By Teresa Varley
On a weekend when home field didn't hold much of an advantage, the Steelers were the only team to come away with a win on their own turf, defeating the San Diego Chargers 35-24 to advance to the AFC Championship game.
The Steelers will host the Baltimore Ravens, a team they beat twice this season, at Heinz Field on Sunday, Jan. 18.
"It feels great to move from the field of eight to the field of four; especially in the fashion that we desire to do it in," said head coach Mike Tomlin. "I think that we played our kind of football today. I think that our big people on both sides of the ball did a nice job; special teams was a nice asset. I think that overall, collectively, it was a great team effort.
"I think that the team came out ready to play and focused, but not overly so. We have a mentally tough group in there, and they were able to display it today. San Diego is a very good team; they are battle-tested and they have been through a lot. We have a great deal of respect for those guys, both players and coaches. We look forward to moving on."
Running back Willie Parker had 27 carries for 146 yards, while Ben Roethlisberger completed 17 of 26 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown.
The Chargers took an early lead, driving down the field on their opening drive. Philip Rivers connected with Antonio Gates for a 21-yard completion and hit Darren Sproles for 12 yards on the screen. Rivers then went deep, hitting Vincent Jackson in the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown, taking a 7-0 lead with just 2:01 off the clock.
The running game got going for the Steelers on their first drive when Parker had three carriers for a combined 22 yards. A holding call on Santonio Holmes after a short completion to Hines Ward slowed things down, and the offense wasn't able to dig out of the hole. On fourth-and-eight the offense remained on the field, but Roethlisberger instead punted the ball, pinning the Chargers back at their own nine-yard line.
A big defensive stop forced the Chargers to punt and the Steelers made them pay. Holmes fielded Mike Scifres 53-yard punt at the Steelers 33-yard line and took it to the outside, returning it 67 yards for a touchdown, to quickly tie the game at 7-7.
A swarming defense continued to disrupt the Chargers. LaMarr Woodley was all over Rivers for an eight-yard sack, while James Farrior wasn't letting Sproles go anywhere on third-and-25, stopping him for just a one-yard gain.
Unfortunately, the Steelers didn't fare any better on their next drive. Parker was stopped after just a one-yard gain and Roethlisberger wasn't able to connect with Nate Washington along the right sideline. On third down, Eric Weddle came on the safety blitz, sacking Roethlisberger for a four-yard loss.
The Chargers were able to get a little momentum going with an eight and four-yard run by Sproles. Rivers found Gates for a seven-yard gain, setting up third-and-two. Sproles went off left guard for one-yard and the Chargers challenged that his forward progress gave him the first down, but the call stood and they were forced to punt.
The ground game got the bulk of the work for the Steelers on the next drive as Parker moved the ball with four straight carries for 23 yards. Mewelde Moore added a four-yard carry and they went right back to Parker for three yards. After a false start call the Steelers were faced with third-and-eight, but came up short when Carey Davis was stopped for a six-yard gain.
It was three-and-out for the Chargers on their next drive, despite what looked like a big gain for them. Rivers hit Jackson for 43 yards, but the Steelers challenged the call and it was ruled incomplete, the ball hitting the ground.
Unable to move the chains on their next drive the Steelers tried to trick the Chargers, but they didn't fall for it. Mitch Berger lined up in punt formation and Ryan Clark took the snap, but was knocked for a four-yard loss on the rush.
The Chargers took over at the Steelers 45-yard line, but the defense stepped up to the challenge, keeping them out of the end zone and holding them to a Nate Keading field goal to give the Chargers at 10-7 lead
They wouldn't be down for long, though. The offense kicked it into overdrive, with a 15-yard completion to Holmes and a nine-yard grab by Moore. Gary Russell powered forward for three yards to convert on third-and-one to keep the drive rolling. Roethlisberger went deep to Ward, hitting him in stride at the three-yard line for a 41-yard gain. Parker capped the drive on the pitch-out, taking it around left end for the touchdown, giving the Steelers a 14-10 halftime lead.
The Steelers kept the momentum going in the second half, coming out strong on their opening drive. Parker got it started with a 13-yard carry and Roethlisberger hit Holmes for 10-yards on third down. An incompletion and a one-yard loss by Parker set up a third-and-11, but Roethlisberger was unfazed, hitting Washington for an 18-yard gain. Faced with another third down, Roethlisberger hit Miller for an 18-yard gain to the 12-yard line. Miller capped the drive with an eight-yard touchdown reception to extend the lead to 21-10.
Sproles gave the Chargers a spark when he returned the kickoff 63 yards to the Steelers 23-yard line. It wouldn't take long for the Steelers to take the wind out of their sails when on the first play of the drive Brett Keisel tipped a Rivers pass and Larry Foote intercepted it. The Chargers challenged the call, but it was upheld.
The offense wasn't able to capitalize on the turnover, but got a huge break when the punt hit off Weddle's helmet and was recovered by William Gay at the 23-yard line. With new life, Roethlisberger hit Ward for 19 yards to the nine-yard line, and a personal foul for a late hit against Cletis Gordon was tacked on, giving them the ball at the four-yard line. Parker pounded it up the middle to the one-yard line, but Roethlisberger was unable to find an open receiver in the end zone. Russell took it up the middle for no gain and on third down Davis was unable to get the ball in the end zone, turning it over on downs.
The Chargers would have no chance to dig out of their hole. Rivers hit Jacob Hester for an 11-yard gain, but Woodley sacked Rivers for a 10 yard loss on the next play. On third-and-20 Rivers could not connect with Gates, putting the ball back in the hands of the Steelers offense.
And this time, they would make the most of it. Roethlisberger went for it all, going deep to Washington in the end zone. Weddle was called for pass interference, giving the Steelers the ball at the one-yard line. Russell punched it in for the touchdown and a 28-10 lead.
San Diego managed to come right back and answer the Steelers touchdown. Rivers completed passes to Jackson and Brandon Manumaleuna and then went to Sproles for 11 yards. On third-and-10 Rivers hit Chris Chambers for 15 yards. Rives went back to Chambers for 25 yards and was aided by a late hit call on Troy Polamalu, giving them the ball at the four-yard line. Rivers hit Legedu Naanee for the touchdown, cutting the lead to 28-17.
Not to be outdone, the Steelers marched right back down the field, sealing the win when Parker easily scored on a 16-yard run around right end for a 35-17 lead.
The Chargers added a 62-yard touchdown pass from Rivers to Sproles, to cut the lead to 35-24, but it wouldn't be enough for the win.