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Broncos say goodbye to their No. 1 villain as Philip Rivers retires

The long-time Chargers' QB held a long-running feud with the Broncos. And it made for some highly entertaining moments.
Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers warms up before an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Denver.

INDIANAPOLIS — The Philip Rivers-Denver Broncos feud was ignited on Christmas Eve 2007.

The once-mighty Broncos, on their way to only their second losing record in the 14-year Mike Shanahan era, were playing game 15 of the 2007 season against the San Diego Chargers, who had become the newly dominant team of the AFC West. The Chargers with their second-year starting quarterback Philip Rivers, sensational running back LaDainian Tomlinson and hyper trash-talking defense, whipped the Broncos’ 23-3 before a primetime TV audience. Ho, Ho, Ugh.

The game wasn’t that close. It was 23-0 midway through the third quarter when Chargers coach Norv Turner pulled his starters. The Chargers were on their way to their second straight AFC West title while the Broncos fell to 6-9.

Late in the game, Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler scrambled along the right sideline, close to the Chargers’ bench. As he got up, Cutler grabbed his unmentionables, a gesture aimed at his trash-talking opponents. The TV cameras either missed that, or didn’t show it. What TV didn’t miss was a chastising Rivers, his face contorted with menace, yelling back at Cutler.

"I don't think these teams like each other and they probably won't like each other in the future," Cutler said ever-so accurately in his postgame press conference.

From the moment Rivers’ demonstrative anger was displayed before a national audience on the night before Christmas – he yelled at Cutler while pointing to the scoreboard, which showed the Chargers’ comfortably in command -- he became villain No. 1 to Broncos Country. It’s a role the combative Rivers seemed to relish.

After 17 years in the NFL, 15 as a starting quarterback, Rivers announced his retirement Wednesday, breaking the big news through his longtime beat reporter Kevin Acee of the San Diego Tribune.

RELATED: Chargers legend Philip Rivers retiring after 17 seasons

It marked another bit of irony with Rivers. For despite his animated whining and berating during his three hours of competition on NFL game days, there was not a man of stronger character. Rivers said he has never uttered a profanity, not even during his most heated moments, and no opponent has come forward to dispute this claim. A devout Catholic, he married his high school sweetheart Tiffany, and they have nine children.

When the Chargers moved from San Diego to Los Angeles in 2017, he spent his last three seasons with the franchise commuting two-plus hours each way so he wouldn’t be separated from his family. Upon retirement, he will immediately begin his new job as head coach of St. Michael Catholic High School in Fairhope, Ala.

Rivers is truly an All American boy in nearly every sense – with the exception of his oft-times unsportsmanlike conduct during the spirit of competition. Clean language doesn’t absolve him of this.

Credit: AP
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

In the end, the Broncos got the better of Rivers, going 16-13 against him, plus beat him in a second-round playoff game in 2013. They sacked him 67 times, more than any other team. Von Miller alone sacked Rivers 16 times – double Miller’s No. 2 quarterback victim, Alex Smith. Rivers threw 46 touchdown passes against the Broncos, but also had 30 intercepted.

The rivalry didn’t start that way. Beginning in 2006 – his first season as the Chargers’ starter after sitting two years behind Drew Brees – Rivers started 4-0 against the Broncos, and 9-2. The rivalry turned with one of Tim Tebow’s comebacks in the second meeting of 2011. That was followed by four years of Peyton Manning dominance from 2012-‘15 – a stretch in which Rivers endured eight losses in nine games against his rivals.

Besides the Christmas Eve, 2007 whipping that started the feud, some of the more memorable meetings between the Broncos and Rivers’ Chargers:

— His first start against the Broncos in November 2006 at Mile High. The Broncos, coming off a 13-3 season that ended with a home loss in the AFC Championship Game, entered this game 7-2 and were leading 24-7 following a Darrent Williams’ pick six midway through the third quarter. 

Rivers’ 51-yard touchdown strike to Tomlinson, whom the Broncos tried to guard on the play with defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban, ignited a 35-27 Chargers’ comeback win.

— The Broncos’ thrilling, 39-38 win in game 2 of the 2008 season at Mile High. Rivers hit Darren Sproles for a 66-yard touchdown that put San Diego ahead 38-31 with 4:22 left in regulation. But on fourth and goal with 29 seconds left, Cutler threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to rookie Eddie Royal. Instead of kicking the game-tying extra point and sending the game into overtime, Shanahan called on a do-or-die, 2-point conversion attempt. On the exact same play as the previous touchdown, Cutler hit Royal for the game-winning, 2-point conversion.

— The 2008 season-ending, 52-21 Chargers' romp of the Broncos in San Diego. With three games remaining, the Broncos were 8-5 and the Chargers were 5-8. In the biggest collapse in Denver franchise history, the Broncos lost their final three while San Diego won its final three. The Chargers won their third consecutive AFC West title with an 8-8 record that beat out the 8-8 Broncos on a tiebreaker.

It was Shanahan's final game as Broncos' head coach as he was fired two days later.

— The Broncos comeback from a 24-0 halftime deficit to defeat the Chargers, 35-24 at old Qualcomm Stadium in game 6 of the 2012 season. Manning’s first season in Denver wasn’t going so well. The Broncos entered this game with a 2-3 record. Lose this game -- which appeared certain at the intermission -- and the Broncos would have been 2-4.

Instead, Manning threw three second-half touchdown passes and Rivers committed two turnovers that gave Denver’s defense two touchdowns – a 65-yard fumble return by Tony Carter off an Elvis Dumervil strip sack, and a comeback-clinching, 46-yard pick six by Chris Harris Jr. – and the Broncos had the start of an 11-game winning streak.

— The Scoreboard Operator Game. It was October of 2014 at Mile High. The Broncos were up 35-21 near the final 2-minute warning and had the ball when Manning became perturbed his home crowd wasn’t staying quiet so he could call plays at the line. The reason he couldn’t hear is the Jumbotron operator incited the crowd by playing House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” while alternating big-screen video shots of Rivers on the sidelines, which drew loud boos, and Manning on the field, which drew loud cheers.

"I've got to have a talk with our scoreboard operator," Manning said in his postgame press conference. "He's playing music and showing players dancing and getting the crowd fired up when we have the ball. I don't think he should be doing that. And I don't think he should be showing their quarterback on the sideline. I thought that was kind of disrespectful. Our fans are great, our fans are loud, but our scoreboard operator, it wasn't his best night."

But see, Manning didn’t have the context the scoreboard operator had. Manning didn’t arrive in Denver until 2012. By then, the simmering feud between Broncos Country and Rivers was five years old. Only the Broncos-Al Davis' Raiders rivalry during the Orange Crush era – “Take that, Fat Man,’’ Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson yelled at Raiders coach John Madden following a Denver fumble recovery near the Oakland bench in a 1977 game – can match the Rivers-Broncos squabble in intensity.

Rivers finished his career with one very good season this past year in Indianapolis, in which he led the Colts to an 11-5 record and the playoffs. He never did play in a Super Bowl, much less win one. Still, he will likely be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot for the class of 2026 as Rivers retires ranked No. 5 all-time in both passing yards (63,440) and touchdown passes (421).

He was not the best quarterback of his era – Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and arguably Eli Manning outperformed him – but no player drew more derision from Broncos Country. Every good story needs a villain. To the Broncos and their fans, Philip Rivers will be missed.

RELATED: New Broncos GM Paton placed introductory phone call to QB Lock

Credit: AP
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers (17) throws during practice at the NFL team's football training camp at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

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