In a game of grunts and groans and boasts and taunts and the din of the crowd, it is easy to underestimate the power of silence. While the Pittsburgh Steelers and their maniacal fans were whooping it up last week in the Iron City, predicting shutouts and choreographing rap videos, their opponents in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, the San Diego Chargers, were as mum as a bunch of Buckingham Palace guards. The Chargers weren't tight, just resolved. We now know that the sentiments they were not voicing were as powerful as the cocksure cackles emanating from the Steelers, a team that convinced itself of its worthiness for the Super Bowl before bothering to qualify for the game.
Ultimately, San Diego would have plenty to say on that subject, but not until it had completed a nonverbal statement that shocked the football world. The Chargers' 17-13 victory over the Steelers in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium not only catapulted them to their first Super Bowl appearance but also gave them a right to blab their tongues off, to lash out at their detractors, who had given them no chance of winning. The San Diego players had been quiet all year, from the summer, when many experts picked them to finish last in the AFC West, to the unsettling moments before they took the field on Sunday. Once it was over and the Chargers had qualified for a date with the San Francisco 49ers at Joe Robbie Stadium on Jan. 29, someone finally turned off the mute switch, and the members of this proud and gutty team began to roar.
Some of the statements were joyous, such as the ones uttered by incomparable inside linebacker Junior Seau, the man who lifted San Diego to victory. Others were snide: Chargers joked about two-for-the-price-of-one sales featuring the Steelers' prematurely conceived Super Bowl rap video. And if you talked to enough players, you found anger, too—an anger that went beyond the usual "nobody respects us" drivel.
"If we had believed everyone on the outside, we wouldn't even be here," cornerback Darrien Gordon said afterward. "I think the Steelers were afraid to win this game. The bottom line is the better team won. We can beat them anywhere on earth. They thought they were the most physical team in the AFC, and that's not the case. Because we're a California team, everyone assumes we're not overly physical. But we showed them today who the most physical team is. You could see it in their eyes—they did not want to win that game. They were looking for the Steelers of old, the Steeler mystique, I guess, to win that game for them. Well, that's not enough. There's no way that team was anywhere near the teams the Steelers used to have, the teams with Jack Lambert and Jack Ham and Mel Blount. We'll play these guys anywhere, anytime, and the result will be the same."
Then Gordon stopped, caught his breath and stared deep into the eyes of his questioner. "Yeah, we're mad," he said. "You're damn right!"
Pittsburgh learned that as early as the game's first play from scrimmage, when Seau began one of the best days in the history of linebacking by bursting to his left, pounding Steeler running back Barry Foster to the turf after a gain of two yards and, eyes ablaze, pumping his right arm—his one good arm—in a jackhammer motion at the San Diego bench. His teammates knew what he was talking about or, rather, not talking about: Having been cooped up in their hotel rooms and left alone to read about their opponents' inevitable march toward Miami, the Chargers by game time were a cranky, even bitter group of men.
They were mad because the Wednesday before the game the Steelers had gathered after practice to discuss their rap video, with taping scheduled for the following Tuesday. The Chargers were further inflamed by a prediction from Pittsburgh defensive end Ray Seals (Sunday stats: no tackles, one assist, one offside penalty) that the San Diego offense would not score a point. The Chargers were annoyed by the Steelers' open discussion of their own Super Bowl qualifications and by Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher's decision not to run a full practice the day before the game. Most of all, they were angry because they are a team that everyone, even their own fans, tends to berate.
Last Saturday night, San Diego coach Bobby Ross gathered the Chargers for a final meeting. He quoted from a column in that day's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which said that the Steeler players, like all citizens of Pittsburgh, were taking the Chargers lightly. Ross's words were measured and his tone restrained, but the players absorbed his ire. "No one gives us any respect," Ross told them. "No one has given us any respect all year long. You can't just talk a game, though. You have to go out and play."
Sitting in a car a few minutes later, San Diego linebacker, H-back and special teams ace Steve Hendrickson was still struck by his coach's mood. "No, he didn't swear and he didn't yell," Hendrickson said of Ross. "He was just like our team—calm, serious and not really talking much. But underneath you could just feel his anger."
The next day, while the Steelers put on their game faces and a crowd of 61,545 waved their Terrible Towels in unison, the Chargers sat quietly in their locker room, channeling their bile. At 12:20 p.m., Ross said simply, "Hey, it's down to the two-minute call. Let's go play football." Forty-four players heeded his instructions while one, Seau, was listening to a voice from another realm.