SS Steve Gregory (Harry How/Getty)
The San Diego Chargers take on the Pittsburgh Steelers with a spot in the AFC Championship Game on the line. The Steelers won the earlier meeting by a single point, but the Chargers are confident their hot streak can counteract the cold in Pittsburgh. Samantha Fillerup profiles five players who are central to San Diego's hopes of moving on.
1. Philip Rivers was drafted seven spots higher than Ben Roethlisberger in 2004; however, Big Ben quickly became the youngest QB to win a Super Bowl (23) and Rivers is still looking for his first ring. A win by Rivers on Sunday will go a long way towards proving he is as elite as classmates Roethlisberger and Eli Manning.
Rivers drew the short end of the stick in the earlier meeting, completing 15-of-26 passes for 164 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions in an 11-10 defeat. Protection will be key for Rivers, as the Steelers led the AFC with 51 sacks this season, including two against the Chargers in Week 11.
Roethlisberger completed 31-of-41 passes for 308 yards, no scores and no picks in the earlier meeting. However, he suffered a concussion in the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns, which could become a factor this weekend.
2. Michael Bennett will play a vital role Sunday with LaDainian Tomlinson out, as he and Darren Sproles will likely split the workload. Bennett saw his first action as a Charger last week against the Indianapolis Colts, when he carried four times for 24 yards and caught one pass for 7 yards. However, it is always a scary proposition to break in a player during the postseason.
The Steelers rushing defense ranks second in the league, allowing an average of just 80.2 rushing yards per game. Additionally, Pittsburgh's defense forced 22 fumbles this season, so Bennett must remember to protect the ball despite the increased workload.
3. Vincent Jackson enjoyed a breakout season, but failed to register a catch against the Colts. Add to that his arrest on suspicion of DUI on Tuesday morning, and it's safe to assume he will be looking for redemption in the worst way. The Steelers corralled Jackson in the first meeting, though, limiting him to two receptions for 25 yards.
Pittsburgh's pass defense is the best in the NFL, allowing just 156.9 yards per game. The Steelers will key on Antonio Gates after his eight-catch performance last week, so Jackson must step up if the Chargers are going to move the ball through the air.
4. Jacques Cesaire recorded two sacks last time the Chargers played the Steelers, which was a huge reason why Pittsburgh never crossed the goal line. He will have to provide pressure off the bench again, as Roethlisberger is too dangerous if given time to survey the field.
Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times this season, the second highest total in the NFL. The Chargers brought him down four times in the earlier meeting, and he was sacked five times against the Tennessee Titans in his last complete game of the regular season. Cesaire & Co. must ensure the heat is on again this Sunday.
5. Steve Gregory's superior coverage skills have allowed him to eat into the minutes of starter Clinton Hart. Gregory will try to prevent TE Heath Miller from dominating the middle of the field, while also providing deep help against speedster Santonio Holmes. He certainly looked up to the task last week against the Colts, when he logged five tackles and nearly had an interception.
Miller missed the earlier game against the Chargers with an ankle injury. Nonetheless, his replacement, the unheralded Matt Spaeth, came in and had a career day with six catches for 55 yards. Gregory must ensure the Steelers tight ends don't have it so easy in the rematch.