Under pressure all day, the San Diego Chargers quarterback spent too much time on the ground to lead his team back into the playoffs.
The Kansas City Chiefs and their sack-hungry defense wouldn’t let that happen for a second year in a row.
The Chiefs sacked Rivers seven times in a 19-7 win on Sunday that eliminated the Chargers from playoff contention on the final day of the regular season.
It came almost a year to the day that San Diego clinched a berth with an overtime win against Kansas City at home and some help from the rest of the league.
It was simple this year: The Chargers (9-7) controlled their own fate after a comeback win over San Francisco in overtime last Saturday.
Needing only a win, they never even had a lead, their only points coming on Branden Oliver’s 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to get them within 10-7.
“Shoot,” said Rivers, “it’s a tough league. Last Saturday night, we were as fired up as you can imagine and then even more fired up Sunday when Baltimore lost knowing we control our own (fate) coming to Arrowhead, a great place to play, great fans, a good team, and we win and get in.
“And then we don’t win. It’s just tough. It’s a humbling game. It’s one that can, shoot, build you up and put you right back down.”
“But there’s nothing to hang our heads about in that locker room,” Rivers said. “Shoot, we’re a team that fought until the end, all 16 of them, and we came up one short of getting a 17th game.”
Linebacker Justin Houston dropped Rivers four times by himself, breaking Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas’ single-season franchise record with 22 sacks, just a half-sack from Michael Strahan’s NFL mark.
Rivers finished 20-of-34 for 291 yards with two interceptions and a fumble in the third quarter that was caused by Houston and led to one of Cairo Santos’ four field goals.
The Chiefs (9-7) were in position to steal a playoff berth with a win before Baltimore and Houston both came back to win their games. The Ravens ended up with the AFC’s final wild-card berth by beating Cleveland.
Chase Daniel made his second NFL start, completing 16-of-27 passes for 157 yards with Alex Smith sidelined because of a lacerated spleen he suffered last week against Pittsburgh, but that was only diagnosed after he had practiced twice, leading Daniel with less time to prepare.
“For (having) one day of practice, my hat’s off to him,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid. “That’s a tough thing to do at the top level of football.”
The Chargers missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years and haven’t reached 10 wins since going 13-3 in 2009.
TV cameras showed Rivers walking the sideline in the third quarter, grimacing and yelling toward the field.
“Emotionally, it’s just tough when it ends,” the quarterback said. “You never expect for it to end. And it’s tough when we didn’t play our best. … But they beat us both times (this season) and you have to give them a lot of credit.”
They had a touchdown overturned with 8:42 remaining in the game when a replay review determined the ball touched the ground as Eddie Royal slid for a catch in the back of the end zone.
They went for it on fourth down from the 3-yard line, but Rivers’ pass to Antonio Gates was broken up by Husain Abdullah.
Abdullah then stuffed Donald Brown up the middle on a 4th-and-1 play on San Diego’s next possession and Rivers was intercepted for the second time at the end of the game.
Earlier, Houston set the Chiefs record on his third sack of the game, fighting through D.J. Fluker to strip Rivers early in the third quarter. The turnover led to Santos’ 31-yard field goal for a 19-7 Kansas City lead.
“Protection was a problem all game long against a very good pass rush,” said Chargers coach Mike McCoy. “That was nowhere close to where we needed it to be.”
After Chargers kicker Nick Novak was wide-left on a 52-yard field goal attempt near the end of the third quarter, Santos missed a 50-yard attempt after the Chiefs moved within range on De’Anthony Thomas’ 30-yard catch.
Santos kicked a 43-yard field goal at the end of Kansas City’s first drive of the game and the Chiefs took a 10-0 lead when tight end Travis Kelce recovered Dwayne Bowe’s fumble in the end zone early in the second quarter.
Bowe was a half-yard from scoring the first touchdown by a Kansas City wide receiver this season when he was hit helmet-first by safety Jahleel Addae and lost the ball.
Rivers’ 44-yard completion to Royal set up San Diego’s touchdown at the other end, where Oliver went untouched through the right side of the line.
Later, Thomas had punt returns of 41 and 22 yards for Kansas City to set up two Santos field goals for a 16-7 lead with 33 seconds left in the first half.