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The Colts’ Failed Comeback Was a Referendum on the Philip Rivers Experiment

Indianapolis was gifted a chance to tie or win its playoff game against Buffalo, but squandered the opportunity

Wild Card Round - Indianapolis Colts v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Since time is a flat circle, Philip Rivers and the Colts wound up in the Philip Riversiest of situations Saturday in their wild-card game against the Bills: down by three with 2:30 left, trying to orchestrate a game-winning (or at least game-tying) drive.

Anyone familiar with Rivers’s 16-year Chargers tenure should have immediately wondered what fresh hell—excuse me, heck—awaited as soon as he broke the huddle. It seemed at one point during the drive, though, that Indianapolis might finally catch a break in a game where dropped passes, failed red-zone possessions and replay reviews had gone against them. With 50 seconds left, on fourth down, Rivers threw a 17-yard pass to receiver Zach Pascal, who caught the ball at the Bills’ 46-yard line, fell to the ground, then got up and fumbled the ball, which the Bills recovered. It looked like it should have been the game-clinching play for Buffalo, only the officials ruled that Pascal was down by contact when he initially fell. Upon review, it looked fairly clear that Pascal wasn’t contacted before he got up and that he wasn’t down when he lost possession of the football, but officials said there was no clear evidence to overturn the call. If it had been overturned, the Bills would have won right then and there.

The decision gave Rivers a chance to win the game, the kind of legacy-defining scenario Rivers is all too familiar with—for better or worse. Needing a few yards to get the Colts into field goal range, Rivers threw consecutive incomplete passes, setting up a Hail Mary attempt on fourth down that meekly fell short of the end zone. It was an anti-climactic ending to an eventful second half in which the Colts clawed back from a 24-10 fourth-quarter deficit.

The Colts season is now over and with Rivers set to hit free agency, they have to decide if they want to resign the 39-year-old or look for another quarterback via free agency, trade, or the draft. The Colts have a deep, balanced roster and they upgraded at several positions heading into this season, but third-stringer Jacob Eason, a fourth-round draft pick in 2020, is the only quarterback Indianapolis currently has under contract for 2021, with both Rivers and Jacoby Brissett hitting free agency in March.

Rivers considered retiring after the 2019 season but decided to sign with Indianapolis because the Colts gave him an opportunity to start on a playoff-contending team. As for the Colts, they probably feel validated in their decision to bring in Rivers. He was respectable in 2020, finishing the regular season eighth in completion percentage (68 percent), 10th in passing yards (4,169), 19th in QBR (62.7) and 13th in passer rating (97). He also led three game-winning drives and threw 24 touchdowns to 11 interceptions a year after he threw 23 and 20, respectively, in 2019 with the Chargers. That’s more than anyone can count on for an aging quarterback coming off one of his worst seasons. The Colts succeeded in making the playoffs, though they wouldn’t have without the addition of a seventh seed.

The question for the Colts is if it’s enough to give Rivers another shot. He told The Athletic earlier this week that he’d like to keep playing, though he said how the Colts fared in the playoffs could alter his feelings somewhat.

“If I came in here and stunk it up, I was gonna be done anyway. It’d be like, ‘Man, this is brutal, let me just go coach.’ But if it went well, and we got in the playoffs and made a run, let’s do it again,” Rivers said. “I still feel that way. I don’t want to speak in absolutes because there is still dust to be settled, whenever this season ends, and I’ll talk about it with my family and the Colts have their side, but I still feel the same way. I hope there is a year two. I think I’m really gonna want to play again.”

Rivers plans to coach his son’s high school football team at St. Michael Catholic in Fairhope, Alabama, when his NFL career is over. His son Gunner is a sixth-grader, meaning that Rivers has two more seasons before Gunner reaches high school.

Colts coach Frank Reich indicated after the game that Rivers could be back.

“Those things will work themselves out, but he exceeded expectations in my mind in terms of what he was bringing to the team on and off the field,” Reich said.

If not, Indianapolis would have to look to the draft, or go after a veteran quarterback like Carson Wentz, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford or Sam Darnold. Wentz’s best NFL season came when Reich was offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, and he could be a target if he’s willing to restructure his contract to facilitate a trade.

Whatever direction the Colts choose, their quarterback in 2021 will provide both the floor and the ceiling for that team, as Rivers—who finished 27-of-46 for 309 yards and two touchdowns—seemed to do against Buffalo. Rivers got the Colts past midfield on five drives in the first half, but only came away with 10 points. He threw precise touchdown passes to Pascal and Jack Doyle while staging the comeback, but wasted plays and seconds on the final drive (Indianapolis also made the bizarre decision to huddle after a play during that drive when they had no timeouts remaining, letting valuable time run off the clock). Rivers is one of the most fun quarterbacks to watch because he so obviously loves competition—which is part of why the ending of Bills-Colts felt so right, even if it technically shouldn’t have happened. It’s possible to come away from the game with the impression that Rivers and the Colts almost beat a heavy favorite on the road. It’s also possible to have watched it and felt like they let it get away, leaving far too many plays and points on the field. What matters now is which camp the Colts are in, and whether or not they feel like it’s worth giving another try.