Philip Rivers does nice job — but Chiefs make road tougher and Bengals hurt Ekeler

Philip Rivers is almost back where he belongs.

The place isn’t San Diego — which Rivers never left — but rather the Super Bowl tournament, and it should be a more entertaining event with Rivers in it next month.

It’s been awhile, Rivers having sat out the past four postseasons.

While not blameless for the lengthy absence, Rivers stayed with it and may have improved his game since directing rookie head coach Mike McCoy’s club to the 2013 playoffs.

The 26-21 win Sunday over the Bengals all but means Rivers and teammates will play in January, and — let’s use pencil here — probably on the road as the fifth seed of six in the AFC.

Putting them three games ahead of the wild-card field, the Chargers (10-3) have reached double digits in wins for the first time since their 13-3 season in 2009.

Rivers is their MVP, hands down.

Special accuracy and touch that have marked his whole career haven’t waned.

And with no turnover Sunday despite a few blocking breakdowns, Rivers continues to show improved ball security that forces the opponent to earn the victory.

He has six interceptions, three below his career low in 2009.

Chiefs dynamic

The Chargers own a better win-loss record than every other AFC club except …

The rival Chiefs.

Probably, this means that if Rivers is to reach his first Super Bowl soon, he’ll need not two but three playoff victories.

Start with this: The Chiefs have both hands on the AFC West steering wheel.

A third straight West title is Kansas City’s if it beats the Chargers on Thursday night in Missouri.

And, even if the Chargers were to win Thursday, they’d need the Chiefs to lose another game to have a shot at the West title.

Why so?

Because the Chiefs, at 4-0, have the better record within the AFC West.

The Chargers lost at home to the Chiefs and Broncos, remember. So, they’d still trail the Chiefs even if they beat them.

The stakes will be high Thursday night.

Even a remote chance to win the West and a first-round bye should summon a strong effort from the Chargers, who will finish with the Ravens (7-6) in Carson and then the Broncos (6-7).

And because they finish with the Seahawks (7-5) in Seattle and the increasingly pesky Raiders (3-10) in Kansas City, the Chiefs have ample motivation to win Thursday.

Who’s playing well?

None of the AFC contenders turned in a strong showing Sunday, while several Chargers rivals looked vulnerable. The Patriots (9-4) allowed the Dolphins (7-6) to rush for 189 yards — 9.0 per carry! — and no one wearing Dolphins turquoise was named Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris or Jim Kiick.

The Steelers (7-5-1) dropped their third consecutive game, losing to the Raiders. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sat out part of the second half after sustaining a rib injury.

The Texans (9-4) allowed Andrew Luck 399 yards passing.

And though Patrick Mahomes continues to make plays that perhaps no other quarterback can make, don’t fast-track the Chiefs to Atlanta for the Super Bowl. The recent loss of No. 1 running back Kareem Hunt has hurt their offense, as has a heel injury that has made speedster Tyreek Hill a bit less dominant.

Mixed performance

The Chargers were far healthier than the Bengals, a 14.5-point underdog.

And with Rivers directing them to 75-yard touchdown drives on his first two chances, it appeared the San Diegan would buy rest for teammates and also reduce the team’s overall injury risk.

Didn’t work out that way. The Bengals got a strong second quarter from their defensive front, and picked on lead cornerback Casey Hayward, who hasn’t appeared in peak form of late, and stayed close in the second half.

Not putting the Bengals away sooner exposed Chargers starters to more hits, and a blow (that should’ve been flagged) inside the two-minute mark dealt current No. 1 running back/special teams ace Austin Ekeler an apparent head injury four days before the West showdown.

Derwin James, the rookie safety, once again made several big plays. No other AFC contender has an active star as fresh-legged as Joey Bosa, who had his fourth sack in as many games since his return from a foot injury.

Mike Williams, converting on third-and-long, through contact, in the fourth quarter, made his best NFL play yet. Michael Badgley whacked a 59-yard field goal several feet above the crossbar. Victories on several short-yardage plays, from both the offense and defense, staggered the physical but erratic Bengals (5-8). Rivers emphasized the back-shoulder pass to good effect.

Though not without flaws, the Chargers have surrounded Rivers with a fairly good amount of talent. You could make a decent case that, by slight margin, Team Spanos is the AFC’s most-talented club, as Raiders coach Jon Gruden said was the industry buzz four weeks ago.

Against a 3.5-point favorite on early betting lines, Rivers will try to lead his team to its second upset victory this month, the other coming at Pittsburgh.

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