The San Diego Chargers came into Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field with plenty of juice coming off their first-round upset of Indianapolis.
But a strong rushing attack, some solid defense by Pittsburgh sapped the energy out of the Chargers and sent the Steelers to a 35-24 victory.
The win, the first for head coach Mike Tomlin in the postseason, put the Steelers in the AFC Championship next Sunday against Baltimore at Heinz Field. It is the fourth AFC Championship game this decade for Pittsburgh.
"It's good to move from the field of eight to the field of four in the fashion that we determined to play," said Tomlin. "We played our kind of football. I think our big people on both sides did a nice job and special teams were an asset. All in all, it was a great team effort."
The defense also was dominating at times despite giving up two late touchdown passes to San Diego's Philip Rivers. The Steelers limited the Chargers to 15 rushing yards, including zero in the second half.
"The defense has been carrying us all season long and now it's time for the offense to step it up in the playoffs," said Parker.
The offense did, particularly in the third quarter when the Steelers held the ball for 14:43, limiting San Diego to just one offensive play, a Rivers interception.
"We were standing on the sideline and it was like, ‘We were in for one play in the quarter and it was an interception,'" Rivers said. "There was a little bit of disbelief. ... You can't call it a fluke, those guys made plays, but that was crazy."
Leading 14-10 at the half, the Steelers grabbed control of the game on the opening possession of the third quarter as
Roethlisberger directed a 77-yard touchdown drive that ate 7:56 off the clock. Roethlisberger completed five-of-six passes for 56 yards – including completing three completions on third-and-eight or longer – finishing off the possession with an 8-yard TD pass to tight end Heath Miller for a 21-10 lead.
Darren Sproles returned the ensuing kickoff to the Pittsburgh 24-yard line, but Rivers' first pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by linebacker Larry Foote, giving the Steelers the ball back at 21.
The Steelers picked up a first down, but were forced to punt and Mitch Berger's kick hit San Diego's Eric Weddle, who was blocking, in the helmet. The Steelers' William Gay recovered at the San Diego 23.
The Chargers stopped tailback Carey Davis on fourth-and-goal from the 1, but LaMarr Woodley's second sack of Rivers kept San Diego pinned deep. After a Chargers punt, Weddle was called for pass interference in the end zone against Nate Washington that again put the ball at the 1.
This time, Gary Russell scored on first down to put the Steelers up 28-10 with 12:52 left.
Rivers sandwiched a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes around Parker's second touchdown run, but by then, the damage was done.
"We always say that the most important drives are the first one, whether it's the start of the game or the first drive of the third quarter," said Roethlisberger. "We took the ball and took a lot of clock and then we scored. That was big for us."
Particularly after a slow start.
The Chargers scored on the opening possession of the game, going 75 yards in only four plays – three passes by Rivers – and scoring on a 41-yard reception by Vincent Jackson for a 7-0 lead. Jackson was working against cornerback Ike Taylor, who got caught on the outside when Jackson ran a post pattern.
The Steelers then drove to midfield, but on fourth-and-eight from the San Diego 34, Ben Roethlisberger pooched a punt 25 yards to the San Diego 8.
The Chargers failed to get a first down and Mike Scifres boomed a punt 53 yards to the Pittsburgh 33. Santonio Holmes fielded the ball, ran to the middle of the field and then cut to his left, beating Scifres to the sideline. He then hurdled a diving Legedu Naanee at the San Diego 17 and went untouched into the end zone to tie the score at 7-7.
"We had a great deal of respect for their punting team and we talked all week long about how we had to make their strength a weakness," said Tomlin. "It happened at a big time, it was a big play for us."
The teams traded punts until Tomlin gambled and attempted a fake punt at midfield with five minutes remaining in the first half. Safety Ryan Clark was stopped for a four-yard loss on the direct snap on fourth-and-two and San Diego took over at the Pittsburgh 44. That set up a 42-yard Nate Kaeding field goal that gave the Chargers a 10-7 lead with 1:56 remaining in the first half.
The Steelers took the lead as Roethlisberger directed a seven-play, 66-yard touchdown drive, with the big play being a 41-yard completion to Hines Ward to the San Diego 3. Parker scored from there to put Pittsburgh ahead, 14-10.