By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game between the Steelers and San Diego Chargers at 4: 45 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field:
MOTHER NATURE VS. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: When the Chargers came to Pittsburgh for the 1994 AFC Championship Game on Jan. 15, the day was unseasonably balmy. In the second half, temperatures hovered close to 60 degrees, and even though it wasn't sunny it wasn't bitterly cold, either. The Chargers won't be so lucky this time. The team that played in the coldest AFC Championship Game on record – the one in 1981 vs. the Bengals in Riverfront Stadium, forever immortalized by NFL Films – can expect game-time temperatures in Pittsburgh to be in the mid-20s. And since the game begins at 4:45 p.m., with January sunsets coming in the Northeast less than an hour later, temperatures will be falling toward a predicted low of 18 degrees. The Chargers will try to make the weather a non-factor, but for people who live where they live, that's easier said than done.
STEELERS OFFENSE VS. CHARGERS P MIKE SCIFRES: The Steelers' longest punt return of the season was 35 yards by Santonio Holmes, and their 6.0 average per return was 31st in the NFL – only Indianapolis was worse. Don't expect the Steelers return game to must much against the Chargers. Scifres posted a team-record 40.7-yard net average during the regular season, but against the Colts he set an NFL playoff record with a 51.7 net average on his six punts, and as a result Indianapolis was forced to start drives at the 10, 19, 3, 7, 9 and 1-yard lines. In the regular season meeting at Heinz Field, Scifres knocked two punts out inside the 20-yard line and neither was returned. When two teams play one game that ends 11-10, field position can be expected to be a factor in the rematch. Maybe Mother Nature can play some special teams for the Steelers, too.
STEELERS CBs BRYANT McFADDEN AND DESHEA TOWNSEND VS. CHARGERS QB PHILIP RIVERS: Even though this is the second meeting between these teams in the last 62 days, it will be the first time Rivers sees Townsend and McFadden. In the regular season game, both of those cornerbacks were out with injuries, and the Steelers defense went with Ike Taylor, William Gay, just-signed Fernando Bryant and Anthony Madison. The Steelers pass defense played well that day – as Coach Mike Tomlin might say, "The standard of expectation didn't change" – but having two of their top cornerbacks on the field for this game could allow for more of a variety of coverages. Rivers finished No. 1 in the NFL in three important categories this season – average gain per attempt, percentage of touchdowns per attempt and passer rating – and the Steelers will need their complete complement to deal with a healthier Antonio Gates and a group of big, athletic wide receivers.
STEELERS PASS DEFENSE VS. CHARGERS TE ANTONIO GATES: Hampered by injuries through most of this season and held to two catches for 10 yards in the first meeting, Gates is getting healthier and becoming more productive. He caught 14 passes during the final three games of the regular season, and then in the Wild Card Game vs. the Colts he caught eight balls for 87 yards, and four of those receptions were good for first downs. "Gates at tight end is a unique and physical matchup," said Tomlin. "He is too big and powerful for defensive backs, and he is too athletic and has too much body control for linebackers. It will be a challenge trying to match people up on him. We will have to pick our poison a little bit and be thoughtful in that area. He moves the chains for them and he is a vertical threat. They split him out from the core and he runs isolation routes on third down. He is a very good player." Included among the options the Steelers have here are Troy Polamalu and Lawrence Timmons. Dick LeBeau probably will come up with some others, too.
THE OFFICIATING CREW VS. A SENSE OF FAIRNESS: Even though it went down as the first 11-10 final in NFL history, the first meeting included an impressive amount of offensive production from the Steelers. Twenty-four first downs; a 50 percent conversion rate on third downs. Willie Parker rushed for 115 yards and averaged 4.3 per carry; Ben Roethlisberger passed for 308 yards and completed 75 percent. So why did the Steelers fail to score an offensive touchdown? Thirteen penalties. Seven of those were assessed to the offense, three of those for holding, including one for holding on Sean McHugh that took a touchdown off the board in the fourth quarter. In the same game, the Chargers were penalized twice for 5 total yards. Granted, penalties are penalties and should be called, but when it comes to the discretionary flags – was it pass interference or was it incidental contact, for example – the game should be called evenly. James Harrison was being held at least once on every series that afternoon, and it never was called. Let 'em play, or call it close, but once that is established, the game needs to be called both ways.