Nightmare: The Chargers have karma factor, too
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For only the past 39 years, or since the 1970 merger of the NFL with the old AFL, there has been no more difficult place in America for an NFL team to play a road game than Pittsburgh, which is a historical fact asterisked by this footnote:
• Unless the road team is the San Diego Chargers, and the month is January.
Welcome then, to this week's sprung-to-life nightmare, in which Steelers fans around the globe share the vague sense that they're awaiting still another pre-destined kick in the asterisk.
Sure the Steelers are 216-83-1 in this town through two stadiums, three coaches and five Super Bowl championships, and sure 13 of those 216 regular-season wins came against San Diego, but the Bolts of January come hard and come deadly.
Perhaps you'll remember Jan. 9, 1983 -- Chargers 31, Steelers 28, and if not, surely you'll recall Jan. 15, 1995, also known as Chargers 17, Steelers 13 (see also the Curious Case of Alfred Pupunu), in which the heavily favored Cowher-powered home club not only melted like a slush ball in the second half's 60-degree mist, but established the tradition of haunted AFC championship games at home. It was the first of five AFC title games in the city in the span of 11 years, with the Steelers winning exactly once, and that by the skin of the skin of the skin of their incisors.
Generally, the Steelers' audience needs no invitation to fret -- some are already obsessing about the draft, the 2010 draft -- but neither of the franchise's two prior playoff exits at the hands of San Diego can match for imminent pregame peril the Sunday appointment with the Norv Stars.
Does it mean anything that Chargers head coach Norv Turner, in discussing the Steelers with NFL Network analyst Jim (playoffs?) Mora the other day, identified the Pittsburgh quarterback as "Rossinsberger?"
Probably not, but it could indicate that nationally, Big Ben's name isn't on the tip of too many tongues after a season in which he threw only half the touchdown passes of Chargers swashbuckler Philip Rivers, who broke Dan Fouts' franchise record with 34 and who, Mike Tomlin mentioned at his weekly press watering yesterday, "makes great decisions."
None of those were evident here Nov. 16, when these teams played one of the weirdest football games ever witnessed, with the Steelers winning in the final 16 seconds by the unprecedented score of 11-10. What next, 6-4, 5-2?
In that one, LaDainian Tomlinson was held to 57 yards on 18 uneventful carries, failing to gain 100 ground yards just as he has every time the Steelers turn up across the line from him. The bad news is, Tomlinson likely won't play Sunday, and instead the Steelers will contend with Darren Sproles, the pocketful of dynamite who gained -- what was it? -- 799 all-purpose yards against Indianapolis over the weekend, the final 22 of them on the final play of overtime to send Peyton Manning home for a winter of polishing that MVP trophy.
The real number on Sproles was 328 total yards, including rushing, receiving, returning punts, returning kickoffs, and skewering a million Midwestern hearts. At 5 feet 6, 180 pounds, Sproles is, as Tomlin suggested, "not small; he just happens to be short. He's very powerful." Sproles is likely most lethal on screens.
"They've really sharpened their screen game," Tomlin said. "It's second to none. They've hurt people and hurt people badly with screens since we've seen them."
Tomlin refused to cite any other significant differences between these Chargers and November's, but even as Turner's team left Pittsburgh that day in some bewilderment, a tremendous surge of confidence and eventual competence soon ensued, particularly on offense. In their past five games, the Chargers have been averaging 34 points and appear to be taking seriously their unique station as the only team to make the postseason after losing eight of their first 12.
The destiny tag affixes itself to such teams, but San Diego's record was always a bit of a mirage after it lost the first two games by a total of three points. Of the Chargers' eight losses, two were by one point, one by two points, one by three, one by five, one by six, one by seven, and one by nine.
Despite that list, which would appear simply too long for postseason inclusion, the Steelers face, in both an historical and immediate sense, a very difficult obstacle between here and their first postseason victory since Super Bowl XL. Good thing they have Rossinsberger.
First Published January 7, 2009 12:00 am