away more than four minutes of game clock on their ensuing drive to all but seal the deal. That Patriots squad went on to win Super Bowl XLIX.
Final score: Patriots 23, Chargers 14
October 29, 2017: Week 8
The Chargers bounced back from their 0-4 start under newly appointed head coach Anthony Lynn to win three in a row and set the stage for a tough matchup on the road against the 5-2 Patriots. Running back Melvin Gordon broke the stalemate midway through the first quarter, getting free for an 87-yard touchdown scamper, but Brady and the Patriots evened the score with a Gronkowski touchdown early in the second. From there, New England slowly built an 18-7 third-quarter lead, helped out by the worst safety I’ve ever seen (Travis Benjamin fielded the ball at the 10-yard line then proceeded to run backward before getting tackled in the end zone) and a trio of Gostkowski field goals. Benjamin got some redemption with a touchdown grab from Rivers early in the fourth, and another Gostkowski field goal set the stage for Rivers’s final flourish.
After getting the ball back with 1:03 to go and trailing 21-13, Rivers quickly pushed his offense downfield with a series of clutch completions. After finding running back Austin Ekeler over the middle for a 13-yard gain with 14 seconds to go, the Chargers rushed to the line and spiked the ball with one second to go, setting up a last-gasp try for the end zone and the chance to tie from the Patriots’ 23-yard line. Rivers’s throw never came close; he was picked off by defensive back Jonathan Jones, and the Patriots sealed the win.
Final score: Patriots 21, Chargers 13
In their seven matchups, both Rivers and Brady have had their ups and downs. Brady has come out far ahead in the wins column, obviously, and for the most part has gotten the better of his counterpart on the stat sheet as well. Brady’s thrown for 2,000 yards in those seven tilts, with 14 touchdowns and eight picks, while Rivers has thrown for 1,735 yards, seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Narrow that to just the two postseason matchups, though, and neither passer comes out looking rosy. In those two games, Brady’s thrown for 489 yards, averaged 5.82 yards per attempt, connected on just four touchdowns and six interceptions, and registered a 61.1 passer rating. Rivers, meanwhile, has thrown for 441 yards, no touchdowns, and three picks while averaging 6.39 yards per attempt and a 50.5 rating (one of those games was on a torn ACL).
Of course, there are few common variables from the Rivers-Brady matchups throughout the past 13 years. Bill Belichick is one—the Patriots have had just one head coach going back to the first meeting in 2006, while the Chargers have cycled through four. And throughout the seasons, offensive skill players, offensive linemen, defenses, coordinators, coaches, and schemes have all come and gone, so it’s difficult to draw many hard-and-fast conclusions from games that happened more than a decade ago.
But this Sunday’s matchup will give Rivers a chance to extract some long-awaited revenge. With Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Tyrell Williams, Gates, Gordon, Ekeler, and the recently activated Hunter Henry at his side, Rivers is directing one of the most talented offenses this Chargers franchise has ever fielded. Brady can’t come close to saying the same thing.
Matched up with a Patriots team that seems more vulnerable than it has in years, the Chargers look poised to give New England a tough fight. If the history between these two quarterbacks tells us anything, though, it’s that Sunday’s game is going to be close, and a handful of pivotal plays are going to turn the tide for the winning squad. Don’t be surprised when this game comes down to a clock-salting drive to seal the game, one last-ditch heave into the end zone on the final play, or—since we’re talking about the Chargers here—a game-deciding kick. Against Brady and the Patriots, who’ve proved to be masters of situational football time and time again over the past decade-plus, Rivers and Co. are going to have to buck what’s happened in most of the past seven matchups and be damn near perfect down the stretch.