PITTSBURGH — The Chargers came into frigid western Pennsylvania on Sunday as the hottest team in the NFL. But they found themselves in a deep freeze courtesy of the cool leadership of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the icy grip of the Steelers' top-ranked defense.
The result was a 35-24 Pittsburgh victory in 20-degree weather and light snow at Heinz Field, setting up an AFC title game showdown there Sunday between the Steelers and North Division rival Baltimore.
"That is an exciting football team in there," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "It feels great to move from the field of eight to the field of four, especially in the fashion that we desire to do. I think that we played our kind of football."
That kind of football included a standout effort by Willie Parker, who rushed for 146 yards on 27 carries with a pair of touchdowns. But it was the steady play of Roethlisberger, coming off a concussion in the regular-season finale, that gave the offense the edge it needed. He completed 17 of 26 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions — far better than the four he threw in his first game back from a concussion in 2006.
And it was the smothering play of Pittsburgh's defense, shutting down San Diego's recently high-powered ground game and coming up with a handful of big plays that defused it. Darren Sproles, playing for the injured LaDainian Tomlinson and coming off a game in which he had 328 all-purpose yards, managed only 15 on 11 carries (all in the first half).
Though his 62-yard touchdown reception with 1:53 left made the game closer, San Diego's five-game win streak and season came to an end.
The offensive and defensive dominance converged in a remarkable third quarter, during which San Diego touched the ball for only one play and a mere six seconds.
The quarter began with the Chargers trailing 14-10. But Roethlisberger directed a 13-play, 77-yard scoring drive that consumed 7:56 and culminated with his 8-yard pass to Heath Miller. On the ensuing kickoff, Sproles broke free for 63 yards to the Pittsburgh 23. Suddenly, San Diego was back in business.
Philip Rivers, the league's top-rated passer, already had thrown one touchdown, a 41-yarder that made it 7-0 2:01 in. But on the first play, Rivers' pass over the middle was deflected at the line by end Brett Keisel and picked off by linebacker Larry Foote.
Roethlisberger directed a seven-play drive that ended with a punt. But the ball bounced off the helmet of San Diego's Eric Weddle, who was blocking, and the Steelers recovered. They ran six more plays before the quarter ended, their 21-10 lead intact and their grip on victory tightening.
Being on the field for nearly 15 minutes straight was just fine with Roethlisberger.
"The linemen might have a different answer, but we like that," he said. "It was fun. We feel like we can really take teams' hearts out if we can do that."
The defense came through as well, including a play by linebacker LaMarr Woodley early in the fourth.
The Chargers stopped fullback Carey Davis on fourth and goal from the 1 on the opening play of the quarter. Operating from his end zone, Rivers started with a 12-yard completion to fullback Jacob Hester. But on the next play, Woodley slammed Rivers down for a 10-yard sack. San Diego punted three plays later. And the Steelers took advantage of the short field, taking a 28-10 lead on Gary Russell's 1-yard run.
"I was able to make that play because the corners were out there doing their job, holding up those receivers," Woodley said. "I came through the middle and was able to grab him. It was definitely a momentum swing for us. It kind of fired everybody up."
And helped put the Chargers on ice.