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Old 01-11-2009, 10:06 PM   #1
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Default Steelers Dominate Chargers to Reach A.F.C. Title Game

Steelers Dominate Chargers to Reach A.F.C. Title Game

PITTSBURGH — The playoff weekend had not been kind to the home teams, their fans left to trudge quietly to their cars after one, then two and finally the three hosts lost to their guests in the N.F.L.’s divisional round. But none of those teams had Terrible Towels twirling in the snow, none had a defense quite like the Pittsburgh Steelers and none had an opponent that self-destructed as completely as the San Diego Chargers.

The Steelers briefly righted the course of the playoffs, at least in the American Football Conference, beating the Chargers, 35-24.

“We said that going in, we said, ‘Let’s be the one that turned it around,’ ” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said of the other three home teams’ weekend of futility.

The second-seeded Steelers, the highest seed remaining in the field, will host the A.F.C. championship game next Sunday against their bitter divisional rival, the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers beat the Ravens twice this season, by a total of 7 points, and the rematch figures to be a clinic in the power of defense and the merits of controlled, if unspectacular, offense.

“What else would you expect, us and the Ravens,” Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said. “It would be a big game if it was a scrimmage. It just happens to be the A.F.C. championship game.”

The last time the Steelers hosted an A.F.C. championship game, they lost to the Patriots to end their 2004 season. But the last time they appeared in one — during the 2005 season — they beat the Broncos in Denver on their way to their fifth Super Bowl championship. This will be their third conference championship game in five years.The Steelers had historically struggled against the Chargers in playoff games at home, but a series of Chargers miscues and missed opportunities — poor kick coverage, a tipped pass that turned into an interception, a freakish muffed punt, a series of penalties — enabled the Steelers to slowly seize control.

After the Chargers quickly lashed the Steelers’ defense for an early touchdown, the Pittsburgh defense turned up the pressure on Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers on the next drive. Then Santonio Holmes returned a Mike Scifres punt 67 yards to tie the score, 7-7, the Steelers’ first punt return for a touchdown this season.

The defense stepped in, stopping the Chargers over and over, reducing last week’s diminutive star, Darren Sproles, to a supporting role when he could manage only 15 yards on 11 attempts, an average of 1.4 yards per rush.

The Chargers briefly took a 10-7 lead on a Nate Kaeding field goal late in the second quarter. But with a two-minute drive that dispelled any lingering concern about Roethlisberger’s health after a concussion, the Steelers grasped the momentum and never gave it back. With pass after pass, including a 41-yard beauty to a leaping Hines Ward, the drive gave the Steelers a 14-10 lead at halftime on a Willie Parker touchdown run.

“We saw some single coverage,”
Roethlisberger said of the deep passes he attempted repeatedly. “We missed quite a few of them, but we wanted to take a shot.”

The strategy had the desired effect: the Chargers had to back off from crowding the line to stop the run, freeing the Steelers to re-establish their running game and relieve some of the pressure on Roethlisberger.

With a clock-chewing drive to open the third quarter, they served notice that the running game — particularly with a healthy Parker — was back, at least until the Ravens’ Ray Lewis gets to town. Parker ran up the middle, around the right side, then around the left. He finished the night with 146 yards on 27 rushes and 2 touchdowns.

On the drive, Roethlisberger completed three third-and-long passes, enjoying perhaps the best protection he had received from the offensive line all season. Even on the Steelers’ deepest routes, he was rarely in trouble and he was sacked just once. In a vintage Roethlisberger play, he rolled out to his right on a play-action pass that ended in tight end Heath Miller’s arms for an 8-yard touchdown and a 21-10 lead. The drive took up 7 minutes 56 seconds, almost exactly half of the third quarter.

“We feel we can take teams’ hearts out if we can do that,” Roethlisberger said.

And that is when the Chargers, snakebitten for so long in the playoffs, began their inexorable slide. Rivers’s first pass on the next drive was deflected high into the air and snatched up by Larry Foote for an interception. The Steelers took possession deep in their own territory and gained only 13 yards, but still managed to drain more than four minutes from the clock.

Then, Mitch Berger’s punt hit the back of the helmet of the Chargers’ Eric Weddle. The Steelers got the ball back and drove to the San Diego 1. It ended with a goal-line stand, but by then the Steelers had held the ball for an astounding 14:43 of the third quarter.

By the time the Steelers added to their lead — when a pass interference call on Weddle put them on the 1-yard line, and Gary Russell, the short-yardage back, punched the ball in — the Chargers were all but out of it.

They struggled to stop the Steelers’ running game, which gained 165 yards. They had no hope of using their own running game, which finished with just 15 yards.

Even Rivers’s 308 passing yards, including two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, could not make up for all the lost opportunities early in the game. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson stood in his coat, injured and staring blankly at another abrupt end to a season for one of the N.F.L.’s most talented teams.

When Ward caught a third-down pass near midfield with about eight minutes remaining in the game, it meant that the most confident Steelers fans could do what no other home fans had been able to this weekend: Head for the exits with smiles on their faces.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company
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