Now it’s official: If you want to get to the Super Bowl out of the AFC, you better play really, really good defense. And you’ll have to do it by playing in chilly Pittsburgh next week, after the Steelers’ 35-24 win over San Diego.
With a chance to host the AFC Championship Game on the line, Pittsburgh’s defense dominated when it needed to, its offense controlled possession — San Diego only got off one play in the third quarter — and the Steelers looked, at times, an awful lot like the teams that dominated football with a future failed GOP governor’s candidate (Lynn Swann) and a surprisingly telegenic TV pitchman (Mean Joe Greene).
In the process, Pittsburgh also proved that the Chargers really may need a healthy LaDanian Tomlinson to make a serious playoff push for a title. Sure, they can get by perennial chokers Indianapolis with a super-human effort from Might Mouse Darren Sproles, but without Tomlinson’s transcendent versatility — and without his health — they looked like just another team overwhelmed by hard hits in the cold.
All of that makes this report from NFL.com’s Adam Shaefter more intriguing. The league web site approved insider claims that there’s a legitimate chance that the Chargers could try to move Tomlinson this offseason to avoid the sizable cap hits his contract will bring. To wit, that’s worth nearly $9 million next season. That money would be more than enough to lock up both Sproles and quarterback Philip Rivers, which will almost certainly give the storyline more legs.
(This might be the last you see of L.T. in Chargers gear.)
Without question, that’s a decision you would hate to make if you’re Chargers GM A.J. Smith. If you do move L.T., you might be providing just the kind of motivation to send him on a Curtis Martin-style farewell tour for the next 10 years. If you don’t, you might lose Sproles and, eventually, Rivers. Without those two guys, its doubtful that the Chargers would have been anywhere near the Divisional Playoffs.
All of those questions are for a later date, with the focus now squarely on the Steelers and Ravens, and rightfully so. Next Sunday’s AFC Championship Game will pit the league’s two best defenses against each other, both in terms of yards and points allowed. Oh, and guess what? The Eagles aren’t too far behind those two, either.
So much for the offensive renaissance ushered in last year with Tom Brady and Randy Moss. It’s your father’s NFL again, for better and worse.