Updated: 6:30 p.m.
If you think Philip Rivers looks revitalized and reminds you of the North Carolina State chucker that carved up the North when Marvin Lewis's staff coached against the South in the 2004 Senior Bowl, or even the Philip Rivers that smoked the Bengals out of the 2006 playoffs with a 42-point second half at Paul Brown Stadium that obliterated a 28-7 halftime deficit, you just may be right.
Under first year Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, Rivers heads into Sunday's game against the Bengals (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) leading the NFL in completion percentage (70.8) while racking up the fourth-most yards on the way to a 5,000-yard season with a career-best passer rating of 106.6.
That's after two seasons Rivers never got rolling like he did in his heyday, but those days are gone with a scary completion rate that has the new-look Chargers looking at a shot at the playoffs at 5-6.
"It's been a combination of a couple of things," Rivers explained to the Cincinnati media Wednesday about that 70.8 despite his 64 career completion percentage. "We're throwing a lot more short to intermediate passes. For years here we've really pushed it up the field and we're still getting some chunk plays but we pushed it down the field a lot. One of the most in the league. It's a little more high percentage in the attempts and I've just tried to emphasize myself to throw completions.
"Take what the defense gives you. There are times when you need to try and squeeze one in there and there are times to push it up the field. But just throw completions and keep throwing completions and get the ball in our guys' hands and let them run with it. The combination of those two things have been a positive so far."
The short routes have also helped the Chargers leap in the NFL rankings when it comes to yards after catch. Pro Football Focus rates Keenan Allen 18th and Eddie Royal 21st in YAC among wide receivers and Danny Woodhead fifth for running backs. And Antonio Gates leads all tight ends.
"That's credit to the guys," Rivers said. "We've had a lot of guys catch and run. The key there is getting to them accurately and (letting) them do it and getting it to them on time."
The Bengals know all about Rivers. In '09 he knocked them out of the AFC's second playoff seed in Week 15 when he drove his team some 60 yards in about 40 seconds with no timeouts left for a winning 52-yard field goal with three seconds left. The Bengals have won the last two times they've faced the Chargers, but defensive tackle Domata Peko is the one holdover from the '06 nightmare.
"I remember him well from that day," Rivers said.
"Last year, they had some struggles offensively. But it's not just Rivers that's playing better. It's the whole group around him that's playing a lot better," Peko said. "Gates is having a hell of a year for them. They've got some young receivers that have been playing really well, but it all starts with (running back Ryan Mathews) and their running game. They have one of the best running attacks right now. We take a lot of pride in our run defense so we've got to really attack this offensive line and really get after them and make them one-dimensional and really cut out the runs."
Rivers remembers the losses as well as the wins against the Bengals in games that have always come late in the year (the earliest was the Nov. 12 game in '06) and have meant so much for either one of the teams or both. Of that 20-13 loss nearly a year ago back on Dec. 1, Rivers recalled, "It was 13-10 it seemed like forever. We were in the lead and we just could not put together one more drive and Cincinnati scored to make it 17-13 and then I threw an interception late. There have been some good games. I'm sure this one will be a good one as well."
MORE PEKO: Just like he did for the late Chris Henry a few years ago, Peko on Wednesday handed out black stocking caps with an orange No. 53 and the letters R.I.P. to honor former Bengals linebacker Thomas Howard. Howard, 30, killed in a car accident last week, was laid to rest in his native Texas.
After Wednesday's practice, Peko's two grade-school sons greeted their dad with cupcakes for his teammates to celebrate his 29th birthday.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
»Bengals safety Chris Crocker knows exactly how important Woodhead is to the MVP-type season of Rivers.
"He's his Darren Sproles," Crocker said Wednesday of the pint-sized running back who gives Rivers so many big dimensions in the passing game Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in San Diego.
The departure of Sproles to New Orleans a few years back has been fingered as a major reason for the dip of Rivers's numbers before this season. Now that Woodhead leads all NFL running backs in catches (59) and yards (469), Rivers has been revived. But old friend Sproles is right behind with 463 yards for the Saints.
» Lewis said before Wednesday's practice that his club is about as healthy as can be. The only question mark looks to be right guard Kevin Zeitler after he missed his first game as a pro last time out against Cleveland 10 days ago. Zeitler (foot) and punter Kevin Huber (punting ankle) were the only ones not to work Wednesday in practice that took place on the Paul Brown Stadium field in 29-degree weather that sported the occasional snowflake. Since the Bengals didn't have another punter on hand Wednesday, all indications are they think Huber can punt Sunday.
» The newest Bengal, defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi, is here for his first week of work after his original Bengals contract was revoked by the NFL because his Canadian work permit didn't transfer with his release from the Raiders. He said the move caught everyone by surprise and he and his agent are currently working with the NFL Players Association to see if it can get rectified for other players.
"There are more and more international players coming into the league," Bilukidi said.