Two down, Rivers to go

The draft class of 2004 was special because of three elite quarterbacks at the top of the order: Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. Two of the three won Super Bowls within their first four years in the league. The other owns a 2-2 postseason mark and has yet to reach the Big Game. Is the pressure mounting on Philip Rivers?

Philip Rivers played from behind the eightball in racing Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger for Super Bowl hardware. Manning and Roethlisberger moved into the starting lineup in 2004, while Rivers had to wait until 2006. However, it's not as though Rivers hasn't had his opportunities. He led the No. 1 seed into the playoffs in 2006 and was one game away from the Super Bowl in 2007.

Now that Rivers is the last of the "big three" to win a ring, the pressure will surely mount. Adding to the pressure is the ticking clock attached to LaDainian Tomlinson's legs. LT only has a few years left in his prime, and winning the Super Bowl will be exponentially more difficult without the benefit of the NFL's premier running back.

It appears Rivers will have a legitimate shot to join his peers in 2008. The Chargers return all 22 starters to a team that won eight of its final nine games last season, including a postseason road win over the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts.

The biggest question looming over Rivers is that of his health. He underwent surgery on his ACL shortly after the AFC Championship game and may not be 100 percent for the start of training camp. That will mean a big adjustment for the San Diego offense during mini camps and offseason coaching sessions, as Charlie Whitehurst will likely run the first-string offense. Last season's backup quarterback, Billy Volek, will be an unrestricted free agent.

Even if Rivers is healthy, he must guide his team through an arduous schedule that includes showdowns with AFC powerhouses like the Colts, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. That's a tough road to hoe for a 26-year-old quarterback who has suddenly become the face of the franchise.

Rivers drew the national spotlight with his late-season tendency to talk smack to opponents. The attention only intensified when he played the AFC Championship game sans ACL, a move some deemed heroic and others classified as selfish.

Regardless, this is Rivers' team now and the Chargers will only go as far as he can carry them. If he wins the Super Bowl in 2008, he will earn the 2004 draft class a place in the history books. If he comes up short, the mounting pressure will reach volcanic proportions.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the network. He has followed the Chargers for more than 14 years and covered the team since 2003.

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