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Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers looks to throw during the first quarter of an AFC Wild Card game against the Baltimore Ravens, at M&T Bank Stadium, in Baltimore, on Jan. 6, 2019.Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Philip Rivers may be the most boring great athlete in history. That’s why people like him despite the fact he loses so often.

The Los Angeles Chargers quarterback is an amalgam of old-timey Western virtues: work-obsessed, tough-minded and deeply religious.

He is the sort of man who asked his college coach for permission to marry. Rivers, 37, and his wife are expecting their ninth child in March.

He’s the sort of person who’s made more than US$200-million and still drives a 10-year-old pickup. His off-hours uniform is a modified Roy Rogers – cowboy boots and snap-button shirts.

This year Rivers allowed himself the luxury of being chauffeured to and from practice in a customized SUV on the theory that he could watch game tape on the drive and then be fully present for dinner with the family.

Essentially, Rivers is America’s fever dream of the Perfect Football Man.

And yet you would be hard-pressed to summon to mind a single great moment in Rivers’s career. A lot of the time, you’d be hard pressed to remember what he looks like. While watching Sunday’s wild-card game, a friend said, “If Philip Rivers wasn’t playing football, he’d be managing a JCPenney in San Mateo.”

Rivers’s unfair anonymity began at NFL inception. He was part of the best quarterback draft class in history, alongside New York Giant Eli Manning and Pittsburgh Steeler Ben Roethlisberger.

Rivers is a better pivot than Manning, and at least as good as Roethlisberger, but that pair has four Super Bowl wins between them. Rivers once took his team to an AFC Championship game. Just the once. His team lost. That was more than a decade ago.

Most people who’d put up that playoff record over the dozen years he’s been a starter would be called failures. But Rivers has managed to slip that reputation.

He isn’t a graceful player – his throwing motion has more in common with shotput than baseball – or an electric one. Some quarterbacks make everyone look better. Rivers makes everyone look faster.

What Rivers has is the most undervalued athletic asset of the modern era – dependability. He showed it Sunday in the Chargers 23-17 win over the Baltimore Ravens.

He didn’t do anything fancy – no touchdown passes, only 160 yards passing in all – but neither did he do anything stupid.

The Ravens and especially their 21-year-old quarterback, Lamar Jackson, did a lot of stupid things. They still were in it in the final minute. Then Jackson did one more stupid thing, standing in a collapsing pocket for a tic too long and being stripped of the ball.

The theme of this NFL season has been “Change at the top.” Tom Brady is in decline. Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes is the new face of the game. The league’s long-awaited spring is finally in bloom.

Baltimore’s Jackson was a late addition to the narrative. At midseason, he replaced the Ravens’ turgid regular Joe Flacco and jump-started the team. Jackson is one of those do-it-all sorts – run, throw, whatever.

For three quarters on Sunday, Jackson was one of those do-it-all-wrong sorts. With nine minutes left in the game, he had thrown for minus two yards.

Baltimore should have gone back to Flacco, but couldn’t. Had he come in and won, it would have created an insoluble PR problem down the road. The Ravens want Jackson – cheap, fun and young – to permanently replace Flacco – expensive, dour and old – next year. That gets hard to explain when you’re giving the winner the bum’s rush.

Better to leave Jackson in and lose, which is what Baltimore did. Flacco sat there in one of those ridiculous pompon tuques that have become de rigueur for NFL scrubs, looking like the loneliest boy in the world.

He’s been to the mountain-top, made a ton of money and now he’s done for. Cue the funeral march.

One still wonders if, even now, Rivers would trade places with Flacco. The Chargers QB has earned more respect in the game. He’s certainly thought of as the more talented of the two. Were he to retire tomorrow, Rivers would be a guaranteed Hall of Famer.

But, unlike Flacco, he doesn’t have a ring.

At a certain point in a team game – acknowledging that even the most important cog in the system is still just that, a cog – do you give up on considering championships as the measuring stick of quality?

Rivers has been very close to the best quarterback of all time, but never got anywhere close to a title. Is that how he should be judged? Is that fair?

Of course it isn’t fair, and of course that’s how he should be judged. This is the difference between being a great talent and a great performer. One could do, while the other has.

This is likely Rivers’s last, best chance at that Super Bowl appearance. For the NFL, this would be something beyond a best-case scenario. They’d have to start handing out oxygen masks in the commissioner’s office to control all the hyperventilating.

Rivers, after years spent being the nicest, most talented guy no one ever thinks about, runs through Brady in Foxborough, Mahomes at Arrowhead and then faces the man he replaced as Chargers starter, Drew Brees, in the Super Bowl in Atlanta.

It’s too perfect (except for the Atlanta part).

Only six wild-card teams have won an NFL championship. It’s got harder to do recently and the league is plainly in flux. Old empires are crumbling; new ones are springing up. It’s a necessary time of renewal.

But there would be something romantic about the new story being an old one, just one we had forgotten to tell. I suspect that by next Sunday as the Chargers face Brady and the New England Patriots that, boring or not, a lot of people will have decided to become Philip Rivers supporters.

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