AFC West: Chargers-Steelers playoffs

Moving away from the playoffs

January, 12, 2009
1/12/09
2:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

I am traveling from Pittsburgh to California after the Chargers' 35-24 defeat to Pittsburgh in the AFC divisional playoffs.

I may not be able to check back until Tuesday. But there is a lot going on in the division with the aftermath of the Chargers' season and coaching and front office movement with the other three teams.

We'll be back soon with analysis and news on the happenings in the AFC West. As always, thanks for reading.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Eric Weddle knows he is being selfish but he doesn't want Ron Rivera to become a head coach in the NFL.

The San Diego Chargers need him too much.

But it could happen. Rivera could be out the door in San Diego. If so it would be a crushing blow to the Chargers. Rivera will interview for the Detroit Lions' head coaching job Tuesday. There could be other opportunities.

Rivera became a hot coaching candidate when he turned around San Diego's defense after taking over for the fired Ted Cottrell at midseason. The San Diego defense responded to Rivera's aggressive scheme and his hands on approach.

Many in San Diego credit the defensive turnaround for the team's five-game winning streak that extended into the playoffs. San Diego lost at Pittsburgh, 35-24, in the AFC divisional playoffs.

If Rivera leaves a head coach, San Diego will have a difficult time replacing him. He just fit with the players. Rivera was known for being very supportive. Win or lose, he was in the locker room after games speaking to his players.

If Rivera is in San Diego next season, the Chargers could be superior. If not, the Chargers have to find a suitable replacement or their struggles on defense could resurface.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Thanks to ESPN's Stats & Information, here are some telling charts from the Chargers' 35-24 loss at Pittsburgh in the AFC divisional playoffs on Sunday:

3rd Quarter at a Glance

Chargers Steelers
Plays 1 24
Yards 0 122
Turnovers 2 0
Time of possession 0:17 14:43

Ben Roethlisberger had all day to throw, and was rarely pressured into leaving the pocket. Meanwhile, the Steelers were able to get to Philip Rivers.

No Pressure on Big Ben

Roethlisberger Rivers
Sacks 1 4
QB hits 1 6
Interceptions 0 1
Thrown away 1 2

The Steelers were balanced in the first half, while the Chargers had to go to the pass in the second half.

Chargers Abandon the Run

San Diego Pittsburgh

Run Pass Run Pass
First half 12 17 14 14
Second half 0 22 28 14
Total 12 39 42 28
 
  Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
  Darren Sproles had another strong all-around game but San Diego was forced to play from behind in the second half, negating the running game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

PITTSBURGH -- Shawne Merriman was hesitant to talk about the events of the San Diego Chargers' final game Sunday. After sitting out all but the season opener after a knee injury, he didn't feel he was equipped to comment on his team's 35-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC divisional playoffs.

Told the subject was the 2009 San Diego Chargers, the most dominant NFL pass-rusher from 2005 to '07 perked up.

"I see next year being a really good year for us," Merriman said. "And I see myself being a big part of it. There are some exciting possibilities."

Merriman said he can't wait to "explode into somebody next year." The thought of Merriman playing in Ron Rivera's defense (if he doesn't get hired as a head coach in the next few weeks) is an intriguing possibility for the Chargers.

The San Diego defense was in a unit-wide funk for the first half of the season as it struggled to find an identity without Merriman, who led all NFL players with 39.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons. However, after Rivera took over for the fired Ted Cottrell at the midway point, the San Diego defense took off, and it sparked a wild comeback in the AFC West after the team had sputtered to a 4-8 start.

If Merriman witnessed one thing from the sideline in 2008 it's that he feels the team needs to have a sense of urgency from the beginning of the season. This was the second straight season that San Diego stumbled out of the gate only to rebound. In 2007, San Diego started 5-5 before going on a streak all the way to the AFC title game.

"We have to have that urgency from the jump," said Merriman. "We have to make it easier. We have to realize that there is urgency to the entire season."

Safety Eric Weddle also identified a lack of season-long urgency as one of the team's biggest needs.

"We have everything," Weddle said. "The pieces are here. We're close. But we have to play as one from the beginning of the season ... Doing it this way is tiring."

Don't expect wholesale changes in San Diego. The team is young and talented and the window for winning a titile hasn't closed. Merriman said in training camp, before his knee deteriorated, that he thought 2008 was the team's best opportunity since he arrived to win a Super Bowl. He said Sunday the expectations are still there.

"It'll be the same deal as this year," Merriman said. "We just need to take care of our business." He added that he could be ready for minicamp and he definitely will be ready for training camp.

Sproles rushing by direction
-- Att. Yds. Avg. Lg.
Left 1 -1 -1.0 --
Middle 9 12 1.3 8
Right 1 4 4.0 4
Total 11 15 1.4 8
Sproles rushing by down
-- Att. Yds. Avg. Lg.
First 7 7 1.0 8
Second 2 6 3.0 4
Third 2 2 1.0 1
-- ESPN Stats & Information

The team has two key free agents in running back Darren Sproles (who was held to 15 yards on 11 carries Sunday as he played for the injured LaDainian Tomlinson) and defensive lineman Igor Olshansky.

The team, which has the No. 16 draft pick, probably will try to make some additions, perhaps on the offensive line, defensive line and at linebacker. But the core remains.

"It will be a goal to go to the Super Bowl again next year," linebacker Stephen Cooper said. "We have a strong team."

Here are some other key elements to San Diego's season-ending game Sunday:

The run stops here: The Chargers were confident that they'd be able to run well with Sproles as their primary back. Sproles sparked the team's wild-card win over Indianapolis with excellent running in the second half as he played for the ailing Tomlinson.

On Sunday, however, cold weather conditions and the Steelers' stout run defense neutralized Sproles as a rusher. The Chargers, who were in passing mode in the second half as they tried to catch up, ran the ball only 12 times.

"They stopped me," said the 5-foot-6, 181-pound Sproles. "That's a fast defense."

Sproles did make his typical impact though. He added 259 yards in the receiving and return game. Many league observers think Sproles will cash in on the free-agent market. Sproles said he likes his role in San Diego and wants to return.

"I hope this wasn't my last game with San Diego," Sproles said.

  Chargers vs. Steelers Highlights
  NFL.com video
  The Steelers advance with a 35-24 win over the Chargers.

A miserable 14 minutes, 43 seconds: The game turned in the third quarter. San Diego ran one offensive play and had the ball for 17 seconds in the quarter. The Chargers' one offensive play was an interception on a deflection. San Diego then gave up the ball when a punt bounced off Weddle's helmet while he was blocking on the return.

The result was that San Diego's defense was on the field for nearly the entire third quarter.

"I knew we were on the field a lot, but 14:43? Wow," Weddle said. "It's tough ... But we didn't play well as a defense. We never gave our offense a chance."

Was this the end of the Rivera era? It will not be a surprise if Rivera starts getting phone calls about the open head-coaching jobs. The Lions inquired last week but Rivera put them off until the season ended.

San Diego's players wish the best for Rivera, but they know he's a cog for the team.

"We need him back," Weddle said. "He's a big part of it ... but we hope what's best for him and his family."

If the Chargers are going to live up to Merriman's hope for a strong start in 2009, keeping Rivera will be a big first step.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

PITTSBURGH -- With the opportunity to host the AFC Championship Game at home, the San Diego Chargers were unable to recover from a strange third quarter Sunday in a physical game in frigid weather.

The Chargers and Steelers battled toe-to-toe for much of the game but it was the third quarter that was the difference as the Steelers extended their lead to 21-10 in the quarter. The Chargers ran just one offensive play in the quarter and the pass was intercepted on a deflection. Another Chargers offensive opportunity was scuttled when a Pittsburgh punt bounced off a San Diego blocker's helmet and the Steelers recovered the muff.

  Chargers vs. Steelers Highlights
  NFL.com video
  The Steelers advance with a 35-24 win over the Chargers.

Indeed, it was a strange end to a weird season for San Diego. The Chargers, preseason Super Bowl contenders, floundered early and made the playoffs after a 4-8 start. They were helped by a colossal three-game collapse by Denver which led the AFC West until the final game of the season in which the Chargers embarrassed Denver by 31 points.

San Diego became the first team to make the playoffs in NFL history after starting 4-8 and it became just the second team to make the postseason with an 8-8 record.

The Chargers were sky high entering the game in Pittsburgh complete with a five-game win streak, the longest current streak in the NFL.

In the end, though, the Chargers ran out of steam in Pittsburgh, closing out another season without a title for a team considered to have one of the best rosters in the NFL.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

PITTSBURGH -- It's starting to look like it may not be the Chargers' day after a strange third quarter.

Down 21-10 late in the third quarter, the Chargers were poised to get the ball back on a Pittsburgh punt. However, the punt bounced off the helmet of San Diego's Eric Weddle, who was engaged in a block and had no idea the ball was approaching. Pittsburgh recovered the ball.

The Steelers, who have scored 14 unanswered points since the final seconds of the first half, have dominated the time of possession in the third quarter. The Chargers had the ball just 17 seconds in the quarter.  Pittsburgh ended the possessions with an interception on a tipped pass deep in Pittsburgh territory after a long kick return by Darren Sproles.

But San Diego could not capitalize. If San Diego's season ends today, the bizarre third quarter will stand out.

Halftime notes

January, 11, 2009
1/11/09
6:20
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

PITTSBURGH -- Halftime notes from Pittsburgh where the Steelers lead 14-10 thanks to a touchdown with 40 seconds to go in the half:

Santonio Holmes' punt return for a touchdown was the first punt return for a touchdown against San Diego in more than five years and the first punt return for a score against San Diego in the postseason since 1965.

Vincent Jackson's 41-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter ended his drought. He didn't have a catch against the Colts last week.

Snow flurries have fallen on and off but the field seems to be holding up decently.

San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers completed eight of his first nine pass attempts.

San Diego running back Darren Sproles has 11 of the team's 12 rush attempts. He has 15 yards on the ground. The bad weather and Pittsburgh's stout run defense is giving Sproles trouble as he replaces the injured LaDainian Tomlinson, who is out with a groin injury. Sproles had a combined 219 rushing yards in the past two games.

San Diego tight end Antonio Gates is playing well again despite a high and low ankle sprain on his right leg. He has five catches. He had eight catches last week.

San Diego cornerback Quentin Jammer and safety Eric Weddle are both having excellent games.

San Diego kicker Nate Kaeding showed no affects of a sore groin when he kicked a 42-yard field goal late in the second quarter. He was injured last week against the Colts and his practice time was affected leading up to Sunday's game.

There are already more points scored in the game that the 21 points scored when Pittsburgh beat San Diego 11-10 here Nov. 16.

Embattled Jackson starts fast

January, 11, 2009
1/11/09
5:02
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

PITTSBURGH -- San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson answered the question about him Sunday very early: He is not distracted by his recent arrest for driving under suspicion of driving while drunk.

Jackson caught a 41-yard touchdown pass from San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers on the opening drive of the game to give San Diego a 7-0 lead.

Jackson was arrested Tuesday morning. No formal chargers have been made. Jackson put out a statement after the arrest he is confident his innocence will be proven.

Early notes from Pittsburgh

January, 11, 2009
1/11/09
4:52
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

PITTSBURGH -- While the Chargers will surely miss LaDainian Tomlinson on Sunday, they were prepared for this.

The team was operating under the impression Tomlinson likely would not be able to play. The Chargers are hopeful he could return for the AFC Championship Game against Baltimore if they win at Pittsburgh on Sunday.

The Chargers spent all week preparing backup Darren Sproles and No. 3 tailback Michael Bennett to play against the Steelers, who had the No. 2 run defense in the NFL in the regular season.

With a full week of practice, the Chargers feel their active running backs will be able to carry the load, starting with the tiny Sproles who has rushed for 219 yards the past two games combined.

With the visiting teams winning the first three playoff games of the weekend, the Chargers can make it a perfect 4-for-4 with a win Sunday.

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt is at the game. He is close friends with Chargers coach Norv Turner.

Tomlinson will not play

January, 11, 2009
1/11/09
3:36
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

PITTSBURGH -- As expected, the Chargers will have to play Sunday's game without star running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

Tomlinson

He is among the inactive players for San Diego.

Tomlinson was listed as doubtful to play in the game. He didn't practice all week because of a groin injury. Tomlinson didn't play in the second half of the Chargers' win over Pittsburgh in the wild-card round. Darren Sproles will start in Tomlinson's place.

There have been snow flurries on and off Sunday afternoon, and the bad weather could affect Sproles, who relies on his quickness and ability to cut.

Meanwhile, San Diego tight end Antonio Gates is active and he will start. He has been dealing with a high and low ankle sprain on his right foot for the past two weeks and hasn't been practicing. He played against the Colts and he had a game-high eight catches.

Cold day in Pittsburgh

January, 11, 2009
1/11/09
11:13
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

PITTSBURGH -- With kickoff less than six hours away, it appears the pregame weather forecast was correct. It's going to be very cold during the Chargers and Steelers' AFC divisional playoff game Sunday.

Insider: Scouting Report
Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson breaks down Sunday's playoff game between San Diego and Pittsburgh.
Scouting Report
 

It is currently 23 degrees with snow flurries in Pittsburgh. The game-time temperature is expected to be 27 degrees.

The Heinz Field playing turf is currently covered to protect it from the conditions. This is the second time in eight weeks that these two teams will meet in Pittsburgh, and the weather was atrocious then as well. The Steelers won, 11-10, in the final minute.

Because of the cold weather, it even lessens the chances of San Diego star running back LaDainian Tomlinson playing. He is doubtful with a groin injury after not practicing all week. The plan was for Tomlinson to try to warm up before the game, but the conditions will make that very difficult.

Check back as the game approaches for more updates. The winner will host Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game next Sunday.

Home game at stake

January, 11, 2009
1/11/09
12:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

PITTSBURGH -- The flight here was full of both Chargers and Steelers fans.

And the plane erupted into cheers when it was announced from the cockpit that Baltimore Ravens knocked off the Tennessee Titans.

It was something San Diego and Pittsburgh fans could agree on this week. The Ravens winning the game was good for both the Chargers and the Steelers.

It means the winner of the AFC Divisional playoff game in Pittsburgh on Sunday will host the AFC title game next Sunday. The Ravens are the No. 6 seed in the playoffs. They beat the No. 3 seed Dolphins last week and then the No. 1 seed Titans on Saturday.

Yes, the Chargers can become the first 8-8 team to host a championship game. It will be an interesting day in Pittsburgh on Sunday where it is currently very cold but not snowing.

Meanwhile, ESPN's Chris Mortensen is reporting that New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier may be the finalists for the Denver job. Both candidates were very impressive and team insiders believe both men would have success in Denver. The team is expected to make a hire within a week.

Meanwhile, it's being reported Denver defensive line coach Bill Johnson is moving to New Orleans.

Pittsburgh-bound

January, 10, 2009
1/10/09
3:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

I am headed to Pittsburgh for the San Diego Chargers' AFC divisional playoff game against the Steelers.

This is an amazing ride the Charges are on. I keep going back in my mind to when I was watching the Chargers' comeback against Kansas City in Week 15 from the press box. At that point, it was a near certainty that the Broncos would win the AFC West. Had the Chargers not come back from 11 points down in the final two minutes, the Chargers would be eliminated.

But the Chargers did win the game, sparking their incredible comeback and an incredible collapse by Denver.

Now, the Chargers head to Pittsburgh on the steam of a five-game winning streak and looking as dangerous as any team remaining in the playoffs.

Please check back Sunday with pregame, in-game and postgame analysis from Pittsburgh.

AFC West news and notes

January, 9, 2009
1/09/09
7:59
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

The Scott Pioli talk in Kansas City apparently will be on hold until after the weekend. The Kansas City Star is reporting that the Chiefs will not make an announcement regarding their opening for a general manager during the weekend.

Pioli is still considered the front-runner. If the search goes late into next week, it may be a sign that Pioli and the Chiefs are not going to come to an accord. The New England executive is considered the top general manager candidate available and his hiring would give the Chiefs instant credibility.

• The grounds crew in Pittsburgh may have to work overtime prior to Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game between the Chargers and the Steelers. A storm is expected to hit Pittsburgh Friday night and Saturday. There may be snow flurries during the game Sunday evening. The two teams played in poor weather in Pittsburgh on Nov. 16. The Steelers won, 11-10, in the final minute.

• The Denver Broncos signed tight end Adam Bergen on Friday. He's been with Dallas and Arizona.

San Diego injury update

January, 9, 2009
1/09/09
6:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

San Diego's backup tailbacks will be the focal point of their run offense in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game at Pittsburgh.

Barring an unexpected change, the Chargers' running attack will be a group effort from Darren Sproles, Michael Bennett and Jacob Hester. Star tailback LaDainian Tomlinson was officially listed as doubtful for the game as the Chargers headed to Pittsburgh on Friday. He may try to play Sunday but, as of now, he is not expected to play against the Steelers because of a torn groin he suffered against Denver on Dec. 28. Tomlinson didn't play in the second half in San Diego's win over the Colts last Saturday.

Tomlinson had five carries against the Colts while Sproles had 105 yards on 23 carries. Sproles will carry the load at Pittsburgh. It will be interesting to see how Sproles, who is 5-foot-6, 181 pounds, deals with a heavy load for the second straight week, especially in poor weather and against the No. 2 ranked run defense in the NFL.

Bennett will spell Sproles and Hester will likely be asked to get carries in short-yardage situations.

Meanwhile, San Diego tight end Antonio Gates is listed as questionable for Sunday. He didn't practice all week with a high and low ankle sprain on his right foot. Still, Gates will likely play. He had a game-high eight catches against the Colts after not practicing all week.

Also, San Diego kicker Nate Kaeding is probable with a groin injury. He did not practice the past two games with a groin injury. However, the team expects him to be able to play.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider