Steelers Top Chargers, 35-24, in AFC Playoffs

Only a Pittsburgh win keeps the NFL's Divisional Playoffs from a clean sweep of road upsets, with the Steelers, Ravens, Eagles and Cardinals advancing on to conference championship games.
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 12, 2009

PITTSBURGH, Jan. 11 -- On and on the third quarter rolled in a horrible montage of missed tackles, tipped passes and a punt that landed comically on the helmet of San Diego Charger Eric Weddle and into the arms of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's hard to imagine another team in the NFL playoffs enduring a 15-minute stretch as awful as this.

And it was in that single quarter, one in which the Chargers ran a total of one offensive play and touched the ball for 17 seconds, that the Pittsburgh Steelers rolled over them on their way to a 35-24 victory in the AFC semifinals. The victory will match Pittsburgh against Baltimore, another of the league's most dominant defenses, in the AFC championship game Sunday.

"We have a football team that wants to ante up and kick in and be part of what makes us successful," Coach Mike Tomlin said.

Normally that's Pittsburgh's feared defense, but it was its offense that doomed the Chargers on Sunday.

The Steelers moved methodically in the decisive quarter as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, two weeks removed from a concussion, dropped critical passes into receivers' hands and watched as running back Willie Parker rolled through a respected defensive line for a touchdown that broke open a four-point game.

Then, after San Diego's Darren Sproles seemed to pull the Chargers back with a 63-yard kickoff return deep into Pittsburgh territory, quarterback Philip Rivers fired a first-down pass that was tipped by the Steelers' Brett Keisel and grabbed by Larry Foote for an interception. It would San Diego's only offensive play of the quarter.

Given the ball again, Pittsburgh went on another march only to be stopped at its 34-yard line after another 4 minutes 35 seconds had run off the game clock. The ensuing punt was short and wobbly, and Sproles screamed for his teammates to stay away from it. Weddle, with his back to the punter, ducked his head slightly and began to turn around. Just then the ball caromed off his head and was recovered by the Steelers' William Gay.

And while the Steelers did not score on the possession and the quarter ran out, the Chargers looked shocked and drained. The game was essentially over.

"I want our football team to know that I've got a great deal of belief in them," Tomlin said. "We're not going to play scared. We're going to play to win."

Thus ended San Diego's amazing five-game winning streak that turned a 4-8 record into an AFC West title and a first-round playoff win.

And to think this was a game the Chargers actually seemed to control for a time.

Although the wind chill announced before the game was 18 degrees and snowflakes twirled down through the stadium lights, the Chargers hardly seemed fazed by the conditions as they came onto the field. Several players ran around during warmups in short pants or short-sleeved shirts. And the comfort carried right through the kickoff.

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