Chargers Could Get Pleasant Surprise

John Madden remembers the ice, Dan Pastorini the insufferable rain. Fred Taylor almost called a lawyer over it. Doug Brien lost a job because of it.

No team embraces home-field advantage like the Pittsburgh Steelers do, for better or worse -- and, for decades, they've been known for having one of the NFL's worst fields.

No matter whether it was Three Rivers Stadium's hard-as-concrete artificial surface or Heinz Field's invisible grass, this is a turf on which many fear to tread, especially in the brutal cold and whipping winds of what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls January football.

There are Terrible Towels in the stands, but many a playoff fumble or interception has been blamed on Pittsburgh's terrible turf. A year ago, Jaguars running back Taylor called the chewed-up, mushy and pockmarked field "a lawsuit waiting to happen." NFL players voted it the league's worst, perhaps because the Steelers own the NFL's best home-field record since 1970.

That's why the San Diego Chargers may be in for a pleasant surprise during Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game, because this won't be the same field on which they played their 11-10 loss to the Steelers on Nov. 16.

Soon after that, the Steelers put down a brand-new grass field. Only three games have been played on it in seven weeks, and the grass was thick and unmarked for the Steelers' 31-0 win over Cleveland on Dec. 28.

Good thing for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, too, since he sustained a concussion while being driven into the turf by two Browns defenders late in the first half.

"The soft Heinz Field might've helped a little bit," Roethlisberger said.

What the Steelers don't know is if their bad field turned good is any advantage against a team with the speed the Chargers possess.

"We were rather surprised to see it in the Cleveland game, as good as it was," Steelers left tackle Max Starks said. "That's a good sign."

Starks paused for a moment, then realized that might not necessarily be so.

"And if it is a little muddy, oh, well," he said. "Being in lovely Pittsburgh, Pa., you never know what the weather's going to do. But this is football, it's not a pretty game, it's not a finesse game and we're in an outdoor stadium. If there's mud, sleet, ice, freezing rain, whatever it is, we're going to play in it."

Darren Sproles, the 5-foot-6 Chargers running back who totaled 328 yards against Indianapolis last week, no doubt wants a fast track. So does quarterback Philip Rivers, who led only one touchdown drive amid snow showers and 30 degree temperatures in the earlier Pittsburgh game.

"It's not like everybody on that team grew up in Pittsburgh," Rivers said. "We go out and play. We've all played in cold games before."

Sunday's forecast: mostly cloudy with snow showers and temperatures in the 20s. Brrr.

"The weather is going to be a factor for those guys," Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes said.

To Madden, that prediction probably sounds tropical compared to the miserable weather for his Oakland Raiders' 16-10 loss in the AFC championship game in January 1976.

The temperature was 11 with wind gusts in the 30 mph range, and the artificial turf became a sheet of ice after a protective tarp blew off the night before. The Raiders still believe the Steelers intentionally iced the field to slow their fast receivers.

Of course, this came only three years after the Immaculate Reception, so the Raiders weren't exactly thrilled to be playing again in Pittsburgh. Neither was Pastorini, who threw five interceptions and was sacked four times on a water-soaked field as the Steelers beat Houston 34-5 in the January 1979 AFC championship game.

The Steelers abandoned artificial turf upon moving into Heinz, but their bad-as-it-gets field reputation persisted.

Four years ago, Brien became the only kicker in NFL playoff history to miss two potential game-winning field goals so late in a game when he couldn't convert from 47 and 43 yards in the final 2:02 of Pittsburgh's 20-17 divisional-round overtime victory.

The Jets didn't bring back Brien, who failed not so much because he couldn't stand up to the pressure, but because he couldn't stand up, period.

Taylor's get-me-a-lawyer comments before Jacksonville's 31-29 playoff win last year came a few weeks after an unheard-of late-November monsoon and newly installed grass combined to make for a nearly unplayable field during Pittsburgh's 3-0 regular-season win over Miami.

Such are the miseries of playing football where not one, two but three nearby rivers offer up numbing and confidence-eroding winds. Even when the grass is green like it is now, not the usual brown.

"Teams like San Diego come here, you can't simulate the weather conditions, you can't simulate the field conditions," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "That's the home-field advantage we have."

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