Normally, Seau is an intense player, perhaps the NFL's most rabid defensive star since Ronnie Lott. On this day he was more than intense. From his first tackle on Foster to his 16th and final stop of the day, a thumping of Steeler fullback John L. Williams three yards from the goal line with 1:22 left in the game, Seau played like a man who had spent the morning mainlining ginseng. He did this despite aggravating a nerve injury that has plagued him since November, an ailment that renders his left arm ineffective. Seau made sure Pittsburgh felt his pain. This was his moment, and he seized it.
There is no more satisfying circumstance in sport than to see a great player play the game of his life in the biggest game of his life. The Chargers had never seen anything like it. Seau would charge across the line and bury Foster (20 carries for 47 yards) or another Steeler, and his fellow defenders would simply gape in amazement. "He was quiet before the game, just sitting in here and waiting, and then, when the game started, he exploded," San Diego safety Stanley Richard said. "Seeing him, you told yourself, I need to get out and start playing, because he's stepping up."
Eventually, outside linebacker David Griggs and defensive tackle Reuben Davis did step up, and the Chargers took away Pittsburgh's primary weapon, its league-leading rushing attack. Amazingly, Steeler quarterback Neil O'Donnell, who came into the game averaging 23 attempts an outing, threw 29 passes in the first half and 54 overall, probing the middle of the soft San Diego zone for 32 completions and 349 yards. O'Donnell's 16-yard touchdown pass to Williams on the game's first drive helped stake Pittsburgh to a 10-3 lead at halftime, at which point the Chargers had only four first downs, 46 total yards and one completion from quarterback Stan Humphries.
It appeared that all the predictions would come true, but as they sat in a typically quiet locker room, the Chargers knew better. The previous week against the Miami Dolphins they had come back from a 21-6 deficit to win. Would they do it again, or would they confirm the Steeler boasts that San Diego's 37-34 victory over Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale was a fluke, the product of Cowher's decision to rest many of his stars?
The answer was provided by Humphries. He completed only 11 of 22 passes in the game, but two of them went for 43-yard touchdowns, the second a sweet strike to Tony Martin that Humphries delivered before absorbing a personal-foul hit from Pittsburgh linebacker Chad Brown. Martin caught the ball ahead of mouthy cornerback Tim McKyer, who the week before had generated headlines by claiming that the selection of 49er cornerback Deion Sanders as the league's defensive player of the year was "messing up the credibility of the award." At game's end on Sunday, McKyer, alone on the Steeler sidelines, went limp and had to be carried into the locker room by a pair of security guards.
Martin's touchdown gave the Chargers a 17-13 lead with just over five minutes left in the game, but the Steelers still had a chance to win. Upon taking over at his own 17, O'Donnell saw the same Cover 2 cone he had been devouring all afternoon. He proceeded to complete seven straight passes to set up a first-and-goal at the nine before San Diego went to a tighter, two-jeep zone called the Picket Fence.
The gatekeepers prevailed, thanks to a huge play from an eight-year veteran inside linebacker named Dennis Gibson. After Seau's stop of Williams on third down, the game came down to a final Steeler play from the three. O'Donnell looked to Foster in the middle of the end zone, and Gibson read the pass beautifully, leaping forward to knock it away.
At that point, the silence ceased, and composure retreated on both sides. Kevin Greene, Pittsburgh's star pass rusher, became so angry at a postgame question ("Was this a tough loss emotionally?") that he threatened to "coldcock" the next reporter who submitted a "stupid ass" query. Two minutes later, Greene declared, "You have to accept the defeats with humility," and he walked away.
The Chargers, meanwhile, were through being humble. "I'm going to show you what a real Super Bowl video is like," vowed Davis. "Theirs probably would have been on Beta. We'll put ours on VHS."
The barbs and cigar-waving and buoyant cellular phone conversations continued in the San Diego locker room, as well they should have. The Chargers have now come from behind in each of their last seven victories, and in 10 of 13 this season. In beating Pittsburgh, whom oddsmakers had called a 9½-point favorite, San Diego had pulled off the biggest upset in conference championship game history.