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|01-12-2009, 10:58 AM||#1|
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AFC Divisional Playoffs: Steelers return to AFC final
AFC Divisional Playoffs: Steelers return to AFC final
Monday, January 12, 2009
By Ed Bouchette
The Steelers will play their third AFC championship game at Heinz Field this decade, and this time they would like to win.
To do so, they must get past their mirror images, the Baltimore Ravens, who not only play like them but are trying to emulate what the Steelers did after the 2005 season as the wild-card No. 6 seed.
"What else would you expect?" Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Us and the Ravens; it would be a big game if it was a scrimmage. It just happens to be the AFC championship game."
They will play at 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
The Steelers became the only home team of the weekend's four playoff games to win when they defeated San Diego, 35-24, with a withering third quarter in which the Chargers were allowed just one play. That play became a Larry Foote interception.
"I think we played our kind of football today," Tomlin said after his first playoff victory.
It was old-school Steelers football, harkening back to the days when they won playoff games at home in the 1970s. Their defense might not have a fancy nickname, but it did 2 yards better than the Steel Curtain that held the Minnesota Vikings to 17 yards rushing in Super Bowl IX. The Steelers yesterday held the Chargers to 15 yards, a club postseason record.
"It was big," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said after the defense held Darren Sproles to 15 yards on 11 carries. "We definitely didn't want to get him going."
And there was the return of their own ground game. Willie Parker ran for two touchdowns and 146 yards, the most in a playoff game since Franco Harris had 153 against the Baltimore Colts in 1975. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger showed no signs of a two-week old concussion. He completed 17 of 26 passes for 181 yards and threw a touchdown pass of 8 yards to Heath Miller. Roethlisberger was sacked just once as the line gave him plenty of time to throw.
"I can't say enough about the Steelers," San Diego coach Norv Turner said. "They are an outstanding football team."
The top-ranked Steelers defense allowed a 300-yard passer for the first time this season when Philip Rivers completed 21 of 35 for 308 yards and three touchdowns. But throw out the first drive and a 62-yard run-and-catch for a score by Sproles late in the game when it was all but officially over. The defense did a good job of getting to Rivers and hit him a number of times.
"The fact that he did get hit and sacked may have thrown off his timing," linebacker James Harrison said. "And the illusion of pressure -- pressure that's not actually there because you are used to getting hit every three or four seconds."
They sacked the Chargers' quarterback four times, two by Woodley, to go with Foote's interception off a deflected pass by end Brett Keisel.
No play, though, was bigger than the Steelers' first punt return of the season for a touchdown. It was also the longest in the team's playoff history.
The return came after San Diego shocked the Steelers by scoring on four plays in the game's first series. Rivers hit Vincent Jackson with a 41-yard touchdown pass that was pulled in over Ike Taylor in the end zone.
The raucous Heinz Field crowd turned quietly anxious after that lightning-bolt score against the NFL's best defense. But then, on came Santonio Holmes.
He fielded a booming Mike Scifres punt midway through the opening quarter at the Steelers' 33, made one cut to avoid the first rush, another to get outside and a final leap over a defender to run 67 yards for a touchdown that tied the score and breathed life back into the crowd and, if they'll admit it, his teammates.
"It was great; it sparked this team," Holmes said. "The crowd was behind us 100 percent from then on. It was the play that we needed ??? after that our team just rallied behind [it] and put it to them."
Other than a failed fake punt that led to a San Diego field goal, it was all Steelers from that punt return until the middle of the fourth quarter.
The Steelers lined up to punt with a little more than five minutes to go in the first half from their 48, a yard short of a first down. Instead of punting, they snapped it directly to Ryan Clark, lined up as a blocking back. The play, the first fake punt in Tomlin's two seasons as coach, lost 4 yards and the Chargers took over at the Steelers' 44.
They drove 20 yards and Nate Kaeding kicked a 42-yard field goal with 1:56 left in the half to give San Diego a 10-7 lead.
"I was going to be aggressive," Tomlin explained. "I want our football team to know that I have a great deal of belief in them and that we are not going to play scared, we are going to play to win."
That belief manifested itself in a barrage of Steelers points.
Parker scored on a 3-yard touchdown run with 40 seconds left in the half to give the Steelers a 14-10 lead. They drove 66 yards on seven plays to take their first lead of the game. Before Parker scored on a toss to the left, Hines Ward caught a 41-yard pass that carried to the San Diego 3.
Their next drive of the game, at the start of the second half, produced another touchdown. Behind Parker the Steelers ground out 77 yards on 13 plays. Miller caught Roethlisberger's 8-yard pass for a touchdown that put the Steelers in front, 21-10.
The only time San Diego had the ball in the third quarter, besides returning kickoffs, came after Sproles returned a kickoff 63 yards to the Steelers' 23. On first down, Keisel tipped Rivers' pass and Foote intercepted at the 21.
The Steelers added another touchdown on Gary Russell's 1-yard run early in the fourth quarter for a 28-10 lead. The touchdown came one play after San Diego free safety Eric Weddle was called for a 44-yard pass interference penalty while trying to cover Nate Washington.
San Diego pulled to within 28-17 when Rivers threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Legedu Naanee with 9:09 left, capping a 73-yard, 10-play drive.
But the Steelers responded with another scoring drive of 73 yards with Parker putting the exclamation point on his first 100-yard playoff game with a 16-yard touchdown run with 4:11 left.
Now another AFC championship game comes to Pittsburgh. The Steelers lost two previous games at Heinz Field to the Patriots after the 2001 and '04 seasons. They also lost two out of three title games in Three Rivers Stadium in the 1990s.
As Tomlin said yesterday, though, "This is the story of the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers."
They, not history, will get to write their own ending.
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