Commentary

It's payback time for Chargers

The breaks are finally going San Diego's way, which is one reason the Chargers will defeat the Steelers, Seth Wickersham writes.

Originally Published: January 9, 2009
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN.com

Philip RiversKevin Reece/Icon SMIExpect Chargers QB Philip Rivers to make adjustments in his second meeting with the Steelers this season.
I really shouldn't have to give you five reasons the San Diego Chargers will beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. You should just take my word for it. After all, I have a proven track record with these things. But what the heck, I'll let you in on the rationale. I'm nice like that.

1. LaDainian Tomlinson won't play.

It's awful to see a future Hall of Famer and one of the league's classiest players banged up in the postseason. But San Diego has wasted precious plays during the past two playoff games -- against the Pats in the 2008 AFC Championship and the Colts last week -- giving the injured superstar a chance. Tomlinson deserves credit for toughing it out, but if he can't plant or accelerate, he's not himself, and it hurts the team. He knows it, and so does everyone else, including Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who might have been egging Tomlinson into playing with quotes like "Guys like him find a way. Guys like him defy the odds."

You wish, Coach. Instead …

2. The Steelers will face Darren Sproles every play.

After gaining 328 total yards against the Colts, the 5-foot-6, 181-pound flash is the league's newest, hottest weapon. Everyone knew he was a good return guy, but his skills out of the backfield sneaked up on everyone. He didn't reach double digits in carries until the season finale. Against Pittsburgh on Nov. 16, he had one carry.

The Steelers are probably salivating, eager to put a lick on Sproles to see how he responds. But they've got to find him first. Sproles was almost invisible against the Colts, ducking and dodging behind the line, squirting through holes, making it hard for the defense to get a square shot on him. Granted, Pittsburgh's defense is better than Indy's. But the Chargers don't need Sproles to put up huge numbers. They just need Pittsburgh to respect the threat of him. That will open passing lanes for Rivers, who's confident going into this game because …

3. The second meeting between a defense and a quarterback favors the QB.

True, Pittsburgh has played great defense this season. True, one of its better games was against Rivers on Nov. 16, holding him to 164 yards and intercepting two passes. But there's a reason Rivers has lost consecutive games to the same opponent only once in his career. He adjusts.

Pittsburgh's speed or home crowd won't surprise him. He'll know which matchups work and which won't. "You can't make a snap judgment of what [Rivers] is capable of based upon what happened in that game," Tomin told reporters this week. Agreed.

True, Ben Roethlisberger is facing San Diego's defense for the second time, too. But the problem is …

4. Unlike Rivers, who has been on fire recently, Big Ben has played just well enough to win.

Norv Turner tried gushing over Big Ben earlier this week, saying the Steelers have "one of the best quarterbacks in the league in almost every category."

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I'd like to know which ones. He's not among the top five in attempts, completions, yards, completion percentage, yards per pass or touchdowns. Maybe Turner was looking at interceptions, in which only three QBs threw more than Big Ben's 15. Or fumbles, in which he's the league leader with 14. Among quarterbacks still playing, Roethlisberger is tied with rookie Joe Flacco for worst touchdown-to-interception differential (plus-2). Sneaky guy that Turner, disguising indifference that way.

This isn't to hate on Ben. He has had a screen-door offensive line (another reason the Steelers won't win) and has played hurt all season. But Tomin was asked this week if he'd bench Big Ben if the quarterback played poorly. Tomlin said no (probably another reason right there), but the fact that it's even a topic is disconcerting.

Turner, of course, isn't being asked those questions. Nor is he being asked questions about bad calls by the refs that cost San Diego games, because …

5. The football gods are repaying the snakebitten Chargers.

Face it: As badly as the Chargers played at times this season, they couldn't get a break. They lost to Carolina on the last play. A lousy call killed them against Denver. The power went out in Buffalo, literally. They had to travel to London. Bad calls against the Colts on Nov. 23 had a hand in that loss. "It would have been so easy for us to lose confidence as a team," said defensive end Luis Castillo. "But we stayed confident."

Last week against Indy, the breaks went San Diego's way, despite the Chargers' best tries to tempt fate. After all, Turner called his final timeout with 2:30 left; the Colts were one first down from being able to kneel the game to its end. The Qualcomm crowd booed, sensing another clock-management botch.

But San Diego forced a punt, getting the ball back with plenty of time to tie the score. In overtime, the Bolts benefited from three penalties, including a holding call on third-and-8 by cornerback Tim Jennings on receiver Chris Chambers. It was a terrible call, the type that San Diego has suffered from this season. But nobody was complaining. The powers that be were saying to the Chargers what the Chargers on Sunday will say to Pittsburgh:

It's payback time.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.