Chargers Have to Play Ketchup

At halftime at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the Steelers lead the Chargers 14-10. 

At the start of the game, it looked like the game might be an offensive shootout.  It took the Chargers just 1:52 minutes to score the game's first points.

Philip Rivers connected with Vincent Jackson for a 41-yard touchdown.  A few minutes later, the Steelers got on the board when Santonio Holmes took a punt back 67 yards for a touchdown.

After that both defenses took over.  Nate Kaeding kicked a 42-yard field goal with 2:00 to play, then the Steelers found a groove.  Ben Roethlisberger threw a perfect pass to Hines Ward for a 41-yard gain inside the Chargers' 10 yard line.  Willie Parker ran it in from there to give Pittsburgh their first lead of the day.


San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson wasn't in uniform for Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game at the Steelers, sidelined by the detached tendon in his groin that kept him out of most of the previous week's upset of Indianapolis.

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Tomlinson, who rushed for 1,110 yards during the season, was listed as doubtful as late as Friday, but there were few signs during the week that he would play. The 2006 NFL MVP has been one of the league's most durable and productive rushers, gaining more than 1,000 yards in each of his eight NFL seasons.

Tomlinson played just over a quarter in the 23-17 overtime win against the Colts on Jan. 3, but didn't return after scoring on a 3-yard run early in the second quarter. He ran for 57 yards and the game's only touchdown on 18 carries in San Diego's 11-10 loss at Pittsburgh on Nov. 16.

The Chargers did activate tight end Antonio Gates (ankle), who was previously listed as questionable, and kicker Nate Kaeding (groin, ankle). Kaeding missed practice Thursday and Friday after spraining his ankle in practice Wednesday.

Tomlinson was replaced by Darren Sproles, who ran for 105 yards while totaling 328 yards against the Colts, the third most in NFL playoff history.


The San Diego Chargers' travels to Pittsburgh are filled with curiosities, a remarkable run of odd games, unexpected results and strange scores, comebacks that succeeded and game plans that failed.

There was the AFC championship game where the Chargers drew motivation from -- what? -- a dance video. The first and only NFL tournament. And the latest oddity, the only 11-10 score in NFL history earlier this season.

In a city where they've never won during the regular season or lost during the postseason, the Chargers are hoping the surprise element kicks in again during their AFC divisional playoff game Sunday.

They're not favored -- they rarely are in Pittsburgh, where they're 2-13 -- but that hardly discourages a team that couldn't have anticipated a return trip after being 4-8 not long after that one-of-a-kind, one-point loss Nov. 16.

Going back to the chilly East Coast, going against the NFL's top-ranked defense, probably doesn't seem as daunting now that the Chargers, against long odds, are averaging 34.4 points during a five-game winning streak. The latest surprise was their 23-17 overtime decision last weekend over Indianapolis, which had won nine in a row.

As the Steelers' Hines Ward said, "They've been in the playoffs for five weeks now."

"When I think back to the 14-2 season (in 2006) when we had the home playoff game and got beat, you wonder if it was a little too big for us," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "I think the fact that we've been in these types of games now ... going to Pittsburgh will be right up there, a similar type deal. I think from a hype standpoint, playoff-game standpoint we'll be just fine."

How fine? A Steelers defense led by Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison that statistically ranks among the NFL's best in a quarter-century may determine that. Rivers was held to 159 yards passing, was sacked for a safety and the running game produced only 66 yards in Pittsburgh's regular-season win.

Still, the Steelers were set back by 13 penalties and needed Jeff Reed's 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining to win a game remembered for referee Scott Green's crew incorrectly taking away Troy Polamalu's touchdown on a fumble return on the final play.  Talk about unusual.  Despite having a 300-yard passer (Ben Roethlisberger), a 100-yard rusher (Willie Parker) and a 100-yard receiver (Ward), and outgunning San Diego 410-213, the Steelers never got into the end zone, at least on a play that counted. Obviously, the score wasn't all that was strange.

"We just didn't finish," wide receiver Santonio Holmes said. "It was all field goals. But in the playoffs, you've got to score touchdowns."

Maybe the Steelers got their weird game against San Diego out of their system before the playoffs this time.

In the most disappointing loss of the Bill Cowher era, the Steelers lost 17-13 to San Diego after leading by 10 in the 1995 AFC championship game. So much for the Super Bowl dance video they rehearsed a few days before.

In January 1983, San Diego came from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Terry Bradshaw's Steelers 31-28 in the NFL's one-and-only tournament-format playoffs, after a players strike shut down the regular season for two months.

Those remain the Chargers' only two victories in Pittsburgh in 15 attempts.

"All the records don't mean anything right now," Steelers right tackle Willie Colon said. "You've just go to be able to match their intensity. They've got a swagger about them, you can see it on the tape, they're bouncing around and yelling, so it's going to be an intense game."

Not letting Darren Sproles play the game he did against Indianapolis, with 105 yards rushing and 328 total yards, is a necessity for Pittsburgh. Making sure wide receiver Vincent Jackson's head is into the game, following his arrest on a drunken driving-related charge, is one for San Diego.

Sproles had only one carry against Pittsburgh on Nov. 16 but -- despite being only 5-foot-6 -- is taking on an increasingly bigger role in the offense with 1,100-yard rusher LaDainian Tomlinson limping on a sore groin.

"It's really hard to hit him and hard to see where he's at," Parker said. "He makes moves, does everything a running back's supposed to do, and he's small."

The Steelers not only need to find Sproles, but their own game as well. This is their first meaningful contest since a 31-14 loss at Tennessee on Dec. 21 cost them home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. They finished 12-4, compared to San Diego's 8-8.

That's three weeks without worrying whether they won or lost, and -- despite the Steelers' 10-1 record in divisional home games -- it sometimes takes time to regain that, "Hey, this counts" attitude.

Ask the Colts, who lost to the Chargers last year and to the Steelers in January 2006 under similar circumstances.

Roethlisberger's concussion also is a Steelers worry.

He was injured in a game that meant nothing, a 31-0 rout of Cleveland on Dec. 28, and experienced headaches for nearly a week. Roethlisberger played possibly the worst game of his career, throwing four interceptions in Oakland in 2006, the last time he returned from a concussion.

"He's happy, he's walking around, Ben's fine. He's ready to play," Ward said. "We're going to ride him all the way we can."

Roethlisberger is likely to see considerably different looks from a Chargers defense he picked apart while going 31-of-41 for 308 yards in November. At the time, San Diego had just changed defensive coordinators, from Ted Cottrell to Ron Rivera.

"We are going to have to be ready for everything," Roethlisberger said.

Then there's this to consider for those who would dismiss the Chargers' chances: A year ago this weekend, they were seen as no more likely to win in Indianapolis than they are now in Pittsburgh.

"Both teams are going to be out-of-their-minds excited for this game," Chargers coach Norv Turner said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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