DL Ryon Bingham (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
All three phases played a role in the San Diego Chargers’ 11-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Philip Rivers lost his matchup with draft classmate Ben Roethlisberger; the defense conceded another game-winning drive; and Nate Kaeding botched another big field goal. As a result, the Chargers fell two games back in the AFC West with six to go.
Philip Rivers won his first head-to-head matchup with Ben Roethlisberger back in 2006, but he didn’t do much for an encore. Rivers delivered a season-worst passer rating of 43.6 and tied his season-low for passing yards with 159. He also threw two interceptions for the second consecutive week and now has six interceptions over the last four games.
Compounding matters was the magnitude of Rivers’ miscues. A fumble in the end zone led to a safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers, with those two points representing the difference between a win and a loss. Also, Rivers’ second interception came from the Pittsburgh 17-yard line with 1:33 left in the first half. The Steelers turned the pick into three points, marking a 10-point swing in momentum.
“It felt like we had things in control on both sides of the ball,” Rivers said. “We were right in there to the end. We knew it would be this kind of game.”
Coach Norv Turner was happy just to see his team in a defensive ball game. The Chargers kept an opponent out of the end zone for the first time all season and surrendered a season-low 11 points. But while the progress was encouraging, the outcome was once again demoralizing.
Roethlisberger topped 300 yards and completed more than 75 percent of his passes. Although the Chargers netted four sacks, they were unable to get to Roethlisberger when it mattered most, as he completed all six pass attempts for 62 yards on the game-winning drive.
“We had opportunities to make a couple plays that would have allowed us to win the game and we didn’t capitalize on those opportunities,” Coach Turner said. “They put together a great drive at the end to win the game.”
Even the special teams played a role in the meltdown. Nate Kaeding missed a 42-yard attempt with 4:26 to play in the third quarter and the Chargers trailing by one. Although the Chargers eventually took the lead, that miss more than accounts for San Diego’s one-point margin of defeat. Kaeding has now missed six of his last nine attempts between 40-49 yards.
At least Mike Scifres did his part. His two punts pinned the Steelers at their own 9- and 14-yard lines, respectively, and his free kick stuck Pittsburgh back at its own 6-yard line. It didn’t help, though, that the Chargers defense forced a three-and-out on only one of those golden opportunities.
“The times we got them backed up, they did a good job of getting it and moving it out to midfield,” Coach Turner said.
The Chargers trail the Denver Broncos by two games with six to go. San Diego must gain one game on Denver over the next five weeks in order to make their Week 17 showdown a meaningful affair. The Chargers open a three-game home-stand next week against the Indianapolis Colts. The Broncos will host the 2-10 Oakland Raiders.
That puts the pressure on San Diego, although Rivers won't call next week’s game a must-win.
“You never go into a week feeling it’s OK to lose, even more so now,” Rivers said after Sunday’s loss. “Losing hurts. They all hurt.”
Technically, the Chargers can lose to the Colts and still remain alive in the hunt for the AFC West crown. But practically, this team is one meltdown away from handing the divisional title back to the Broncos.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.