Madness, madness everywhere. Arizona in the NFC Championship game. Tennessee, the Giants and Carolina getting knocked off at home. The Manning Brothers: 0-2. Joe Flacco: 2-0. About all we need now is for Al Michaels to get laryngitis in the last minutes of the Super Bowl.
Some order needed to be restored in the NFL playoffs Sunday when the Chargers met the Steelers at Heinz Field. The postseason needed to regain its equilibrium. A team that looked pretty impressive in the regular season needed to look pretty impressive in the playoffs - just for the sake of our sanity. Enough with the upsets and home-field disadvantage and lingering camera shots of sodden, saddened fans.
This was the burden borne by the Steelers, the highest-seeded team left in this tournament, and they could feel the weight of it early on. The game was only four plays old when Philip Rivers drifted back and heaved a 41-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson to give the Chargers a 7-0 lead. If the weather worsened - and snow flurries were already fluttering - who knew how many points would be needed to win? Heck, 13 were all the Ravens required the day before to beat the Titans.
But this is a Pittsburgh club that has been around the block. It won the Super Bowl three years ago and has plenty of experience in these situations - not all of it good, mind you, but experience nonetheless. Besides, when were the Steelers going to get a better opportunity than this one, a chance not only to host the AFC title game but to play a team in its own division, Baltimore, that it has already defeated twice? If they couldn’t summon one of their better performances in those circumstances, then the NFL has really gone nuts.
“We didn’t blink,” cornerback Deshea Townsend said of the right-out-of-the-box bomb to Jackson. “We just kept playing. We knew it would be a 60-minute game. You won’t see guys on this team getting uptight. The guys on this team play basketball in the locker room.”
So after San Diego had its fun in the first series, the Steel City crew got down to business. Ben Roethlisberger started hooking up with Hines Ward and Heath Miller, Willie Parker started finding creases in the defensive front and the Chargers started making the mistakes that, well, are the reason they’re the Chargers - and still looking for their first Lombardi Trophy after 43 years.
A 67-yard punt return touchdown by Pittsburgh’s Santonio Holmes was the Bolts’ first big blunder. An interception in scoring territory, a muffed punt and a pass interference penalty in the end zone followed, turning a tight, 14-10 game at halftime into a 35-24 Steelers stampede.
And it was about time. I mean, the regular season might not be all-telling, but it should offer a few clues as to who the top teams are. And Pittsburgh, if memory serves, went 12-4, while San Diego needed some inspired scrambling in the last month just to finish 8-8. The Steelers were SUPPOSED to win this game.
But “supposed” has nothing to do with it in these playoffs. Everybody, after all, thought Pittsburgh would be playing Indianapolis in the second round, but the Chargers - despite minimal help from battered LaDainian Tomlinson - sent the Colts to the golf links for the second straight year.
These are the forces the Steelers are fighting - the forces of postseason chaos and craziness, the forces of divine happenstance. An overtime coin flip goes the other way, and maybe San Diego doesn’t get past Indy. Tennessee takes better care of the ball, the way it usually does, and maybe Pittsburgh is going to Nashville for the AFC Championship game. The Cowboys don’t go comatose in December, and maybe Philly doesn’t even make the playoffs.
Finally, though, a favorite played like one Sunday. The Steelers’ brutally efficient defense held the Chargers to 290 yards and sacked the league’s leading passer four times. Their subtle-as-a-knuckle-sandwich running game, which was hit or miss all season, was effective enough to give them “confidence we can run the ball [against future opponents],” center Justin Hartwig said. “This is a nice building block going into next week.”
Roethlisberger, meanwhile, coming off a concussion, was his pre-motorcycle-accident self, completing almost two-thirds of his passes. He also had a nifty quick kick to the San Diego 9 in the first quarter and made a point of mentioning to the media: “I don’t believe we punted in the second half. Impressive. Especially with all the third-and-longs.”
(Actually, Pittsburgh punted twice in the second half, so perhaps Ben is still feeling a bit woozy from that hit in the head. But in his defense, it didn’t SEEM like they punted.)
Still, the victory stopped short of evisceration. In the final two minutes, just to inject one last dose of uncertainty, Rivers hit Darren Sproles for a 62-yard touchdown to make it 35-24 and force the Steelers to suffer through an onside kick. You can’t count on anything in these NFL playoffs … and the coming weekend doesn’t figure to be any different.
“What else would you expect?” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Us and the Ravens. It would be a big game if it was a scrimmage. It just happens to be for the AFC championship.”
Expect? Who would dare expect anything after what we’ve seen the past two weeks?