Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers tailback Willie Parker always had a soft spot for Jerome Bettis.
As former teammates, the future Hall of Famer took undrafted free agent Parker under his wing. In turn, Parker credited Bettis numerous times for his success at the professional level.
When Bettis returned to Heinz Field on Sunday as an honorary guest for Pittsburgh's AFC divisional playoff game against the San Diego Chargers, Parker didn't disappoint. He ran for a season-high 146 yards and two touchdowns to lead Pittsburgh to a 35-24 victory over the Chargers.
The Steelers will play host to division rival Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game here next Sunday.
Before this game against the Chargers, Parker had a good talk with Bettis and then produced one of the biggest performances of his career. It was evident from the first several carries that Parker was determined to be the catalyst of Pittsburgh's offense.
"He heard and he read all week long how I was healthy and he just wanted me to show him," Parker said of Bettis. "I just looked him in his eyes and put my hand over my heart, and that symbolizes that I feel you. I didn't have to say anything really. He understood what I meant."
Parker went out and demonstrated his health to Bettis and 63,899 Steelers fans through his actions. Coming off a bye week, Parker looked as fresh as he has all season, averaging 5.4 yards per carry against the Chargers. He battled shoulder and knee injuries throughout the season.
Frustration began to mount for Parker. He wasn't hitting the rushing lanes hard enough. The burst he demonstrated during his two Pro Bowl seasons was seemingly lost with injuries. And by the end of the season, he had just 791 yards and five touchdowns, which were his lowest totals in four years.
At times, teammates say, Parker's confidence began to waver.
"I tell him this all of the time; 'Just trust yourself and believe in yourself,'" Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He's too good of a running back to question himself."
Parker and the Steelers are proving that it's never too late to find an identity in the NFL.
After struggling on the ground all season, Pittsburgh made a concerted effort to run the ball and did so effectively against San Diego. The Steelers demoralized the Chargers' defense as the game wore on and held a run-pass ratio of 42-to-26.
It's clear that Parker's success is tied in closely with the success of the Steelers. Including Sunday, the team is 5-0 when Parker gets over 100 yards this season.
Pittsburgh hopes it's sign of things to come.
"That kid has been through a lot," Steelers tackle Willie Colon said. "He's gone from the leading rusher last year to going through the wave of emotions this year. I think he's starting to get his wheels back, and he's getting them back at a good time."
Enter the Ravens
Parker undoubtedly will be the focal point in next week's AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, which is expected to be a low scoring affair.
No team has had Parker's number throughout his career quite like Baltimore. He averages just 43.7 yards in six career games with no rushing touchdowns. Parker has never reached 100 yards and averages just 2.85 yards per carry against the rival Ravens.
"They're stingy," Parker said of Baltimore. "The thing about the Ravens is they're going to fight just like we're going to fight. It's going to be a tough, brutal matchup."
Pittsburgh won both games by a combined total of seven points.
Ravens-Steelers games are always brutal, but expect the intensity to be raised even higher with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. A major deciding factor will be Parker's success -- or lack thereof -- running the football.
"The running game is going to be important -- they know that and we know that," Colon said. "The thing about our offensive line and our offense in general is the ability to run it when [opponents] know you're going to run it. So we know what time it is and they know what time it is. Let's roll the ball out and see who's the bigger man."
As Parker knows, it will be the type of football game that Bettis loves.