Is Philip Rivers ready for the Cowboys defense?

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Chargers quarterback is playing like a new man through the first three games this season. He has a stiff test ahead of him in Week 4 against a Cowboys defense that's also exceeding expectations.

The demise of Philip Rivers was greatly exaggerated. At least it may have been if the first three games of this season are any indication.

Rivers was considered to be an upper echelon quarterback following the 2010 season. He'd just set career-highs for passing yards and touchdowns. Instead of continuing on an upward trend, however, Rivers' play dropped off. His touchdowns dropped while his interceptions rose. His passer rating dropped into the 80s after three seasons of 100-plus. Rivers was no longer ranked among players like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

In fact, there were several articles written discussing the possible reasons for his decline. Three games into 2013, those discussions appear to have been premature. Rivers has not only played like he did earlier in his career, he may be playing even better. Through three games this season, he has thrown eight touchdowns to only one interception, a significant improvement from the previous two seasons.

Year TD INT Passer rating Yards per attempt
2013 8 1 116.2 7.98
2012 4 3 86.5 6.68
2011 4 6 82.1 7.77

His play in 2013 hasn't just been an improvement, it puts him back among the top quarterbacks in the league. His passer rating is second in the NFL, behind only Manning. His DVOA of 44.5 percent is also second best, according to Football Outsiders. It's only three games, but Rivers is off to an incredibly impressive start this season.

The question is whether he can maintain that level of play going forward. His next test will be the Dallas Cowboys, who pose an interesting set of challenges. The Cowboys can rush the passer and may have a better coverage unit than the three teams Rivers has faced.

Dallas has shut down the run this season, allowing just 66.3 rushing yards per game, the second-fewest yards in the NFL. Football Outsiders also grades the Cowboys' defense as the second best unit against the run thus far. If that success continues this week, even more responsibility may fall on Rivers' shoulders.

Despite allowing 274.7 passing yards per game, the Cowboys have fared well in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. Dallas' pass coverage grade of plus-7.4 is the fourth best in the NFL. Safety Barry Church, cornerback Brandon Carr and cornerback Orlando Scandrick all have positive coverage grades. If Rivers is going to exploit a weakness, he may want to target cornerback Morris Claiborne. Dallas' No. 1 corner on paper, Claiborne has a minus-3.6 PFF coverage grade, the worst on the team.

According to PFF, Claiborne has allowed 157 receiving yards and nine receptions on 16 targets. More than half of the yardage has come after the catch, so finding Eddie Royal and Vincent Brown in space with room to run could be a key.

Another key will be Rivers' ability to excel under pressure. Led by DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys can get after the quarterback. Dallas has 43 quarterback hurries this season. Rivers, however, has done some of his best work under duress. He's completed 16-of-24 pases for 107 yards when pressured and two of the incompletions were drops, according to PFF. His completion percentage of 66.7 percent when under pressure is currently the highest in the league for any player with more than one attempt. It's also a massive improvement from last season, when he completed 43.2 percent of his passes when pressured.

There is no question Rivers proved he is still capable of playing at the level that made him a borderline MVP candidate earlier in his career. Now, the next step on his road to redemption is to prove he can stay at the level. The next test in doing so will come Sunday against the Cowboys in Qualcomm Stadium.

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