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San Diego Wouldn't Break
Paul Zimmerman
January 17, 1983
The Chargers showed real heart—and a big serve—in beating the Steelers in the best of the NFL's Round 1 playoffs
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January 17, 1983

San Diego Wouldn't Break

The Chargers showed real heart—and a big serve—in beating the Steelers in the best of the NFL's Round 1 playoffs

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"Our reaction," he sniffed, "was to drive 91 yards."

But then the Steelers served another ace, mounting a 71-yard TD drive to take a 14-3 lead. Then San Diego held serve, with an 80-yard drive and a touchdown. Score, 14-10, your serve. The first service break went to San Diego. At 12:40 of the second period Pittsburgh was forced to punt, a rare occurrence in a game like this. (The Chargers would get off their first and only punt with 12 minutes left in the game. It's a wonder they didn't flub it: They haven't practiced the play much. In one stretch this year they'd punted only eight times in five games.)

The service breaks evened out when San Diego drove 84 yards and fumbled on the Steeler seven. Then Charger Bruce Laird intercepted Terry Bradshaw on the one-yard line and set up another long drive that ended with a TD and a 17-14 halftime lead for San Diego. The pattern was clearly set. Forget about trench warfare. This was going to be frontal assault all the way.

When the smoke cleared after the first half, this is what the San Diego offense had accomplished: It had scored on three of its four possessions, on drives of 91, 80 and 64 yards. The last one had started with 1:46 left, the Chargers getting off seven plays in only a minute and 18 seconds. The drive they didn't score on had been a mere 84 yards. San Diego's total offense in the first half had been 325 yards, and this hadn't been done against a Baltimore or a Cleveland. It had been against the Steelers in Three Rivers. Pittsburgh had sacked enemy passers 34 times this year, often using exotic and intricate blitzes, but they held back for most of the afternoon against Fouts. "Their receivers adjust to the blitz too well," said Lambert. "One missed tackle and it's curtains."

Fouts had been flawless in that first half and Wes Chandler had already rolled up 100 yards in receptions, but the Steelers were oiling a gun of their own for the second set. Terry Bradshaw, remember him? Most of his season had been spent in a blue funk. He'd sprained a shoulder against Seattle on Nov. 28. "I started side-arming the ball after that," he said. "I'd throw when my feet weren't set. Everything fell apart." The Steelers were shut out twice, something that hadn't happened to them since 1957, when a very young Earl Morrall was the quarterback and the offense was Hi-Did-dle-Diddle, Rogel Up the Middle. A month ago a member of the Steeler defense suggested that the offense just ought to get the ball over midfield and then try for a field goal—on first down.

But there is no tougher competitor than Bradshaw in money situations, and against San Diego he was getting time to throw and he found his groove. In the third quarter he got hot—unbelievably hot—throwing underneath the coverage, dumping the ball off to Franco Harris, who would finish with 11 catches, letting the big guy motor. Bradshaw served 11-for-11 in that third quarter and had a career-high 14 straight, counting the last moments of the first half.

"I was reading well, not throwing particularly well all the time," he said. "Sometimes the passes felt great, sometimes they were end over end. Everything I called—well, I could tell this guy wasn't going to be covered, that guy wasn't. It was one of those games where I just saw the whole works, when I was rolling."

By the beginning of the fourth quarter Bradshaw had surpassed 300 yards—for the first time in 23 games. The Chargers had the ball only once in the third quarter, a 45-yard drive that ended a yard short of a first down on the Steeler 14. Pittsburgh had possession twice, for two long TD drives of 74 and 86 yards. Now Pittsburgh was sitting on a 28-17 lead, and if it could stop San Diego—just two service breaks—it would be home.

The Chargers got nowhere on their first possession in the last quarter. They punted. The Steelers had the ball and their 11-point lead with 12 minutes left, and it was at this point that the game turned—for the last time. New balls, please.

Third-and-eight on the Pittsburgh 21, Bradshaw rolls right. Maybe he runs for a first down, maybe not. However, he sees Lynn Swann break clear for a moment across the field and decides to throw. The pass has nothing on it, and Cornerback Jeff Allen intercepts and takes it to the Steeler 29.

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