Philip Rivers still yaps as much now on the field as he did when he first drew Champ Bailey's ire five years ago. The difference now is that Bailey believes he's earned the right.
"Back then, he was talking when he shouldn't have. I think he hadn't earned his respect around the league at that point," Bailey said. "But now it's a different story."
At the time, Rivers was in his second season as a starting quarterback, had yet to win a playoff game and was still considered a secondary light on the Chargers' offense behind running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who was a year removed from scoring an NFL-record 31 touchdowns.
Rivers was still maturing, but by then had already established mastery over the Broncos, which continued with 23-3 victory on Dec. 24, 2007 — Rivers' fourth in as four starts against them. With 5:35 left in the fourth quarter, Rivers and then-Broncos quarterback Cutler engaged in a shouting match, while Chargers linebacker Matt Wilhelm stood alongside, waving goodbye to Cutler after the Broncos had been stopped on downs.
There was every reason for the Chargers to feel cocky at that moment. Not only had they won four straight in the series, but they'd outscored the Broncos 130-33 dating to the third quarter of their Nov. 19, 2006, meeting. Rivers' actions sat poorly with Bailey, who shot back two days later, calling him "the classless guy on that team," adding that Rivers had "lost my respect."
Given the perspective of hindsight, Bailey not only sees the Rivers of today differently, but also the 2007 incident. The object of Rivers' derision that night wasn't Bailey or any of his current teammates, but Cutler, the talented-yet-surly passer who was dealt to Chicago in April 2009.
"I think he mostly hated our quarterback at the time," Bailey said.
Five years, eight head-to-head matchups and three Broncos quarterbacks later, Bailey's respect for Rivers is profound. The relationship between them evened out because of time and the experience of being together for two Pro Bowls in 2011 and 2012.
Rivers is the same trash-talker, Bailey said — but he's easier to ignore now.
"It's kind of funny to me," Bailey said. "He doesn't get under my skin, but I think he still affects a lot of people. You can't really listen to him too much, because he loves to talk."
The sight of Rivers yelling toward Cutler remains a defining point of the rivalry, which became more hostile in recent years as the Chargers won four consecutive division titles from 2006-09 — with the Broncos finishing second each time. By last year, the Chargers had won nine of 11 since Rivers became their starter, and the hatred had less to do with perceived taunts and more to do with frustration at being dominated so thoroughly for so long.
"Early on in my years they were beating us a lot, so I'm still bitter from that," Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil said. "It was bad, it was brutal, LaDainian and the records and all that stuff, so I still remember those days, so I think we're more equipped now."
The Broncos forged a series split last year, and have won two of their last three at Qualcomm Stadium. They have the same number of playoff appearances — one apiece — since Cutler left the rivalry when he was traded to Chicago in 2009. Monday night, it will the Broncos who are the hunted party as the defending AFC West champion, with the more decorated quarterback at their helm.
"We really don't like them and they really don't like us. That's kind of understood," wide receiver Brandon Stokley said.
But lurking below the surface is a deeper respect — starting with Bailey, who has seen more games against the Chargers than any other current Bronco.
"I know what type of person he is. He's one of those guys you hate to play against and you love to play with. I like guys like that," Bailey said. "But when I play against them, I don't like anybody.
Notes: Left tackle Ryan Clady did not practice Friday after suffering what Broncos coach John Fox called a "tweak" of his hamstring during practice Thursday. Clady has never missed a regular-season game in five NFL seasons. ... Wide receiver Matt Willis returned to practice after missing Thursday's work for undisclosed, non-football reasons. ... Cornerback Tony Carter was held out of practice because of an illness. ... Kickoff/punt returner Trindon Holliday practiced for the first time as a Bronco after being claimed off waivers from Houston on Thursday.