- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2009

PITTSBURGH | Fittingly enough, the Pittsburgh Steelers brought back the home-field advantage to the NFL playoffs. Now they get to stay at home for the AFC Championship game - and against the rival they dislike more than any other.

The team with the NFL’s best home-field record since the 1970 NFL merger shook off a seven-point deficit barely two minutes into the game, controlled pint-sized playmaker Darren Sproles and returned some normalcy to the NFL postseason by beating the San Diego Chargers 35-24 in an AFC divisional game Sunday.

With a now-healthy Willie Parker running for 146 yards and two touchdowns, Ben Roethlisberger ignoring his late-season concussion to throw for a score and lead an efficient offense, the Steelers did what the favored Titans, Panthers and Giants couldn’t do by winning at home. It was the first time since 1971 that three road teams won during a single playoff weekend, and the Steelers made certain road teams didn’t go 4-for-4.

The Steelers had the worst offense of any playoff team coming in, only to put up 35 points to support the NFL’s top-ranked defense. Now, it’s time for Ravens vs. Steelers Part III on Sunday - the third and most intriguing matchup this season between the can’t-stand-each other AFC North rivals.

“What else would you expect?” Steelers 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.”

Pittsburgh won the earlier two games, 23-20 in overtime in Pittsburgh - when the Ravens supposedly put bounties on several Steelers players - and 13-9 during the Dec. 14 rematch in Baltimore that secured the divisional title.

“We have a tough, tough, tough team coming in here,” Brett Keisel said. “It’s going to be a big challenge, but we’re one step away - and happy to be at home.”

This will be the Steelers’ seventh AFC title game - and sixth in Pittsburgh - in 15 seasons. They were 2-4 in the previous six, including 1-4 in Pittsburgh.

The Ravens-Steelers games were two of the NFL’s most physical this season with injuries all around, and playing to go to the Super Bowl only will ratchet up the intensity, physicality and, no doubt, the dislike.

There was much to like for the Steelers in this one. They made certain that the Chargers’ stars from their 23-17 wild-card upset of the Colts didn’t repeat their performances and didn’t allow San Diego to become the first team to go .500 during the season to win twice in the postseason.

“That’s quite a team,” Chargers coach Norv Turner said.

The Steelers spotted San Diego a 7-0 lead on Vincent Jackson’s acrobatic 41-yard catch of Philip Rivers’ pass four plays into the game, but like San Diego’s 7-0 lead in its bizarre 11-10 loss in Pittsburgh on Nov. 16, the Chargers couldn’t make it stand up as 1,100-yard rusher LaDainian Tomlinson sat out with a groin injury.

Sproles, coming off his all-around 328-yard game against the Colts, wasn’t much of a factor despite a 63-yard kickoff return and a 62-yard touchdown catch in the game’s final two minutes after Pittsburgh had opened a 35-17 lead.

Sproles was held to 15 yards on 11 carries after rushing for 105 the week before, and if there can be a quiet 274 yards in a game, he got them. He had 91 yards on five catches and 164 yards on five kickoff returns.

“I don’t think he ever broke one [run]. We contained him pretty good,” the Steelers’ LaMarr Woodley said.

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