Back on their feet
The Steelers raced back into the game after the Chargers took a 7-0 lead, thanks to fancy footwork by QB Ben Roethlisberger, then punt returner Santonio Holmes. On fourth and 8 from San Diego's 34, Pittsburgh's offense stayed on the field. But Roethlisberger took the snap and surprised everyone with a fluttering punt that pinned the Chargers at the 11. "We've worked on that and we were prepared to do it," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "The big thing was that we were scared to attempt a long field goal. … So we decided to punt it and hope that they wouldn't put anybody back and keep it in the field of play. He did a nice job."
The Steelers defense then forced a three and out, and Mike Scifres drilled a 53-yard punt to the Pittsburgh 33. Santonio Holmes fielded it on the right side, found a seam in the middle and sped down the left sideline. Scifres missed on a diving tackle attempt at the Chargers 40. At the 5, Holmes leaped over Legedu Naanee for a touchdown that tied the score at 7. It was the longest punt return for a touchdown in Steelers postseason history, and the first allowed in the playoffs by San Diego since the 1965 AFL championship. "The field was kind of sloppy," Holmes said. "I knew their guys weren't going to be able to stop and cut and break down."
Plays worth another look
The game had barely gotten under way when San Diego sent the Steelers' vaunted defense reeling. It took only three plays for the Chargers to move from their 25 to Pittsburgh's 41, where on first down, wide receiver Vincent Jackson lined up on the left side and bolted down the middle on a post pattern. While safety Troy Polamalu moved forward to cover TE Antonio Gates, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Jackson sprinted toward the goal line several steps ahead of CB Ike Taylor. QB Philip Rivers heaved a perfectly-thrown pass that reached Jackson in full stride as he crossed into the end zone. He held onto the ball as he fell, giving the Chargers the early lead and leaving the Steelers wondering what hit them. "We had a little momentum on our side," Jackson said. "We wanted and needed to keep the ball, keep the defense off the field, but their offense did a good job today."
Moments after falling behind 21-10 midway through the third quarter, the Chargers appeared to get back on track when Darren Sproles returned the kickoff 63 yards to the 23. But on the next play, Philip Rivers' pass was deflected at the line by DE Brett Keisel and LB Larry Foote, above, intercepted. The play was challenged by Chargers coach Norv Turner, hoping the replay would show that the ball had hit the ground. But Foote got his hand beneath the ball, leaving San Diego empty-handed at a crucial time. That typified the play of Pittsburgh's No. 1-ranked defense. "We came in here and did what we had to do to win the game," LB James Harrison said. "If all 11 men do their job, I don't feel like there's anything that can go wrong."
Poor Eric Weddle. The San Diego free safety, below, was minding his business, blocking his man as a punt by Pittsburgh's Mitch Berger sailed into Chargers territory with the Steelers leading 21-10 late in the third quarter. The ball plunked directly onto Weddle's helmet — he never saw it coming — and was scooped by up Pittsburgh's William Gay for a first down at the San Diego 23. The blooper didn't produce any points for the Steelers, who were stopped on fourth down at the 1. But Pittsburgh forced a punt and scored on its next possession — thanks to more help from Weddle. He was flagged for pass interference on Nate Washington. One play later, Gary Russell scored to put Pittsburgh ahead 28-10 and in control to stay. "I didn't see the replay but I felt I was right on time," Weddle said of the penalty. "But I must have been a second too late."
Hines Ward, right, couldn't have picked a better time to make a little Steeler postseason history. His 41-yard reception in the final minute of the first half increased his postseason receiving yards total to 938, moving him past Lynn Swann into second place all time behind John Stallworth. Of course, what mattered most to Ward was that the catch gave the Steelers a first down at the 3, setting up a Willie Parker touchdown that lifted Pittsburgh into a 14-10 halftime lead. "That was a very big drive. I think it changed the whole momentum of the game," Ward said. " … I think that took a little air out of San Diego." But Ward, the MVP of Super Bowl XL, wasn't finished. His 19-yard reception in the third quarter, setting up a touchdown and 21-10 lead, made him the first Steeler to catch 70 postseason passes.
Nowhere to run
San Diego RB Darren Sproles came in with two straight 100-yard rushing games in relief of LaDainian Tomlinson, who sat out with a groin injury. But he wasn't able to get anything going on the ground against Pittsburgh, gaining 15 yards on 11 carries — all in the first half. Sproles did flash special-teams prowess midway through the third quarter with a 63-yard kickoff return. But one play later the Steelers deflected and picked off a Philip Rivers pass. And Sproles' 62-yard touchdown reception with 1:53 to play was too little, too late. "We definitely didn't want him to get going," Steelers LB LaMarr Woodley said. "Early in the game, we did what we were supposed to as a team by staying in our rush lanes and not allowing him to see the hole and hit it."
The Steelers' Mike Tomlin
On what it means for him to be on the brink of going to the Super Bowl: "This is not my story. This is the story of the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers. My thoughts and feelings are in line with theirs. It was a big win today but we keep it in perspective to play a good team next week."
On whether it's fitting to play Baltimore this weekend: "What else would you expect? Us and the Ravens. It would be a big game if it was a scrimmage. It just happens to be the AFC Championship Game."
The Chargers' Norv Turner
On his thoughts overall: "I can't say enough about the Steelers. There (are two) teams that play defense like that, Baltimore and Pittsburgh."
On San Diego's difficulty running the ball: "We had the one play in the third quarter … you don't get many turns when you only have one play and it's a batted ball."