The list of teams the Chargers have beaten down the stretch is hardly impressive, with their first win in six attempts versus a playoff team this year coming last week at home. Now they must prove they can beat a playoff team on the road. And they are most likely going to have to do it in less-than-ideal conditions.
Diminutive running back Darren Sproles has been a very nice surprise in the wake of injuries that have sidelined LaDainian Tomlinson, and he is likely to be a big key again this week since it looks as though L.T. will be sidelined again. But can he have the same success on the frozen turf of Heinz Field against the league's No. 2 run defense? While he may be effective, and he might have his moments, I don't see him having the kind of day he did last weekend against the Indianapolis Colts when he racked up more than 300 all-purpose yards.
Perhaps the hottest, and most underrated quarterback in the league right now, Philip Rivers, will be looking to improve on the performance he put together against the Steelers back in November when he threw for 164 yards and just two interceptions. The good news for Chargers fans is that rivers tends to get better the second time he faces a defense. If he can continue that trend, San Diego has a chance to pull the road upset in this one.
The Steelers have been rather ineffective on offense themselves of late, and much of the blame lies with their offensive line. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is having far from his best season, and while he deserves some of the blame, the fact that he has had defenders hanging on him consistently hasn't helped. Having said that, though, Roethlisberger does have a tendency to hold the ball too long and take sacks he shouldn't. That's kind of a catch-22 with the big guy, though, because many of the big plays he makes are because he isn't afraid to hold onto the ball and take a hit while giving his receivers time to get open. So if he dumps the ball off quicker, you lose some of the sacks, but you also lose some of the potential for the big plays he is so adept at making while on the run.
Making matters worse, as far as Pittsburgh's offensive line goes, is that defensive coordinator Ron Rivera has his defensive unit playing very well since taking over at midseason. They've turned up the pressure, and are sure to bring all they can early in this game to test out Roethlisberger's protection.
If the Chargers defense continues their aggressive approach and consistently gets to the former Super Bowl champion, it's likely they will force him into some critical mistakes. During the regular season, Roethlisberger was picked off 15 times and he fumbled 14 times, losing seven of those to the opposition. That's 22 turnovers by Big Ben, which is way too many. But sometimes he simply tries to make too much happen on his own. He can't afford to be careless in this game, however.
Despite the fact that the Chargers have not been particularly effective against top talent this year, and they haven't been all that impressive on the road, I feel they will be able to exploit the Steelers offensive line and force Pittsburgh into enough mistakes to tip the balance in their favor.
Prediction: San Diego 23, Pittsburgh 20