Offense comes alive as Steelers roll into AFC Championship Game

PITTSBURGH -- There is a home-field advantage in the NFL playoffs after all, and it belongs to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Now they've got to prove it means something against the team they despise like no other, and in the game they lose at home like no one else.

The Steelers, owners of the NFL's best home-field record since the 1970 NFL merger, shook off a 7-0 deficit barely two minutes into the game, controlled pint-sized playmaker Darren Sproles and returned some normalcy to the postseason by beating the San Diego Chargers 35-24 in an AFC divisional game Sunday.

With a now-healthy Willie Parker running for 146 yards and two touchdowns, Ben Roethlisberger ignoring his late-season concussion to throw for a score and lead an efficient offense, the Steelers did what the favored Titans, Panthers and Giants couldn't do by winning at home. It was the first time since 1971 that three road teams won during a single playoff weekend, and the Steelers made certain that road teams didn't go 4-for-4.

"We talked about that, all the home teams -- the No. 1 and 2 seeds -- weren't playing as well," said Santonio Holmes, who got Pittsburgh going with a 67-yard punt return touchdown in the first quarter. "But we knew the road to the Super Bowl can run through Pittsburgh when we saw Baltimore won [at Tennessee]. It was time to turn it on."

This will be the Steelers' seventh AFC title game, and sixth in Pittsburgh, in 15 seasons. They were 2-4 in the previous six, with an unprecedented four losses in five tries at home during the 1994-2004 seasons.

The Steelers had the worst offense of any playoff team coming in, only to put up 35 points to support the NFL's top-ranked defense. Now, it's time for Ravens vs. Steelers Part III next Sunday -- the third and most intriguing matchup this season between the can't-stand-each other AFC North rivals.

"What else would you expect, us and the Ravens," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "It would be big if it was a scrimmage. This is for the AFC championship."

Pittsburgh won the earlier two games, 23-20 in overtime in Pittsburgh -- when the Ravens supposedly put bounties on several Steelers players -- and 13-9 during the Dec. 14 rematch in Baltimore that secured the divisional title.

"We have a tough, tough, tough team coming in here," Brett Keisel said.

The Ravens-Steelers games were two of the NFL's most physical this season, with injuries all around, and playing to go to the Super Bowl will only ratchet up the intensity, physicality and, no doubt, the dislike.

There was much to like for the Steelers in this one as they made certain that the Chargers' stars from their 23-17 wild-card upset of the Colts didn't repeat their performances and allow San Diego to become the first team to go .500 during the season and then win twice in the postseason.

The Steelers spotted San Diego a 7-0 lead on Vincent Jackson's acrobatic 41-yard catch of Philip Rivers' pass four plays into the game, but, like San Diego's 7-0 lead in its bizarre 11-10 loss in Pittsburgh on Nov. 16, the Chargers couldn't make it stand up as 1,100-yard rusher LaDainian Tomlinson sat out with a groin injury.

Sproles, coming off his all-around 328-yard game against the Colts, wasn't much of a factor despite a 63-yard kickoff return and a 62-yard TD catch in the game's final two minutes after Pittsburgh had opened a 35-17 lead.

Sproles was held to 15 yards on 11 carries after rushing for 105 the week before and. He had 91 yards on five catches and 164 yards on five kickoff returns.

"I don't think he ever broke one [run]. We contained him pretty good," the Steelers' LaMarr Woodley said.

Of course, it's tough to score when a team doesn't have the ball.

The Chargers had the ball for only 17 seconds of the third quarter to the Steelers' 14:43, thanks to a nearly eight-minute scoring drive that ended with Roethlisberger's 8-yard TD pass to Heath Miller. Rivers also threw an interception on a first down from the Pittsburgh 23, and a Steelers punt bounced off Eric Weddle's helmet, with Pittsburgh recovering.

"We were standing on the sideline and it was like, 'We were in for one play in the quarter and it was an interception," Rivers said. "There was a little bit of disbelief. ... You can't call it a fluke, those guys made plays, but that was crazy."

Given the 11-10 game, it's hardly unusual this game was ... well, a little unusual. The Steelers, one of the NFL's worst return teams, scored on their first punt return score since Holmes' 65-yarder against Carolina on Dec. 17, 2006.

After that, keeping Rivers and Sproles off the field so long allowed Pittsburgh to stretch its lead from 14-10 late in the second quarter on Parker's 3-yard run to 28-10 early in the fourth on Gary Russell's 1-yard run. Weddle was flagged for a 44-yard interference penalty before Russell scored.

Rivers went 21-of-35 for 308 yards and three touchdowns on a 25-dgreee day as snow flurries briefly coated the field -- hey, this isn't southern California -- but the Chargers failed to improve on one of the NFL's most curious records. They're 0-13 in Pittsburgh during the regular season, but previously were 2-0 there in the playoffs.

The Steelers weren't as dominant defensively as they were while holding eight teams to 10 or fewer points during the season, but they also weren't as rusty as the other three home teams this weekend and now are 13-4. The Chargers ended 9-9, following an unlikely five-game winning streak that came after they looked to be out of playoff contention at 4-8.

Roethlisberger, again looking like the can't-shake-me quarterback who led three road playoff wins in three weeks as the Steelers won the Super Bowl three years ago, converted three times on third down plays of 8 yards to go or longer ahead of his TD pass to Miller. He went 17-of-26 for 181 yards as the Steelers outgained the Chargers 342-290.

That scary concussion Roethlisberger sustained against Cleveland?

"It was a non-issue for us," said Tomlin, who won his first playoff game as Pittsburgh's coach.

And for the supposed difficulty of beating a team three times in a season, as the Steelers will attempt to do against Baltimore, Tomlin said, "I personally don't subscribe to that hocus-pocus."

For all of Roethlisberger's playmaking -- on one play, he even threw a block to help Holmes pick up extra yardage -- it was a healthy Parker who made the major difference in a Steelers offense that was the worst statistically of the 12 playoff teams.

Parker, who fought through knee and shoulder injuries during his first sub-1,000-yard season as a starter, had his most productive game since running for 138 yards and three TDs against Houston in the Sept. 7 opener.

"We knew we could do that," Holmes said. "That's Steelers football, run the ball. Pound them down, once we get them down we can do whatever we want to do with them."