Divisional-Round Breakdown: Chargers at Steelers
Who Has The Edge At...
Philip Rivers has put on an MVP-like performance in leading the Chargers to five straight wins. The league-leader in passing touchdowns and passer rating has connected on 63.6 percent of his throws during the winning streak, with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. Ben Roethlisberger is coming off his third consecutive season with 3,000 or more passing yards. The fifth-year pro completed 59.9 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Roethlisberger led the Steelers to five fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories in 2008.
Running Back: Steelers
Willie Parker led the team in rushing for the third consecutive year, despite missing five games due to an injury. He topped the 100-yard mark in four games, most recently 116 yards on 23 carries in the season finale against the Browns. Mewelde Moore serves as the team's third down back, but rushed for 588 yards while getting more playing time due to Parker's injury. For the Chargers, Darren Sproles gets another chance to carry the load with LaDainian Tomlinson likely sidelined with a groin injury. The diminutive Sproles ran for 100 yards on offense for the second straight game last week, and is averaging over five yards a carry.
Hines Ward leads a talented Steelers' corps in receptions and receiving yards, but Santonio Holmes serves as the team's top playmaker in the passing game. The third-year pro finished the season with 821 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller is dangerous in the red zone and unheralded Nate Washington has quietly become Ben Roethlisberger's favorite deep threat. Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates anchors the Chargers' passing game, but Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers are also capable of putting up big numbers on the outside.
Offensive Line: Chargers
Led by Pro Bowl guard Kris Dielman, the Chargers' offensive line is beginning to find its stride. Its ability to control the line of scrimmage will determine if Sproles makes headway against the Steelers' top-ranked defense. The Steelers' offensive line has been pegged as the team's weakest link after allowing 49 sacks on the season. Its struggles in pass protection have led to numerous shots on Roethlisberger. Additionally, the unit has struggled to consistently open holes for Parker and Moore.
Defensive Line: Even
The Steelers' defensive line excels at stuffing the run with Casey Hampton controlling the point. Aaron Smith is also solid against the run, and he gives the team a standout pass rusher on the inside. His 5.5 sacks are the most of any Steelers lineman and rank third highest on the team. Former Pro Bowler Jamal Williams teams with Luis Castillo and Igor Olshansky to anchor a Chargers defense that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in the last five games.
James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have combined for 27.5 sacks while providing relentless pressure off the edges for Pittsburgh. Pro Bowl defender James Farrior gobbles up running backs in the middle of the Steelers' defense. He led the team with 146 tackles, and also recorded 3.5 sacks on the season. The Chargers, on the other hand, are blitzing more under new defensive coordinator Ron Rivera to take advantage of the exceptional pass rushing skills of Shaun Phillips and Jyles Tucker. Though the strategy hasn't resulted in big numbers from either rusher, it has enabled Stephen Cooper to become more of a playmaker.
Defensive Backs: Chargers
Although the Chargers ranked 31st in pass defense during the regular season, Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer are regarded as two of the top corners in the AFC. The tandem has the ability to shut down any receiver combination with their physical play. Safety Eric Weddle leads the San Diego in tackles and shows an uncanny knack for being around the ball. The Steelers counter with Troy Polamalu, who made seven interceptions while patrolling the middle of the field. Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden, William Gay and DeShea Townsend all make contributions as ball hawks in Pittsburgh's complex zone blitz scheme.
Special Teams: Even
The Chargers rode their outstanding special teams unit to a victory in the wild-card round. Return specialist Sproles helped the Chargers win the field position battle by averaging 24 yards on punt returns. Punter Mike Scifres also contributed by booting all six of his punts inside 20, including five that landed inside the 10. The Steelers' special teams units are exceptional too. Pittsburgh led the league in kickoff coverage (19.1 yards allowed per return) and ranked fourth in punt coverage (only 6.2 yards per return). Placekicker Jeff Reed connected on 27-of-31 field goal attempts during the regular season and is one of the league's top kickers in the clutch. Since 2004, Reed has connected on 87 percent of his kicks in the game's final two minutes.
Mike Tomlin has won back-to-back AFC North titles in his first two seasons at the helm in Pittsburgh. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is a masterful play caller who has a knack for confusing quarterbacks with his innovative zone blitz scheme. Though San Diego coach Norv Turner is often criticized for his regular season record, he has been an outstanding game manager and tactician during the postseason, where's he's now 3-1. His defensive coordinator, Ron Rivera, called an outstanding game against the Colts, and has the defense playing its best ball of the season.
How San Diego Will Win
The Chargers have been in playoff mode the last five weeks and have responded by playing their best football. Rivers has been outstanding directing the passing attack, and the emergence of Sproles has given the offense the big-play dimension in the running game that was lacking most of the season. With the offense displaying more balance and versatility down the stretch, the Chargers have scored more than 30 points in three of the last five games, and are a threat to put up big points on any defense.
How Pittsburgh Will Win
The Steelers' defense has been dominant in every area. It leads the league in total defense (237.2), pass defense (156.9), and scoring defense (13.9). In addition, the Steelers are holding opponents to 80.1 yards on the ground and have recorded 51 sacks. With a defense that suffocates the opposition, the Steelers are built to win the hard-hitting, close games that often emerge in the postseason.
This playoff matchup will come down to the Chargers' ability to move the ball on the league's best defense. While Rivers and Co. enter the game on an impressive roll, the Steelers' defense will bottle up Sproles in the running game and force the Chargers to rely exclusively on the pass. Against LeBeau's zone blitz, the "pass-happy" approach will lead to a handful of game-changing turnovers that will ultimately decide the game. Look for the Steelers to win a tight one, 21-17.