The season is over. It is truly a cruel twist of fate that the bitter anguish that accompanies that fact has become so agonizingly familiar to him. Philip Rivers can recite its patterns and rhythms with a disgusted ease. He knows precisely the pain he’ll encounter when a season ends before the Super Bowl. He’d done it 16 years in a row. This marks No. 17.
But that’s not what made him cry Saturday night.
The first kick in the gut will come mid-week when he wakes up in the morning with no enemy to prepare for. No next opponent to wipe the slate clean. No new beginning.
The next will arrive a few days later, during the NFL’s divisional playoffs. He’ll watch eight teams play for the right to advance to the conference championship games and lament that he and his brothers aren’t there fighting for it, too.
Next will be championship Sunday, and that will really sting, because he knows two teams full of players will get to play for something he never has: a Super Bowl.
And that pain will linger for another two weeks, before he watches one team achieve the dream he’s chased his entire life, yet never realized.
The Monday after the Super Bowl usually offers him his first real respite, when the rest of the league goes back to 0-0, and he can start preparing for the next season.
This time around, though, Rivers might not even have that motivating Monday to rely on. At 39 years old, he doesn’t know if he’s coming back. Saturday’s 27-24 Wild Card loss to the Bills could very well have been the last gasp of Rivers’ career.
And while there is emotional baggage that accompanies that thought, that also isn’t really what made Rivers cry Saturday night.
To be clear, these tears didn’t sneak up on him. Even as he broke down the details of the heartbreaking playoff loss – the seventh of his career – he could feel them coming. Welling up inside of him. Everyone could see it.
The dam finally broke when Rivers allowed himself to reflect on the season. To reminisce about his teammates and how much they’ve meant to him.
What made Rivers cry is knowing that the battle is over, and that he and the 2020 Colts won’t get one more week together. After pouring their hearts and souls into the season, after fending off a pandemic and rallying to win 11 games in the face of so much adversity, they had forged a deep bond. They truly believed they were a team of destiny, that they could win it all. Together.
And now that they’ve come up short, the pain was too much to keep inside. It came flowing out.
“It’s a really neat team. I think under these circumstances,” Rivers said, his voice quivering, “I know personally, for me, to develop the type of bond and camaraderie that we had, it was pretty special for sure. … It was a heck of a team to be a part of. Certainly disappointing to finish like this when you just believe it’s the year. … It was a special team to be a part of.”
The thing about Rivers you have to understand, and that I think I’m only just realizing myself, is that his dogged pursuit of a Super Bowl isn’t really about the immortality that accompanies it – or even about the bragging rights of being the best team in the league that year.
He’s as fierce a competitor as there is in the NFL, and he desperately loves to win, but a Super Bowl is not an individual accolade. It’s the ultimate team prize. It’s the realization of a dream they had together and started fighting for, together, since April. So much of the talk surrounding Rivers all these years is that he’s never won the big one, but Rivers himself has never cared about that part of his personal legacy.
He has chased a championship for so long because he’s pursuing the feeling of sheer bliss that accompanies knowing you got there with the men and women who have poured their blood, sweat and tears into achieving the same goal.
And every year, all 17 of them that Rivers hasn’t gotten to feel that bliss breaks his heart a little bit more. And yes, this year, the pain cuts a little deeper because he’s not sure if he’ll ever get another chance. The Colts still have to decide if they want him back – coach Frank Reich said Saturday night that he does – and Rivers, too, has to decide if he wants to come back.
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His teammates want him to. They adore him. They believe he still has it inside of him to guide them where they want to go. They want to win it all for him. They want to win it all with him.
“He put everything on the line,” Darius Leonard said. “A broken toe and everything, and he’s still playing, and in return, we just have to work. We have to get him a Super Bowl ring. For us not to give him one sucks. I hope it’s not his last year. I pray it’s not.”
Rivers said Saturday night he doesn’t know if he’s done, but the thought certainly crossed his mind.
As he walked through the Bills tunnel back to the locker room, Rivers wondered if it would be his last time.
“After your 17th year and you’re about to be 40, and you’re not sure if you walked up your last tunnel, heck yeah, heck yeah, it’s more (emotional),” Rivers said through tears. “It was a heck of a fun season. There’s zero regret. Moving to Indiana, and shoot, and playing for this franchise and having a chance and meeting some new guys that I will keep a relationship with. We fell short today, but I’ll walk out of here with my head held high, for sure.”
Follow IndyStar Colts Insider Jim Ayello on Twitter: @jimayello.
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