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Not just a passing fancy

Expect Rivers to star for years

SAN DIEGO -- The story has moved to the next chapter for Philip Rivers. Thus far it has been a tale filled with success, of potential that has been met and has carried the Chargers quarterback to Sunday's divisional playoff game against the Patriots.

High school star in football-crazy Alabama, the son of a football coach. Alabama player of the year in his senior season.

Moves on to college at North Carolina State and again is a star. Marries his childhood sweetheart after his freshman season -- but only after asking then-N.C. State coach Chuck Amato for permission.

Ends his collegiate career with 13,484 passing yards, second most on the all-time NCAA list, the holder of every major passing record in school history and a star in every postseason college game he participated in, earning five MVP awards.

Moves on to the NFL, where he is the fourth overall pick in 2004, selected by the Giants. But the Chargers send No. 1 pick Eli Manning to New York and Rivers winds up in San Diego as an apprentice to young incumbent Drew Brees.

Spends two years learning his craft, maturing not only as a quarterback but as father to three young daughters.

All he needed was an opportunity to show what he could do as the starter. It came after the 2005 season, when Brees opted to pass on an offer from the Chargers and sign with the New Orleans Saints.

It was showtime for Rivers, who had the security of a six-year, $40.5 million contract, but wanted the fame -- and greater fortune -- a playoff run can bring.

But that begs a question that has clung to Rivers all week. Can this quarterback making his first NFL postseason start handle not only the Patriots, but the pressure.

"I think if he's not the best, he's in the top two or whatever," said Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, noting the 3,388 passing yards, 22 touchdown passes, and only nine interceptions Rivers compiled in helping San Diego cruise to the AFC West title with a 14-2 record. "I have no reservations [about Rivers's lack of playoff experience] at all."

Rivers, of course, had plenty of help, primarily from the league's MVP, running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

Tomlinson says he has confidence in his quarterback, but is also curious to see how he reacts. If there was a concern, it was that Rivers was too anxious to shout "Game on" a week ago.

"I'm not sure what to expect from him," said Tomlinson. "He is excited about being in the playoffs, but some part of being a QB is you keep that even keel and not get too excited. We've got to remind him that a fast horse runs fast but it doesn't run long."

Yesterday Rivers said he was "anxious but not nervous" about his first playoff appearance.

"You've got to start somewhere," said Rivers, standing outside the locker room at the Chargers' practice facility a few miles north of Qualcomm Stadium. "If you play in 13 playoff games, you have to start somewhere with No. 1."

The Patriots say playoff experience is not a huge factor. "Looking at him on film and what he has done this year, he has accomplished a lot," said New England cornerback Ray Mickens. "He certainly isn't playing like a rookie quarterback and he's not a rookie quarterback. He has been in the league awhile. He's had a good quarterback he's mentored from, Drew Brees, a Pro Bowl quarterback. So he is no rookie quarterback; he's shown that this year."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick sees poise in Rivers.

"He doesn't give the ball up," said Belichick. "He makes good decisions. He has a good arm. He's athletic. He has some quickness in the pocket. He has a strong arm."

But Rivers might be forced to carry most of the burden, as the prevailing theory is that the Patriots will stack their defense to stop Tomlinson.

"That's probably been the game plan of all 16 of our opponents," said Rivers with a laugh.

Rivers said he is feeling an excitement surrounding this game he hasn't felt since he was playing for his father, Steve, at Athens High School in Decatur, Ala. "This is fun," he said. "Nothing better than high school playoffs. This is bigger, obviously, but it's the same kind of atmosphere. "It's why you play 20 games, for this type of game."

Even in grade school, Rivers had his eyes on bigger prizes. As part of a project in which he was asked to make a poster covering his goals, he took a Sports Illustrated cover of a Minnesota Vikings player and turned it in with his face pasted over the Viking.

His arrival in San Diego could almost be attributed to fate -- or stubbornness. Although the Chargers had the No. 1 pick and were in the market for a quarterback, Manning made it clear he was not in the market for playing in San Diego. Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, a part-time scout with the Patriots from 1978-80, finalized the deal that brought not only Rivers, but linebacker Shawne Merriman and offensive tackle Roman Oben.

Now, after a two-year apprenticeship and a season fine-tuning his new role as one of the offensive leaders, Rivers is ready for another giant step forward.

A strong effort against the Patriots -- make that a winning effort -- and Rivers won't have to paste his picture over anyone.

"He can lead us to a world championship," said tight end Antonio Gates, who led the Chargers with 71 receptions and nine TD catches. "This is our guy. He can get the job done. Everybody in our locker room believes that."

On Sunday, everyone will find out just what kind of job Rivers can do.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.

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