Over the years the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers have opposed each other in a number of games that have defined their seasons.
This year is no different, as the Steelers (2-2) travel to San Diego (2-2) on Monday night. Barring a tie, one team will leave the game with a winning record and in control of their own destiny to win a division title.
The loser will have a losing record and a dark shadow growing over their season.
Pittsburgh at San Diego
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Monday)
Spread: San Diego -3
1. Phillip Rivers attacks the Steelers' secondary
Could the 2004 quarterback draft class of Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers be thought of on a higher plane than the great 1983 trio of Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and John Elway as time passes?
Possibly, but Rivers must eventually win the Super Bowl. If that is to happen this season, the Steelers are a great proving ground.
The Chargers have won their two games on Rivers’ arm, even with many of his leading receivers unavailable to him. The Chargers rank behind only the New England Patriots in passing offense this season, and the Pats handed the Steelers a 28-21 defeat in Week 1 thanks to 288 yards and four touchdown passes from Tom Brady.
Since that game, the Steelers' secondary has improved thanks to the emergence of a strong pass rush as well as the development of cornerback Antwon Blake and safety Shamarko Thomas. They’ll also get cornerback Cortez Allen back from injury on Monday.
The Steelers have not allowed 200 yards through the air to either of their last two opponents, and though Colin Kaepernick threw for 335 yards against Pittsburgh in Week 2, more than 280 of those were in garbage time when the Steelers held a 29-3 lead.
Rivers won't have reliable possession wide receiver Steve Johnson for this game, as he's already been ruled out because of a hamstring injury he suffered in last week's 30-27 victory over Cleveland. But Malcom Floyd could play even though he suffered a concussion last week, Keenan Allen has had put together a strong start, and there's also the return of reliable tight end Antonio Gates, who missed the first four games because of a suspension (see below).
At one point this season Rivers completed 20 straight passes. If the Steelers' pass defense is for real, we’ll know in this game.
What’s of perhaps more concern to Rivers is his offensive line, which may be without left tackle King Dunlap and left guard Orlando Franklin. Center Chris Watt could return, but might wind up playing left guard with Trevor Robinson at center.
2. Antonio Gates is back. What about Martavis Bryant?
This was supposed to be the game the Chargers got their All-Pro tight end and the Steelers got their promising No. 2 wide receiver back, but as it happens only San Diego may have their receiving corps reinforced.
Bryant injured his knee in practice this week. Darrius Heyward-Bey is showing the signs of finally living up to his selection in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft in Bryant’s place, so perhaps the effect of Bryant’s potential return is minimal.
For that matter, Ladarius Green has filled in exceptionally well for Gates, who served a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PED). Still, if Gates comes back and Bryant does not, it will be an advantage of depth for San Diego, a key factor considering how beat up these teams are.
3. Do the Steelers run or throw?
Minnesota, an offense that has struggled in the passing game (31st in the NFL entering Week 5), defeated the Chargers 31-14 two weeks ago behind Adrian Peterson’s 126 rushing yards.
Peterson is the second back (Giovani Bernard) to rush for more than 100 yards against the Chargers this year. In Week 1, Detroit’s Ameer Abdullah also might have done the feat save for the fact the Lions called for only six rushes after taking an early 21-3 lead in an eventual 33-28 loss to the Chargers, and Isaiah Crowell averaged more than five yards per carry on his 12 rushes last week.
So with Le’Veon Bell starting and DeAngelo Williams in reserve, and Michael Vick starting in place of the injured Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers follow the Vikings’ game plan and emphasize the run, right?
Possibly, but the Chargers' secondary is banged up. Against the Browns San Diego's defensive backfield was down to two healthy cornerbacks at the end of the game. Brandon Flowers suffered a concussion. Jason Verrett had a foot injury. Rookie Craig Mager continues to miss practice, and strong safety Jahleel Addae has an injured ankle.
The Chargers haven’t pressured opposing passers very well this year. If Vick can’t get the ball downfield in this game, he likely never will be able to again.
Remember that “dark shadow” the loser of this game will have? In Pittsburgh, a 9-7 record is not considered successful, and a 2-3 start is not conducive to a prosperous season.
There will be a celebration when Roethlisberger comes back, but questions about Vick’s abilities as well as the front office’s will be raised.
While it is debatable how much on-field play influences such matters, one wonders if a 2-3 start will cast a “Kiss ‘em off, they’re gone!” pall regarding the Chargers’ future in San Diego. Recent reports have hinted if Los Angeles is to get a team in 2016 it will be the Chargers, as the NFL believes the wounds of franchise relocation will be least severe if a team is moved just two hours from its current fan base.
While Rivers is clearly the superior quarterback to Vick, the Chargers’ injuries on the offensive line and secondary can’t be ignored. Rivers may be able to audible his way to a victory, as Brady did against the Steelers, but all things considered Pittsburgh has been the better team to date and with a new kicker likely won’t botch this one.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 24, San Diego 21
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.