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Rivers in full flow despite San Diego's problems

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - He does not possess the matinee idol appeal of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, he lacks the notoriety of Michael Vick but Philip Rivers is unquestionably one of the most inspirational quarterbacks in the National Football League (NFL).

Although the 2010 season effectively ended on Sunday for Rivers and the San Diego Chargers when they failed to make the playoffs for the first time in five years, the statistics clearly mark him out as among the elite in his position.

The San Diego standout lies second-best in the league this season with 4,397 passing yards and yet, for some reason, he has never captured the attention he deserves, especially on the East Coast.

His unique characteristics might help to explain why. With his laconic southern drawl and unwavering focus on doing whatever he can to help his team, both on and off the field, Alabama native Rivers has always come across as "one of the boys."

As humble as they come, he is quick to play down his own achievements and praise the role played by San Diego's receivers and defense whenever talk shifts to his own remarkable quarterbacking exploits.

He is a natural-born leader but, in many ways, he runs counter to the image of the strutting, gung-ho quarterback -- a position long recognized as the most glamorous and pressurized in American sport.

Deadly accurate with his arm from both short and long range, Rivers is perhaps most admired for his mental and physical toughness.

ASTONISHING RETURN

He will forever be remembered for his astonishing return from injury in 2007 when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a divisional game against the Indianapolis Colts, had arthroscopic surgery on the Monday and came back six days later to take every snap against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.

"His mental toughness and his day-to-day toughness, that's probably what our team respects the most about him."

All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, who has forged a productive relationship with Rivers, values the quarterback's leadership skills, energy and robust play.

"He just understands the game, man," said Gates, an eight-year league veteran. "Since the day I met him, you can just sense the leadership.

"Then you add in that physical toughness at the quarterback position. That energy that he brings to the table carries over to the rest of the guys on offense."

It is not just his own team mates who hold Rivers in high esteem.

New England's Brady applauds the quarterback's uncanny ability to win games in the fourth quarter and has never forgotten the nature of Rivers's startling injury comeback three years ago.

"He's extremely productive as a player and he's very clutch," Brady said. "He always seems to come up with the plays at the end. He's the type of guy you can't ever ease up on.

"And I'll never forget the toughness he showed playing on a torn ACL in 10-degree weather in the '07 season championship game. He's as tough as they come at quarterback."

QUARTERBACK WINNER

After spending two years on the sidelines behind Drew Brees in San Diego, he took over as Chargers quarterback in 2006 and produced a stunning 14-2 record in his first season.

Wearing the No. 17 jersey with pride, he has since gone 11-5, 8-8, 13-3 and, so far, 8-7 in 2010.

His numbers this season have been astonishing, and even more so because he has to had to throw to multiple players with the Chargers suffering badly on the injury front.

By the time San Diego had completed their 14th game of the season, a 34-7 home victory over the San Francisco 49ers, Rivers had connected with 17 different team mates.

Gates, Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee, Patrick Crayton and Buster Davis have all missed significant time due to injuries.

"I think Philip took great pride in saying: 'Hey, we can make this thing work, we can go out and be productive the way we're always productive on offense,'" Turner said.

Rivers, who has thrown for more than 4,000 yards for the last three seasons, weighed in with a typically humble explanation.

"I do feel like I am seeing it clearly," said the 29-year-old from North Carolina State. "You hope to get better each and every year, each and every game.

"Our guys up front are doing a great job and guys are making plays. Seventeen guys have caught a pass and each and every guy that gets it seems to know what to do with it."

(Editing by Clare Fallon)