NFL Preview - San Diego (4-8) at Pittsburgh (7-5)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Not that long ago, it might have been the segue to an AFC title game.
But, these days ... not so much.
While the Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in the thick of the conference's muddled playoff chase last week, the San Diego Chargers have done nearly everything to ensure they'll not be playing next month. And with Ben Roethlisberger ready for a timely return, it's easy to choose whose arc is higher this weekend.
The always gutty "Big Ben" is ready to return against the Chargers Sunday after a three-week respite with a sprained right shoulder and an accompanying rib injury. He rejoins a team tied for the final wild card postseason position and two games out of the top spot in the AFC's North Division.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin -- who subbed in Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch during Roethlisberger's absence -- confirmed the No. 1 man's presence at Heinz Field this weekend on Thursday after practice.
"Really, the only question we can't answer is taking a hit," Tomlin said. "Obviously that will be answered in the stadium on Sunday. I am extremely comfortable with his ability to work the field both vertically and horizontally. He has great velocity on his ball. We're ready to go."
Tomlin, however, was very appreciative of Batch's play in Baltimore during Week 13.
"Ben is our quarterback and if he's capable of playing then we're going to play him," Tomlin said earlier in the week. "But we appreciate the efforts of Charlie and all the other men that step up when given an opportunity due to injury."
Batch and Co. headed into Charm City last week and reeled in the Ravens, who'd not lost at home since 2010. But they'll need some more help to make up a two- game deficit with four games remaining.
If not, they can at least lean on the fact that wild cards have won three of the last seven Super Bowls.
"We've just got to get a ticket," linebacker Larry Foote said. "The last few years, the Giants have done it, and Green Bay has done it."
Pittsburgh did, too, while winning its most recent title in February 2009.
While the current defense went a long way to help the irregular offense to last week's win, it'll be without a mainstay this week when cornerback Ike Taylor's streak of 135 straight games played officially ends after he fractured an ankle in Baltimore. Taylor had made 119 starts since 2003.
Still, the remnants retain top billing among NFL pass defenses, limiting opponents to just 166.7 yards per game. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was never permitted to get comfortable while completing only 16 of 34 passes for 188 yards and being sacked three times.
The Steelers are tied for third in opposition completion percentage at 55.2 and the 13 pass touchdowns they've allowed trail only San Francisco (12), Seattle (12), Atlanta (11) and Baltimore (10) among the league's stingiest.
Coming in as Taylor exits will be safety Troy Polamalu, who'd been out since Oct. 7 with a strained calf before making cameo appearances against the Ravens. Also likely to grab more responsibility in the altered lineup are Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown.
"They're both talented young guys who are continuing to improve and prove that the stage isn't too big for them," Tomlin said. "Obviously, we need them to answer the bell as we continue to push into a territory that we haven't been in."
The Chargers are on the verge of some unfamiliar ground as well, in the form of the first losing record on the six-season watch of coach Norv Turner. The loss to the Bengals was their fourth in a row and second straight in which a fourth-quarter lead became a final-gun deficit.
Quarterback Philip Rivers has been a significant minus during the prolonged recent skid, fumbling five times and throwing five interceptions compared to just six TD passes. The offensive line hasn't helped its backfield colleagues at all while permitting 14 sacks in three games and helping generate a paltry average of 63.3 rushing yards.
Add to it the iffy injury status of guard Tyronne Green and tackles Mike Harris and Jeromey Clary, and Turner has a sizable job-saving task in front of him.
"If we go in there with three new starting offensive linemen, guys that I haven't met yet, and we're playing the Steelers in Pittsburgh," he said, "it will be a challenge."
San Diego scored 31 points in a thrashing of Kansas City that got it to 4-4 on Nov. 1, but the points have since plunged to 24, 23, 13 and 13 in the last four games -- marking the first time since 2007 the Chargers failed to reach 20 in two straight games. Their 18.3 points per game are 25th-best in the league. Their 320 total yards are 26th.
San Diego hasn't lost more than it's won since going 4-12 in 2003.
"We're fighting like crazy to score," Rivers said. "We're in a rut and all we can do is keep playing."
The Steelers lead the all-time series, 21-6, and have won seven of the last eight games. In fact, San Diego has never won in the Steel City. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's Tomlin is 3-0 against San Diego in his career, while the Chargers' Turner is winless against the Steelers in six previous coaching tries.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Steelers, especially with Roethlisberger back in the fold, have a plethora of passing weapons including wideouts Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, tight end Heath Miller and recent returnee Plaxico Burress.
With them, Pittsburgh can tick up from its 14th-place standing in the league with 240.9 pass yards per game and add to its 18 touchdowns. On the other side, Chargers safety Eric Weddle will set up in a variety of positions on the field and should be someone Roethlisberger accounts for every play.
Heading into Pittsburgh has been a difficult task for the highest of Turner's traditionally high-end teams, so for the rag-tag unit that's been wearing lightning bolts the last month it's an even harder proposition. Having Roethlisberger back in control on the home side won't help things.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Steelers 20, Chargers 13
12/07 09:36:17 ET