Source: <a href="http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news?slug=ap-chargersunplugged&prov=ap&type=lgns" target="_blank">Associated Press</a>
By Tom Withers
<a href="http://a.espncdn.com/media/apphoto/7121125d-dd7f-4640-9b75-1a5f6893781a.jpg"><img class="alignright" title="San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers walks off the field after the Chargers 35-24 oss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in an NFL divisional playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)" src="http://a.espncdn.com/media/apphoto/7121125d-dd7f-4640-9b75-1a5f6893781a.jpg" alt="" width="147" height="166" /></a>PITTSBURGH (AP)-Electrifying early and too late, the San Diego Chargers just didn't have enough juice.
They scored on a gorgeous touchdown pass from Philip Rivers to Vincent Jackson just four plays and barely two minutes into Sunday's game, but the Chargers couldn't sustain their fast-and-furious start, experienced a once-in-a-lifetime third quarter and had their season end with a 35-24 playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After stunning the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC wild-card game last week, the Chargers (9-9), who won their final four regular-season games to make the postseason, traveled to the snow-dusted hills of Western Pennsylvania looking to shock the Steelers (13-4).
But Pittsburgh would have none of it as the Steelers' top-ranked defense swarmed over Darren Sproles, cutting the pesky 5-foot-6 running back down to size for most of the game. Sproles, who had 328 all-purpose yards and a game-winning 22-yard TD run to beat the Colts, finished with 15 yards rushing- San Diego's total-on 11 carries.
"That's a really, really good team," Sproles said.
With San Diego trailing 21-10 in the third, Sproles finally got loose on a 63-yard kickoff return to Pittsburgh's 23. Here it was: a chance for San Diego to get right back in it. But the Chargers, who were without injured star LaDainian Tomlinson (groin), couldn't capitalize.
On the next play, Rivers' pass for a wide-open Jackson was tipped by Brett Keisel at the line and intercepted by Larry Foote, all but ending San Diego's final bid for an upset.
The Chargers were able to stop the Steelers following the turnover, but they gave the ball right back on a play that perhaps best defined their day.
On fourth down, Chargers punter Mike Scifres kicked deep into Pittsburgh territory where the ball struck safety/coverman Eric Weddle almost on the lighting bolt logo of his helmet as he was running downfield to make the tackle. The Steelers recovered.
The Chargers never did.
"That was crazy," Rivers said. "That's the way it goes sometimes. We didn't expect the game to end 7-0. They made a play. We made some plays. We knew it was going to be a back and forth game, but it was such a weird third quarter. It went from a smashmouth, in-your-face game that could go either way and then it was such a weird third quarter."
Sproles caught a short pass and turned it into a 62-yard TD that made the score look more respectable with 1:53 left, but by then the Steelers were already looking ahead to next Sunday's title game against Baltimore.
The Chargers will remember the third quarter as when it all got away.
San Diego's defense couldn't stop Pittsburgh as the Steelers ate up the first 7:56 of the third quarter to take an 11-point lead. But following the bizarre return-interception-punt exchange, Pittsburgh scored again and finished the quarter by holding the ball for an astonishing 14:43 to just 17 seconds for San Diego.
"We were standing on the sideline and it was like, â€˜We were in for one play in the quarter and it was an interception,"' Rivers said. â€˜There was a little bit of disbelief."
It had all started so well for the Chargers, who came in 0-13 in regular-season games in Pittsburgh but had won twice here in the playoffs.
Rivers opened 8-of-9 and looked comfortable in the pocket as he surveyed the field. But the Steelers began to bring the heat about the time the sun set, and it wasn't long before San Diego's QB was scrambling every time he dropped back.
In the fourth quarter, Rivers was slammed hard to the frozen field by LaMarr Woodley on the edge of the end zone. Rivers wobbled as he tried to get up and then staggered slightly like a fighter looking for his corner after surviving a late-round flurry.
"I got my bell rung a little. I was a little cuckoo for a few seconds," said Rivers, who finished 21-of-35 for 308 yards with three TDs. He was sacked four times.
The Chargers couldn't have imagined returning to Pittsburgh, where they lost 11-10 on Nov. 16-the first of three straight losses that dropped them to 4-8.
But afterward, they were glad they came back.
"The character, the fight, the resiliency we showed says a lot about the group of guys that we have," Rivers said. "When your backs are against the wall, you want to know who's on your side. When you get front-running type guys who are only there when you're reeling off wins, those aren't the type of guys you want.
"We got the right kind of guys. Anytime you're 4-8 and you bounce back and win the division and you win a game in the playoffs, that says a lot."