Brees still cool under pressure

The heir apparent to the throne has been literally just that as Philip Rivers warms the benches for the San Diego Chargers while Drew Brees has a lit a fire for the team and kept it warm all season long.

The reasons for Drew Brees' success are many, as the quarterback readies the Chargers for their showdown with the Denver Broncos on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium: he has a better understanding of the offense, he has better players around him and he is playing with a chip on his shoulder, after the Chargers gave up on him and acquired Philip Rivers.

While Brees agrees -- not so much with the last assessment -- with those factors, don't overlook what he went through in 2003 as to why his game has elevated. It was a 4-12 year to forget -- 11 interceptions, 15 touchdowns; benched for five games, pulled from two others -- but one in which made Brees into the player he is today.

Those thinking that Brees' stellar play was a direct result of rookie Philip Rivers being promoted to second-string the week before Brees' performances started to improve are wrong, according to Schottenheimer. "I don't think that had anything to do with it. It was a matter of coincidence," Schottenheimer said.

"I think having gone through something like last year has helped make me a stronger person and a mentally tougher football player," said Brees, who has thrown 21 touchdowns and three interceptions this year. "This offseason, I did a lot of things physically and mentally to prepare myself for this season. I think more so than anything, it's probably just an attitude.

"You just make up your mind that you're going to keep fighting and you know where the end of the tunnel is going to lead you. You just keep marching your way down it and you don't let anything get in your way, you don't let anything distract you or get you down. You maintain that level of confidence. You know that you're eventually going to be there at some point. That was kind of my attitude. I knew I was going to reach the level that I wanted to reach. It was just a matter of time."

The time is now for the Chargers to break their eight-year skid of not making the playoffs. First place in the AFC West is at stake Sunday, and the game is especially important for the Chargers as they lost to the Broncos back in September.

Since, the Chargers have gone 7-1, and Brees has gone from being pushed out of town to becoming its toast.

"Last year, it was positive, but it was of the nature like, 'Keep your head up,' or 'Don't worry, we're still with you' and that sort of thing," said Brees, who's in his last year of his contract. "As opposed to now, where it's, 'Man, awesome game,' or 'Can't wait for the playoffs.' You get that talk. You appreciate when they're trying to pick you up when you're down, but now it's, 'Hey, y'all are doing great. We love seeing you win and watching you play.'"

The Chargers have been playing as well as anyone over the last two months. They hardly resemble the squad which fell to the Broncos, 23-13, and left the field at 1-2.

"Since then, we've learned how to make those plays (that lost us that game)," Brees said. "We've been able to better recognize the situations where, as an offense, we need to go down and get points or we need to create some momentum here or take care of the football. A lot of things have happened since then. I think our defense has also grown. Then the fact that we have them coming to our house now - obviously, you have that mindset when somebody comes into your own home stadium."

The Chargers' mind is on the here and now. They've been down this road before -- they were 6-1 in 2002 and didn't finish strong -- and are revved to end up in the playoffs.

"Knowing what happened two years ago, though, we can't get too far ahead of ourselves," Brees said.

Lightning Quicks: Coach Marty Schottenheimer, before starting his coaching career, sold real estate in Denver.

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