For Colts’ Philip Rivers, 39th birthday was just normal Tuesday

Indianapolis Colts

Philip Rivers #17 of the Indianapolis Colts participates in warmups prior to a game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on November 12, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – Tuesday was special around the Rivers’ household, and it had very little to do with the fact Papa Philip cracked the big 3-9.

It was, well, it was Tuesday.

“Just kind of a Tuesday,’’ Rivers said on a Wednesday Zoom conference call. “It was good.’’

And not necessarily because he became the 10th player in Colts history to still be lacing ‘em up at 39. It’s a list that includes a couple of Hall of Famers (John Unitas and Gino Marchetti), an ESPN analyst (Matt Hasselback) and the oldest-ever Colt (Adam Vinatieri, who was 47 at the end of last season).

And not because Rivers is just the sixth 39-year old on an active roster heading into week 14. The others: QBs Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Schaub, and long-snappers L.P. Ladouceur and Don Muhlbach, in case you were wondering.

Even though football tends to demand Rivers’ attention this time of year, there’s always – always – time for family. And always time carved out for Tuesday, even when it’s dad’s birthday.

“Kind of our thing is we always do a little family meal and sit down together, which we try to do anyway, but it was similar to what I enjoy. ’’ he said. “It was interesting. We eased over to the park, we threw a little ball in the yard.

“You think, ‘What did you pick to do on your birthday?’ and those are the things I love to do on Tuesday afternoons.’’

That included swinging through a family-favorite drive-thru.

“We stopped at a Chick-Fil-A on the way home from school on Tuesday,’’ Rivers said with a smile. “That was the first question: ‘Dad, it’s still Chick-fil-A Tuesday isn’t it?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’

“Very similar Tuesday, which is always a good afternoon.’’

While it was business as usual at home for Rivers, wife Tiffany and their nine kids, the business of Papa Philip still slingin’ it at 39 while dealing with a painful turf toe on his right foot can’t be casually dismissed.

He’s in his 17th season and 15th as a starter, and makes his 248th consecutive start, including the playoffs, when the Colts face the Raiders in a critical Sunday showdown in Las Vegas. Only three players have longer consecutive start streaks: Brett Favre (321), Jim Marshall (289) and Mick Tingelhoff (259).

There are so many moving parts and instrumental players as the Colts pursue a playoff berth: T.Y. Hilton, DeForest Buckner, Darius Leonard, an offensive line that’s struggled to match its own lofty standards.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The spotlight shines brightest on Rivers and the aching big toe on his right foot. It kept him out of Wednesday’s practice – that’s three Wednesdays in a row since he suffered the injury Nov. 22 against Green Bay – and requires him to wear a protective boot on his foot, but most assuredly won’t keep him out of the Raiders game.

While coach Frank Reich believes the team’s cautious approach with Rivers is allowing the injury to improve each week, it’s likely to bother him the remainder of the season. Offseason surgery might be an option.

Rivers’ ability to balance rehab with preparation and then play on Sunday “sets a mental toughness tone that is needed,’’ according to Frank Reich.

“Everybody feels his presence, everybody feels the toughness that he brings to the table. He’s just not one to gripe and complain about it, talk about it all the time.

“He’s all business.’’

That’s the reputation Rivers’ nurtured during his 16 seasons with the Chargers. From 2006-19, he started 224 consecutive regular-season games and 11 more in the playoffs.

Never was Rivers’ resolve more on display than in the 2007 playoffs. Despite tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and damaging the meniscus in his right knee during the Chargers’ 28-24 win over the Colts in an AFC Divisional round game in the RCA Dome, he was under center the next week against New England for the AFC Championship game. Arthroscopic surgery to repair the meniscus loosened the knee enough to allow Rivers to play the position, although not at a high enough level to avoid a 21-12 loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots.

“The fact he played was unbelievable,’’ Brady said.

“The ACL was crazy,’’ Rivers admitted. “That week was certainly crazy, but I felt like (if) we had found a way to win that game, I would have been in a better place Super Bowl week than I was then.’’

The closest he’s ever come to missing a start due to an injury?

“Probably back in 2014,’’ Rivers said. “We were win-and-get-in (the playoffs) at Kansas City. I don’t know if I could have carried on after that.’’

He wasn’t given the opportunity to find out. The Chargers were eliminated 19-7, and a bulging disk in his back and a rib injury contributed to Rivers being sacked 7 times – 4 from current teammate Justin Houston – and intercepted twice.

“But there hasn’t been too many that it’s come down right to the wire,’’ Rivers said. “There have been some rough weeks, but none that have come right down to a Sunday decision.’’

And this one won’t, either.

In the week leading up to last Sunday’s road win at Houston, Rivers was held out of practice Wednesday, limited Thursday and a full participant Friday. He then went out and was instrumental in the 26-20 win over the Texans: 27-of-35, 285 yards, two touchdowns and a 119.3 passer rating.

It extended his elevated play since everyone endured a rough day at Cleveland in week 5. Indy lost 32-23 and Rivers passed for 243 yards with two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. He also was penalized for intentional grounding while throwing out of his own end zone, resulting in a safety.

“The Cleveland game was our big hiccup as far as the team goes,’’ Reich said.

Since that hiccup, Rivers has been on top of his game. Over the last seven games – the Colts are 5-2 – he’s completed 181-of-272 passes (66.5%) for 2,036 yards with 14 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 99.8 rating. He’s had a rating of at least 100 in five of the seven, and those are the Colts’ five wins during that stretch.

Reich pointed to the entire team playing at a higher level since the Cleveland loss, but agreed Rivers “has gotten more comfortable with the whole process and with his personnel, with the guys he is throwing to, what we’re trying to do.

“He’s been throwing the ball great from day 1, in my opinion.’’

The fact he’s still playing at 39 brings a smile to Rivers’ face.

“Yeah, I certainly don’t feel 29, but at the same time, I feel good,’’ he said. “It kind of made me chuckle a little bit yesterday just to think I’m 39, and I’m still getting to play a game. I’m playing a game.

“One of my children actually asked me, ‘How long have you been playing football?’ and I was thinking back. I was obviously around it since I was little. I didn’t play tackle football until seventh grade. If you look at whatever that is, and that’s 27, 28 years.

“It sounds kind of crazy – been playing a game and still get to play it.’’

And the more birthdays you pile up in a crowded house, the less hoopla that seems to accompany them

“When you get upwards in age,’’ Rivers said, “the birthdays aren’t I guess as big of a deal as far as a party and all that stuff, especially when you have nine little ones to celebrate their birthdays.

“They tend to take the . . . the excitement tends to go their way from a birthday standpoint.’’

Rivers vs. the Raiders

For those keeping track at home, Rivers makes his 29th start against the Raiders Sunday.

“It’s interesting,’’ he said. “Ryan Kelly asked me that this morning: ‘You played these guys a few times, huh?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, this will be 29.’ He kind of shook his head like, ‘That’s ridiculous.’’

Rivers is 18-10 against the Raiders.

Rivers vs. Gruden

Raiders coach Jon Gruden was effusive in his praise for Rivers.

He pointed to Rivers’ “durability, his consistency and his competitiveness never change. I just don’t sense any change in Philip Rivers at all. He is a great down-to-down competitor. He will finish you. I mean this guy will go for 60 minutes.’’

Gruden and Rivers meet for a sixth time Sunday. Four of the previous meetings came the past two seasons with Rivers leading the Chargers against Gruden’s Raiders.

But the fifth occurred in 2008, Gruden’s final season as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Rivers passed for 287 yards and four touchdowns as the Chargers rolled 41-24, and it left an impression. After opening the season 9-3, the Bucs lost their final four and Gruden was fired.

“The year I got fired in Tampa Bay, the Chargers came to town, and he put a lot of bullets in me that day and helped me into my new profession (as a TV analyst),’’ Gruden said. “He was awesome.

“He’s had a run that very few men have had.’’

About Justin Houston

Rivers and Justin Houston have something in common. Rivers in the Colts’ eldest statesman on offense and Houston, 31, holds that distinction on defense. Houston turns 32 Jan. 12.

Houston is in his 10th season and leads the Colts with 7.5 sacks. His 97 career sacks are tied-41st all-time, and he needs only 3 to become the 36th player in NFL history to reach 100.

What does he envision himself doing when he’s 39?

“Taking my kids to school and watching football,’’ Houston said with a widening smile. “I definitely won’t be playing.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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