Throw in the Terrible Towels. Throw out the video.
The San Diego Chargers, disregarded in the preseason, maligned during a regular-season slump and mocked in the postseason, foiled their critics with one more improbable comeback at Three Rivers Stadium Sunday, defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 17-13 in the AFC championship game.
A week after coming back from a 21-6 halftime deficit to defeat the Miami Dolphins in their playoff opener, the Chargers rallied from a 13-3 deficit to reach the Super Bowl for the first time.
A week after Stan Humphries, the littleknown quarterback who has suddenly become a household name, threw the gamewinning touchdown pass against the Dolphins to Mark Seay with 35 seconds to play, he connected with Tony Martin on the game-winning 43-yarder with 5:13 to play.
A week after the Chargers beat Dan Marino, the best quarterback in the AFC, they overcame the conference’s best defense.
The Chargers got all the motivation they needed when they learned that the Steelers had already made plans to film a Super Bowl video Tuesday. Steelers defensive end Ray Seals also predicted the Chargers would not score.
“Why’s everybody in our locker room?” Seay asked afterward. “Why isn’t everybody in the other locker room partying and playing their Super Bowl video?”
Elsewhere, a Chargers clubhouse attendant marched through the room, yelling, “Videos! Videos! Half price!”
Said Humphries: “We weren’t even supposed to score today. We figured we might as well just go out and have fun.”
Indeed, for a while Sunday, it seemed as if the Chargers might not score. They were facing not only the top defense in the conference, but the top rushing team in the league. The Steelers had won the AFC East, 12 of 16 regular-season games and their playoff opener against the Cleveland Browns 29-9.
The Steelers came out passing, of all things. Knowing that his team was facing a defense that ranked first in the AFC against the run but 22nd in the league against the pass, Steelers coach Bill Cowher decided to air it out.
And he got results. Quarterback Neil O’Donnell completed 32 of 54 passes for 349 yards. The totals for attempts and completions set records for O’Donnell and the AFC championship game.
He connected with John L. Williams on a 16-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to open the scoring.
Even more ominous for the Chargers was that Pittsburgh held the ball for 11:33 in the first 15 minutes. By halftime, the margin was 22:11 to 7:49 in Pittsburgh’s favor and the sellout crowd of 61,545 was in a Terrible Towel waving frenzy.
Not much went right for San Diego in the first 30 minutes.
The Chargers made their first serious push into Steelers territory in the second quarter when Pittsburgh defensive back Deon Figures was called for pass interference on Shawn Jefferson, the call made after Figures clearly grabbed Jefferson’s right arm as he reached for a pass.
That gave San Diego first and goal at the Pittsburgh 2.
After three straight attempts by Means for no gain, kicker John Carney booted a 20-yard field goal.
Pittsburgh made one more charge at the Chargers before the half was over, driving to the San Diego 12. From there, however, offensive tackle Leon Searcy was called for holding, moving the Steelers back to the Charger 22. With 43 seconds to play, Williams tried left tackle, but was stopped for no gain.
Cowher, explaining that “too many bad things could happen,” elected to go for the field goal on third down instead of trying for a touchdown. Anderson responded with a 39-yarder.
The second half didn’t appear initially as if it were going to be any more promising for the Chargers. On their opening possession, Humphries threw a pass into the arms of Steelers defensive back Rod Woodson.
Pittsburgh converted the turnover into three points, with Anderson kicking a 23-yard field goal to increase the Steelers lead to 13-3.
But on the Chargers’ next possession, Humphries broke through from the Pittsburgh 43. When tight end Alfred Pupunu slipped past the Steeler safeties, who had moved up on a play-action fake, Humphries spotted his tight end wide open at the Pittsburgh 20 and connected. Pupunu steamed into the end zone and, after Carney’s conversion, the score was 13-10.
In the fourth quarter, on a thirdand-14 play at the Pittsburgh 43, Humphries faded back, saw Martin streaking down the right sideline step for step with defensive back Tim McKyer and saw linebacker Chad Brown roaring straight up the middle in Humphries’ direction. He let go of the ball just as he got cracked across the face mask.
As Humphries went down, the ball went up. Martin turned inside and caught it at the 2 before racing in.
“I secured it,” he said, “and I knew we were going to Miami.”
Not just yet. Cheered by a record Three Rivers Stadium crowd and spearheaded by seven consecutive completions by O’Donnell, the Steelers drove to the San Diego nine with 2 minutes to play.
On a first-down running play, Barry Foster was thrown for a 1-yard loss. On second down, O’Donnell passed toward tight Eric Green but linebacker Dennis Gibson stepped in front and nearly intercepted.
On third down, O’Donnell passed to Williams for 7 yards. On fourth down, O’Donnell faded back again. Junior Seau, who finished with a game-high 16 tackles, had Green covered. O’Donnell went to Foster over the middle. The ball was there. So was Gibson. It bounced off his arm and fell to the ground.
Chargers 17, Steelers 13
San Diego 0 3 7 7 - 17
Pittsburgh 7 3 3 0 - 13
Pit-Williams 16 pass from O’Donnell (Anderson kick), 7:32.
SD-FG Carney 20, 11:19.
Pit-FG Anderson 39, 14:51.
Pit-FG Anderson 23, 4:23.
SD-Pupunu 43 pass from Humphries (Carney kick), 6:57.
SD-Martin 43 pass from Humphries (Carney kick), 9:47.
SD Pit First downs 13 22 Rushes-yards 24-66 26-66 Passing 160 349 Punt Returns 2-2 2-10 Kickoff Returns 3-72 4-73 Interceptions Ret. 0-0 1-6 Comp-Att-Int 11-22-1 32-54-0 Sacked-Yards Lost 1-5 0-0 Punts 5-38 5-44 Fumbles-Lost 0-0 3-1 Penalties-Yards 3-15 8-111 Time of Possession 22:47 37:13
RUSHINGSan Diego, Means 20-69, Humphries 4-(minus 3). Pittsburgh, Foster 20-47, J.Williams 3-16, Morris 2-2, O’Donnell 1-1.
PASSINGSan Diego, Humphries 11-22-1-165. Pittsburgh, O’Donnell 32-54-0-349.
RECEIVINGSan Diego, Pupunu 4-76, Means 2-19, Jefferson 2-16, Martin 1-43, Mitchell 1-19, Harmon 1-(minus 8). Pittsburgh, Mills 8-106, J.Williams 7-45, Hastings 5-55, Green 4-80, Thigpen 3-35, Foster 3-12, Hayes 1-16, Morris 1-0.
MISSED FIELD GOALSNone.
MEMO: This is a sidebar which appeared with story: AFC final San Diego 17, Pittsburgh 13 Stars: San Diego middle linebacker Junior Seau, who finished with 16 tackles; Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O’Donnell, who completed 32 of 54 passes, with no interceptions, for 349 yards and a touchdown.
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