Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Newyorkjets.com will profile each playoff game in this NFL postseason, with a special eye on Jets angles in each of the matchups. Today: the AFC Divisional Round Game on Sunday afternoon:
(4) SAN DIEGO (9-8) at (2) PITTSBURGH (12-4), 4:45 p.m., CBS
The San Diego Chargers denied NFL MVP Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in last Saturday's AFC Wild Card Game.
With Chargers superstar LaDainian Tomlinson limited to five rush attempts, 5'6" RB Darren Sproles came up big, gaining 328 all-purpose yards, including the game-winning 22-yard winning touchdown run.
But Sproles may need another stellar showing, this time against the Pittsburgh Steelers' league-leading defense, as Tomlinson has been held out of practice this week with a groin injury
"It's definitely torn," Tomlinson said, calling himself "doubtful" for Sunday's game. "If it was a strain, I'd be able to play with it, trust me. A lot of guys have strains."
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers, on the other hand, have a clean bill of health for the first time in a long time.
That comes as a relief to Pittsburgh fans, who watched quarterback Ben Roethlisberger leave the field on a stretcher after sustaining a concussion in the regular-season finale.
The teams met at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field in Week 11, and even though the Steelers had a last-play touchdown return by S Troy Polamalu overturned, the Steelers prevailed, 11-10, the first game in NFL history to end with that score.
Philip Rivers is the NFL's only A-plus QB this season, meaning the only qualifying passer with a 100 rating — 105.5 to be precise. He also led the league with 8.39 yards per attempt and his 34 TD passes tied Drew Brees for the league lead.
Tomlinson was the target of Rivers' passes and handoffs as usual, and despite a slow start and a down rushing year (1,110 yards at 3.8 per carry), LT still finished eighth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,536, or 96 yards a game). Rivers' favorite pass-catchers were TE Antonio Gates (60 receptions) and WR Vincent Jackson (1,098 yards).
But Gates (ankle) was sidelined along with Tomlinson in practices early this week.
LB Shaun Phillips with 7.5 sacks tried to pick up the slack when the lights went out on Shawne Merriman's season before it even started.
Sproles is one of the NFL's top kick returners this season, averaging 11.3 yards on punt returns and 26.0 on kickoffs. Normally reliable K Nate Kaeding struggled from 40 and longer.
Pittsburgh finished the regular season with the NFL's top defense, ranked No. 1 in total defense, pass defense and scoring defense and second in rush defense. The Steelers' only bottom-10 ranking was 23rd in rush offense.
San Diego finished with top-10 rankings in pass offense (7th) and scoring offense (2nd) and with bottom-10 rankings in total defense (25th) and pass defense (31st).
The Steelers have a plus-4 turnover margin (plus-1 at home) while the Chargers have a plus-4 margin (but minus-5 on the road).
The teams have an odd history in the former Steel City. The Chargers have lost all 13 regular-season games they've played at Pittsburgh. But they've won the two playoff games they've played there — 31-28 in the 1982 "Super Bowl Tournament" and a 17-13 comeback victory in the 1994 AFC Championship Game.
The Steelers are 28-19 all-time in the postseason, with all but one of those games coming since 1972. They won four Super Bowls in six seasons in the Seventies, lost to Dallas in SBXXX, then "won one for the thumb" by beating Seattle, 21-10, in SBXL.
The Chargers are 10-14 all-time, including the 49-26 loss to San Francisco in SBXXIX after that title win over the Steelers.
James Farrior, starting ILB for the Steelers, was the Jets' first-round draft choice (8th overall) in 1997 and started 43 games for the Jets from 1997-2001.
Tyrone Carter, the Steelers' starting FS alongside Pro Bowl SS Troy Polamalu, started 10 games for the Jets in 2003.
San Diego has no players with Jets ties. However, DE Luis Castillo grew up in Garfield, the hometown of former Jets WR legend Wayne Chrebet and almost in the shadow of the Meadowlands. Chargers defensive backs coach Bill Bradley was the Jets' secondary coach from 2001-03.