FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Only nine players in NFL history have thrown for more yards in one season than Philip Rivers did last year. Only four passed for more in a single game than Tom Brady did last week.
Both will be flinging the ball around Gillette Stadium on Sunday when the New England Patriots play their home opener against the San Diego Chargers.
The NFL has become a throwers’ league and Brady and Rivers are among the best.
“It’s been a passing league for a long time,” Brady said. “Being balanced is very important, but there’s times you have to throw the ball.”
For Brady, it was 48 times last Monday night in a 38-24 win at the Miami Dolphins. He completed 32 of them for 517 yards, the most in the Patriots 52-year history and 37 less than the NFL record set in 1951 by Norm Van Brocklin of the Los Angeles Rams.
Rivers already had played the previous day and he also threw 48 passes. He completed 33 for 335 yards in a 24-17 win over the Minnesota Vikings. Then Brady went out and topped that by 182 yards.
“He has been playing at a super high level now for many years,” Rivers said. “Everybody gets caught up in the yards the other night. Obviously, that was impressive, but to me it was just the command and the way he ran the offense, how accurate he was, and obviously, the most important thing, to score 38 points and win the game.”
That was nothing new to linebacker Takeo Spikes.
“It’s just the same thing, year-in and year-out,” said Spikes, a 14-year veteran in his first season with the Chargers. “He’s Tom Brady. At the end of the day, we know what we have to face. He’s always been a top-two, -three quarterback in this league. Period.”
The Patriots are well aware of the challenges posed by Rivers. He led the NFL with 4,710 yards passing last season, 374 fewer than the NFL record of 5,084 set in 1984 by Dan Marino with Miami.
Rivers is a big, physical quarterback with the ability to make accurate throws with seemingly awkward motions.
“He has a great release,” Patriots defensive end Shaun Ellis said. “It allows him to get out of a lot of trouble when he has pressure to be able to get rid of the ball. I think his unorthodox style of throwing the ball helps him a lot.”
Rivers’ most important throw last Sunday came on a 19-yard touchdown to Mike Tolbert, breaking a 17-all tie with 5:01 left in the game and capping a comeback from a 17-7 halftime deficit.
San Diego’s defense allowed 26 yards on 17 plays in the second half. The Chargers staged another comeback last Oct. 24 from a 23-3 deficit against the Patriots but lost 23-20 as Kris Brown missed a 50-yard field goal attempt with 23 seconds remaining.
Rivers outgained Brady in passing yards, 336 to 159, and the Patriots managed just 179 yards of total offense in that game. But four San Diego turnovers in the first half led to 10 points.
“The teams that have played the best defense against New England — I look at Detroit in the preseason and I look at the Jets and Baltimore from the last couple of years — they’ve been able to pressure the quarterback and disrupt Tom,” Chargers coach Norv Turner said, “and that’s what, obviously, people try to do to our quarterback.”
The Patriots have some new defensive linemen to do that. Ellis, Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson were added after the lockout to an already solid group that includes Vince Wilfork, Mike Wright and Myron Pryor. Three of the four sacks against Miami came from defensive linemen.
And New England held the Dolphins to two first downs on 14 third-down plays.
“That was great,” Haynesworth said, but “we were 4-of-5 on fourth down so, again, you’ve got to get off the field. We’ve got to stop them. We’ve just got to play better as a front and as a defense, and if we want to be that top-ranked defense, we’ve got to play like it.”
That distinction belonged to the Chargers last year when they allowed 271.6 yards per game.
Greg Manusky has taken over as defensive coordinator from Ron Rivera, now the coach of the Carolina Panthers, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick still expects to face an outstanding defense.
“They have a new wrinkle or two in every game you have to be alert for. Greg is a very experienced coach,” Belichick said. “Really, what it comes down to is they’re a good fundamental team. They’re really sound.”
Both teams will be missing key players — Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding and Patriots center Dan Koppen.
Nick Novak takes over for Kaeding, who suffered a season-ending injury to his left knee on the opening kickoff last Sunday.
“They’re used to a very high level of consistency here and I want to be able to match that every single day and gain the confidence of my teammates and the coaching staff,” said Novak, who has kicked in 22 NFL games with Washington, Arizona and Kansas City.
Koppen had started 120 of the Patriots 129 regular-season games in his career with them. But he hurt his left fibula late in the first half last Monday and is expected to miss much of the season. Dan Connolly, who started seven games at left guard and six at right guard last year, played well as his replacement and is expected to start Sunday.
“When you play right guard and then you’ve got to move over to center, you know all the center’s calls,” Brady said. “He’s been a backup center for a long time.”
With Connolly snapping the ball, Brady threw for 382 of his 517 yards — 99 coming on a short pass to Wes Welker that he took to the end zone.
“They’ve always been a great passing team,” Turner said, “but to add the number of explosive plays really jumped out at you.”