AFC: Steelers 35, Chargers 24
By Alan Robinson
PITTSBURGH ó Fittingly enough, the Pittsburgh Steelers brought back the home-field advantage to the NFL playoffs. Now they get to stay at home for the AFC championship game, and against the rival they dislike more than any other.
The team with the NFL’s best home-field record since the 1970 NFL merger shook off a 7-0 deficit barely two minutes into the game, shut down pint-sized playmaker Darren Sproles and returned some normalcy to the NFL postseason by beating the San Diego Chargers 35-24 in an AFC divisional game Sunday.
With a now-healthy Willie Parker running for 146 yards and two touchdowns, Ben Roethlisberger ignoring his late-season concussion to throw for a score and lead an efficient offense, the Steelers did what the favored Titans, Panthers and Giants couldn’t do by winning at home. It was the first time since 1971 that three road teams won, and the Steelers made certain that road teams didn’t go 4-for-4.
The Steelers had the worst offense of any playoff team coming in, only to put up 35 points to support the NFL’s top-ranked defense. Now, it’s time for Ravens vs. Steelers Part III next Sunday ó the third and most intriguing matchup this season between the can’t-stand-each other AFC North rivals.
“What else would you expect, us and the Ravens,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “It would be big if it was a scrimmage. This is for the AFC championship.”
They were two of the NFL’s most physical games this season, with injuries all around, and playing for a chance to go to the Super Bowl will only ratchet up the intensity, physicality and, no doubt, the dislike.
There was much to like for the Steelers in this one as they made certain that the Chargers’ stars from their 23-17 wild-card upset of the Colts didn’t repeat their performances and allow San Diego to become the first team to go .500 during the season to win twice in the postseason.
The Steelers spotted San Diego a 7-0 lead on Vincent Jackson’s acrobatic 41-yard catch of Philip Rivers’ pass four plays into the game, but, like San Diego’s 7-0 lead in its bizarre 11-10 loss in Pittsburgh on Nov. 16, the Chargers couldn’t make it stand up as 1,100-yard rusher LaDainian Tomlinson sat out with a groin injury.
Sproles, coming off his all-around 328-yard game against the Colts, wasn’t a factor despite a 63-yard kickoff return and a 62-yard TD catch in the final two minutes after Pittsburgh had opened a 35-17 lead. He was held to 15 yards on 11 carries after rushing for 105 the week before.
Of course, it’s tough to score when a team doesn’t have the ball.
The Chargers had the ball for only 17 seconds of the third quarter to the Steelers’ 14:43, thanks to Pittsburgh’s nearly eight-minute scoring drive that ended with Roethlisberger’s 8-yard TD pass to Heath Miller. Rivers also had an interception on a first down from the Pittsburgh 23 and the Chargers had a punt that bounced off Eric Weddle’s helmet and the Steelers recovered.
Keeping Rivers and Sproles off the field so long allowed Pittsburgh to stretch its lead from 14-10 late in the second quarter on Parker’s 3-yard run to 28-10 early in the fourth on Gary Russell’s 1-yard run. Weddle ó him again ó was flagged for a 44-yard interference penalty before Russell scored.
Even as Rivers went 21-of-35 for 308 yards and three touchdowns, the Chargers failed to improve on one of the NFL’s most curious records. They’re 0-13 in Pittsburgh during the regular season, but previously were 2-0 there in the playoffs.
The Steelers weren’t rusty or off their game as the other three home teams this weekend and now are 13-4. The Chargers ended 9-9.