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It was time to lay to rest some myths about the San Diego Chargers after they came from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-28 in the first round of the AFC playoffs Sunday.
Myth No. 1: The Chargers can't play in cold weather. This one was born after the Cincinnati Bengals beat them last year in the AFC title match during which the wind-chill factor hit minus 59. Well, the temperature was 33° in Three Rivers Stadium Sunday, not an Ice Bowl, certainly, but chilly enough. The day was cold, the Chargers were hot.
Myth No. 2: San Diego Quarterback Dan Fouts will fold under pressure. Forget it. The former Fouts, maybe, but not the Fouts of the last few years. "When he's being blitzed he hangs in there," Steeler Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert said Sunday. "He takes his beating and he doesn't flinch. He's an old-fashioned quarterback, like Bobby Layne. He's not pretty—he looks like he's going to fall down when he goes back to pass—but he gets the job done. He did a job on us today."
Myth No. 3: The Chargers can't run the ball. Oh yeah? Try this: Chuck Muncie sweep left, Chuck Muncie sweep right. On Sunday they outrushed the Steelers, No. 1 in the NFL against the run, 146 yards to 97, and on their winning drive, when they got the ball on their own 36 with 3:59 left, they ran five times out of eight plays. The drive added up to 31 yards rushing, 28 yards passing, plus five yards on a penalty. In fact it was the threat of a run that set up the touchdown play, a 12-yard screen pass to Tight End Kellen Winslow.
Myth No. 4 (this is the meanest of all): They lack character. "No matter how well we play or what we do or who we do it to, someone with a nasty pen will always get on our case," Winslow said. "Someone said it once, and then people decided they liked it and kept saying it. If they want to say we lack character, that we're sissies, let 'em. None of them have to line up and play us."
It should be noted that the Chargers reached the playoffs three years in a row by beating, respectively, Denver, Pittsburgh and Oakland—not exactly a soft trio—in the final game of the regular season. They got to the AFC title game last year by beating Miami in overtime in one of the half-dozen or so games that people call the greatest ever. And they're on their way to Round 2 against Miami this year because they beat the Steelers in Three Rivers. The last time the Steelers lost a playoff game at home was in 1972. You don't win here without character.
Now we're left with the most persistent knock: The Chargers can't play defense. This isn't a myth; it's a fact, and it's the reason why none of the defeated Steelers would pick San Diego as a potential Super Bowl champ. "The best offense in football," Lambert said. "But their defense? Well, maybe I shouldn't say anything."
The game, you see, had been shootout football, something the Steelers would have dearly loved to avoid. Pittsburgh had won its last two games with ground troops, rushing for 212 yards and then 261. "Steeler-style football," their defensive coordinator, Woody Widenhofer, said, "the best style." On Sunday against the Chargers Pittsburgh had to play tennis-style. You score on your possession, we score on ours, you hold service, we hold service. The team that breaks service, the team that actually stops a drive, has a big edge in the set.
The Chargers held service with a 91-yard drive for a field goal on their first possession. This was after James Brooks had fumbled the opening kickoff and given the Steelers a TD recovery in the end zone.
"What was your reaction to that?" Winslow was asked.