Chargers' Cinderella Run Ends In Steel City

(Sports Network) - In the end, 24 points was not enough.

The ability to put up that point total on the stalwart Pittsburgh Steelers defense - which had allowed more than 13 points just once in its previous seven contests - would have been thought to give the San Diego Chargers an excellent opportunity to win their AFC Divisional Round matchup at Heinz Field on Sunday.

After all, the Steelers had won an 11-10 bloodbath versus the Chargers just seven weeks prior, and Pittsburgh's 2008 edition had not been known to put up points in bunches.

That all changed on Sunday, as the Black and Gold posted one of their finest offensive outings of the season in a 35-24 result, while the Chargers failed to keep pace after building an early lead.

Heinz Field was stone-silent when San Diego took the opening kickoff and marched 75 yards in four plays, culminating with a brilliant 41-yard touchdown pass from Philip Rivers to Vincent Jackson, to stake Norv Turner's club to a 7-0 lead.

But offense came hard for the Chargers for the better part of the next three quarters, and a Bolts defense that had looked so strong against Peyton Manning and the Colts one week prior suddenly began to come apart at the seams.

Philip Rivers and company would trouble the scoreboard just once in a span of 48:49 that followed the Jackson touchdown, that event coming on a Nate Kaeding field goal that came immediately after a failed Pittsburgh fake punt attempt in the second quarter.

Running back Darren Sproles, who had been so electrifying against the Colts one week prior, found the running room much tougher against the top-notch Steelers ground defense. Sproles amassed 15 yards on 11 carries, and didn't score a touchdown until late in the contest, on a 62-yard catch, when the game was basically in hand for Pittsburgh.

Rivers and the passing game couldn't sustain the attack either, as San Diego failed to polish off a drive of longer than six plays or 22 yards during the tough three-quarters-plus span. The quarterback finished 21-of-35 passing for 308 yards with three touchdowns and a key interception on a batted ball in Pittsburgh territory, but many of those positive numbers came at garbage time with the Steelers attempting to guard against the big play.

The struggles of the offense would have been less of an issue if the defense had played to its recent level.

But the run-stopping unit - purported to be the club's strength - allowed the Steelers' Willie Parker to have his best game in over two years, a 27-carry, 146-yard, two touchdown performance that kept Ben Roethlisberger largely out of harm's way and kept San Diego's offense off the field for long stretches.

Pittsburgh would finish the day with a 13-minute time of possession advantage (36:30 to 23:30), and scored touchdowns on four-of-five opportunities in the red-zone.

The Chargers special teams also played a hand in the defeat, as a normally strong San Diego punt coverage unit allowed the Steelers to seize the momentum on a 67-yard Santonio Holmes punt return for a touchdown to tie the score at 7-7 in the first quarter. Later in the game, a Pittsburgh punt that hit the helmet of San Diego safety Eric Weddle set the home team up with strong field position instead of giving the ball back to Rivers and the Chargers offense.

Overall, not the type of effort needed to beat the second-seeded team in the conference on its home field in January.

"We knew it was going to be tough," said Rivers. "They made more plays than us and we got behind. You put them in just straight pass rush/pass defense mode and us throwing it every play, it's tough. That's why you never want to get behind on the road in the playoffs, especially against this kind of team."

As for the lack of success in stopping the run, Turner argued that it was more a by-product of the game's circumstances than any deficiencies on the part of a San Diego team that ranked a healthy 11th in NFL rushing defense (102.6 yards per game) during the regular season.

"When you get ahead and you get momentum and we're throwing the ball and we had a couple turnovers, you're going to find runs," said Turner. "As time goes on you're going to find runs. You get people trying to make plays and do something extra and then you get some creases. I'm sure over the bye week and the time [the Steelers] had, they put a lot of effort and thought into their running game."

As time ticked out on the 2008 season though, Turner was proud of the effort of a team that was left for dead at 4-8 before blazing through December and carrying the momentum all the way to the Divisional Round.

"We were where a lot of guys could have laid down and they didn't," said Turner after the loss. "This group, the things they did in December will stay with them a long time and will help them continue to grow as players and help us continue to grow as a team."


The absence of running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who was inactive after briefly testing his serious groin injury against the Colts in the Divisional Round, certainly didn't help matters for the Chargers.

The five-time Pro Bowler has a total of 14 carries totaling 58 yards in the team's last four playoff games combined, and his absence from most of the last two postseason runs seems to be wearing on his psyche.

"I don't know if you can really get an idea of what it's like," said Tomlinson of missing contests that carry such significance. "Seeing what's going on out there and you can't do anything about it. At the same time, injuries happen. Obviously I didn't want to be hurt. I was hoping that the guys could pull through without me."

Tomlinson's rough 2008, in which he struggled to display his usual Pro Bowl form, coupled with the fact that he turns 30 this June, are factors that have sparked widespread speculation about whether the running back's best days are behind him. Though acknowledging his advancing age, Tomlinson did sound ready to throw in the towel when he spoke with reporters following the Pittsburgh loss.

"My motivation is to be on the field next year for every game," said Tomlinson. "Sometimes, as you get older, I think you have to ask if you can stay healthy every game - and that's going to be the question for me. I'm going to be 30 next year, and for me it's going to be about whether I can give this team everything I have and be on the field every game."

Surgery on his detached groin tendon remains an option for Tomlinson.

"I've talked to a few doctors, and a few guys who've had this injury - some who have had it worse than what I have - and some of those guys said they didn't have to have surgery. I'm hoping that will be the same case with me. If that's what it is, I'll be excited to just rehab and get this thing back and go again next year."

NEXT UP: 2009

The Chargers won't get a lot of breaks in defending their AFC West crown next season, as crossover games against the NFC East and AFC North dot a schedule that will include two additional first-place opponents thanks to San Diego's status atop its own division.

The NFC East has not produced a team with a losing record in either of the past two seasons, while the AFC North is led by the two participants in this week's conference title clash, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

In addition to their three division opponents, the Chargers will play the Ravens (11-5), Bengals (4-11-1), Eagles (9-6-1), Redskins (8-8) and Dolphins (11-5) at Qualcomm Stadium next season.

On the road, Turner and company will play its three division games plus the Browns (4-12), Steelers (12-4), Cowboys (9-7), Giants (12-4), and Titans (13-3).

Given that potentially arduous slate, 2009 projects as another year in which winning division games will be vitally important to a team nearly certain to be the prohibitive West favorite entering the campaign.

Luckily or not, given the success level of rookie head coaches this season, the Bolts could be facing as many as three AFC West teams that will be beginning new coaching eras next season.

Denver hired former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to succeed Mike Shanahan on Monday, the Raiders are currently interviewing prospective coaches (including interim head man Tom Cable), and there is a good chance the Chiefs' Herm Edwards will be fired when the team hires its next general manager in the coming days.

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