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Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Blog network debate: Chargers vs. Steelers

Posted by's Bill Williamson and John Clayton

This is a debate on Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game between San Diego and Pittsburgh. We will tackle topics on the game. AFC West blogger Bill Williamson will debate the side of the Chargers and senior writer John Clayton will debate the side of the Steelers.

Here we go:

Which quarterback will have a bigger impact?

 Harry How/Getty Images
 Philip Rivers and the Chargers ride a five-game winning streak into Pittsburgh Sunday.

Bill Williamson: John, it's going to be San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers. The Chargers are the hottest team in the NFL and Rivers is one of the hottest players in the league. He's playing out of his mind. Why shouldn't he? It's the playoffs and Rivers is a late-season player.

Rivers, taken seven picks higher than Roethlisberger, has developed into one of the great late-season players. He is 14-0 in December games and he is 3-2 in the postseason. While Indianapolis' Peyton Manning got his numbers Saturday night, it was Rivers who led the Chargers to 10 points in the final minute of regulation and in overtime.

Rivers is a big-game player. Yes, Big Ben has his Super Bowl ring and he knows how to get it done in the clutch as well. But Rivers is red hot. His statistics far surpass Roethlisberger's numbers in 2008. Rivers is playing with a purpose. He is a fantastic leader. He will not be intimidated by the vaunted Pittsburgh defense or the miserable weather. Rivers has willed the Chargers to victory during this five-game win streak, and there's no reason not to think Rivers won't do it again, Mr. Clayton.

John Clayton: Billy, you can throw me all the stats you want, but Ben Roethlisberger was the first of the top three quarterbacks taken in the 2004 draft to go to the Super Bowl and win, beating Eli Manning and Philip Rivers to the punch. The 14-0 December stat is nice, but Roethlisberger did get the field goal drive to beat Rivers in Pittsburgh this year. He's a big-time player in big-time games. Rivers is a quarterback who is learning the playoffs. Last year, he learned how to win a playoff game, beating the Titans. Roethlisberger is one of the best in football in the final two possessions of the fourth quarter. He has a presence in those situations that is one of the best in football. He has a strong arm that doesn't have problems in windy conditions. I'm not going to make a pick in this game, but Roethlisberger has the edge during his career in one key stat -- wins. He's 51-20 during the regular season and he's done it against tough schedules. Drew Brees has better stats than both those guys, but don't bet against Roethlisberger in the final four minutes of any game.

Can San Diego's defense keep up with Pittsburgh's defense?

BW: Yes. Look, the Pittsburgh defense is special. It is fantastic in every phase and it is mean and nasty.

But the Chargers' defense is playing at a high level, too. It gave up just 17 points to Manning and the Colts. During this streak, San Diego's defense is playing near the top of the league.

It has been aggressive, instinctive and timely.

 Joe Robbins/Getty Images
 James Harrison was named the NFL's defensive player of the year.
All three phases of the defense are clicking.
It made key plays in Pittsburgh seven weeks ago in a game the Steelers won in the final minute 11-10. The Steelers did not score a touchdown in the game. And the Chargers' defense is much better than it was seven weeks ago. That game was San Diego's second under defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who took over for the fired Ted Cottrell.

The defense has improved dramatically under Rivera. San Diego is attacking the ball much better now. The Chargers are not going to be afraid going into Pittsburgh.

On San Diego's last defensive play of the game against the Colts, it came through with a sack of Manning on third-and-2 deep in Colts territory, setting up the game-tying field goal. Had Indianapolis converted the first down, it probably would have run out the clock. That play typified the new San Diego defense. That is the defense that is headed to Pittsburgh, John.

JC: You are correct that the Chargers' defense can keep up with the Steelers because the first game was 11-10 and I don't figure this to be a high-scoring game either. We both agree the Steelers' defense is better this year. They gave up only 3.9 yards a play. The Chargers give up too many big plays, but they are getting better and it might cost them Rivera. He looks like a head coach waiting to be hired. But the Steelers have the master of the 3-4, Dick LeBeau, who created the zone blitz and runs it better than just about anyone. As much as the Chargers have fallen in love with Rivera, the Steelers have been in LeBeau's corner for years. The difference in this game is that the Steelers have James Harrison, the defensive player of the year. It's a shame that Shawne Merriman wasn't healthy enough to be in this game. His big-play ability could have topped Harrison's. The Chargers have the new defense. The Steelers' defense is the one that has aged as beautifully as a fine wine.

Can San Diego be effective in the poor weather?

JC: There is no doubt that Darren Sproles will slip on the Heinz Field grass. The field has been re-sodded and they are talking about snow and wet conditions.

 Paul Spinell
i/Getty Images
 Slick field conditions could make things interesting for Darren Sproles (43) and Willie Parker.
The temperature is going to be in the teens. Billy, pack your coat. You'll feel like you're back in Green Bay or Minnesota. Of course, the Steelers will be affected, too. Willie Parker is a back who gains yards because of his speed and elusiveness just like Sproles. Both backs will have problems. What I'm more concerned about is how Rivers is going to throw if the wind is coming off the Ohio River. His ball doesn't travel with the speed of Roethlisberger's and could be affected in the conditions. This is Steelers weather, not Chargers weather. Historically, the Steelers have had some of the best equipment people in sports figuring out the right shoes and the right ways to stay warm. The Chargers are still learning. I think the other player whom the weather will impact is Nate Kaeding, the Chargers' kicker. Visiting kickers have their worst days in Heinz Field. Kaeding has the extra problem that he is playing with a groin injury suffered when he slipped on the opening kickoff in San Diego last week.

BW: It's not ideal for the California beach boys, but the Chargers can handle the bad weather.

The temperature is supposed to be in the high 20s with a chance of snow. It's not going to remind anyone of Pacific Beach, John, that's for sure.

But the Chargers are expecting poor weather and they are used to it. Their last trip to Pittsburgh, on Nov. 16, was played in miserable weather.

The Chargers are ready to slug it out. This is a tough, stout team that is willing to play smashmouth football. Remember, San Diego nearly won in bad weather in Pittsburgh this season.

Mentally, that is what this team is thinking about. It knows it can play in bad weather. The key for San Diego is footing. If Sproles -- who is expected to play a lot with LaDainian Tomlinson hobbled by a groin injury -- can keep from slipping and sliding on offense and on special teams, the Chargers should be fine. That is the only potential weather hazard awaiting the California boys, but the Steelers' skill-position players will have to deal with the slick field conditions as well.