Not your father's Chargers

PITTSBURGH – Casey Hampton is the Steelers' nose tackle and perhaps the most grounded player on the team.

Need simple logic to answer a complex question? Ask Big Casey.

Here goes: Since San Diego killed New England, and New England beat the Steelers, ipso facto, doesn't that mean—

"Wait, man," Hampton interrupted. "That's nothing, man. Everybody plays everybody different. It don't matter because they beat somebody. This is two entirely different teams."

So how are the Steelers going to bounce back from their loss to the Patriots?

"We don't have no choice but to bounce back," said Hampton as the "interview" ground to a halt.

There's little logic to the NFL these days. The Steelers (2-1) will take on the Chargers (2-2) Monday night with the defending champion Patriots in the rear view mirrors of 106 players, some of whom have watched this one-sided rivalry grow into a match-up of two of the best teams in the AFC. It's grown to the point where the Steelers, winners of the last four match-ups between the teams, are 3-point underdogs.

Followers of this series must wonder whether Monday's game is an AFC Championship game, because the Steelers have owned the Chargers in the regular season. Steelers coach Bill Cowher is 6-0 against the Chargers in all games that weren't played during or after the 1994 season. But obviously, the talent gap has narrowed.

In 2000, the Steelers beat the Chargers, 34-21, on Christmas Eve in the regular-season finale. The Chargers finished 1-15.

In 2003, the Steelers beat the Chargers, 40-24, in the penultimate game of the season. The Chargers finished 4-12.

The 2003 season was Marty Schottenheimer's first with the Chargers, and almost Drew Brees's last. The quarterback was benched in the Steelers game and this week called it "one of the lower points" of his football career.

"That was disappointing because Marty and I got into it a little bit on the sideline," Brees said. "I didn't want to get pulled out of the game. He came over and told me I'm out. I wanted to know why and I disagreed with why he was doing it. You know how it is. I didn't feel like it was right to be pulled out of the game so I was going to fight it. I look back on that stuff and laugh about it now. It's something that you have to go through at times to develop as a player, as a person and as a competitor."

Still, Schottenheimer drafted quarterback Philip Rivers in the first round last season. The move motivated Brees, who went on to have a Pro Bowl season. Brees took advantage of the coming of age of tight end Antonio Gates, to go along with the best running back in the game, LaDainian Tomlinson.

To shore up a porous line, the Chargers drafted center Nick Hardwick and right tackle Shane Olivea, traded for left tackle Roman Oben and signed free-agent right guard Mike Goff in 2004. To help Brees and Gates in the passing game, the Chargers traded for veteran Keenan McCardell last October.

Defensively, the Chargers hired Wade Phillips in 2004 to coordinate their new 3-4 defense, and drafted starting lineman Luis Castillo in the first round this year. Linebackers Donnie Edwards, Randall Godfrey and Steve Foley are the heart of the defense, while the secondary – overhauled by high draft picks – remains a weakness, the final piece to Schottenheimer's puzzle.

Did Schottenheimer -- who built contenders in Cleveland and Kansas City from scratch -- feel the Chargers were beyond help back on that squabbling December day in Pittsburgh?

"I felt confident that we were going to be a good team," he said. "When I arrived here, we were in the process of trying to put the thing together. Then (former GM) John Butler passed away. A.J. Smith came in with a little bit different approach but overall I still felt comfortable that the way we went about things gives us a chance to be successful, and I still believe that."

"Not giving up on them has made them better," said cornerback Deshea Townsend, who sparked the Steelers' win in 2003 with three turnovers and a touchdown.

"They've been in the system for awhile now. And the other thing is nobody likes to lose," Townsend said. "That's a driving force for everybody that plays a sport. When you're losing, you try to find a way to get better and those guys have done that."

And, ipso facto, that will be the driving force for the Steelers on Monday night.

"Definitely," said linebacker James Farrior. "Coming off a loss you try to get in the film room a little bit more and everyone tries to do a little bit extra because you don't want to lose again. You do whatever you need to not make those same mistakes you made the week before."

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