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NFL PLAYOFFS : The Immaculate Assumption? : AFC: Confident Steelers already looking ahead to Super Bowl, but they have to beat Chargers first.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

BLITZBURGH

Is this game really necessary?

The Pittsburgh Steelers could be kicking back this weekend and enjoying a well-earned rest before seriously getting down to the business of preparing for Super Bowl XXIX two weeks hence. But n-o-o-o, the NFL is forcing them to go ahead with today’s annoying little qualifying match, the AFC championship game, against the San Diego Chargers, just to make it official.

The sentiments expressed above don’t sound surprising coming out of the mouths of the Steeler faithful, found wrapped in black and gold on every street corner, in every bar and at every restaurant in this town.

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Pittsburgh, or rather Blitzburgh as this city has been temporarily renamed with everything from highway signs to banners, is supporting its Steelers with renewed fervor, with the kind of zeal and ferocity not seen around here since the club dominated the NFL in the ‘70s, winning four Super Bowls.

No, what is surprising is that this kind of arrogance over today’s game has spread to the locker room. The supposedly tough, focused, businesslike Steelers are acting as if a victory today is a foregone conclusion.

Example: The Steelers gathered in a meeting room at Three Rivers Stadium on Wednesday after practice to meet with Joyce Ellis, the choreographer of their Super Bowl video, entitled “The Blitzburgh,” to be shot Tuesday . . . uh, assuming, of course, Pittsburgh wins today.

Example: Steeler defensive end Ray Seals is predicting that not only will the Chargers lose, but they won’t even score .

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Example: Pittsburgh receiver Yancey Thigpen, who pulled a Terrible Towel (every true Steeler fan has one) out of his hand warmer last weekend to rejoice over a touchdown scored against the Cleveland Browns, says he has a new “trick” prepared for the celebration against San Diego.

Things have gotten so out of hand that Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher, known as a no-nonsense guy, lambasted his players in a meeting Thursday over their premature celebrating.

And what did he tell them?

“Accomplishment and opportunity. You have to separate the difference,” Cowher said. “That’s what we have, opportunity. We don’t have accomplishment. That’s perspective.”

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Told that, since his talk, the Steelers seem to be taking a much lower profile and cooling the inflammatory statements, Cowher broke into a grin and said, “Is that right?”

Still, the message has already been sent.

Asked if the Steelers’ expressions of overwhelming confidence had made their way onto the Chargers’ bulletin board, Coach Bobby Ross said, “Yes, it has. Players read and hear those things and they do get put out. The bottom line is, you’ve got to go out and play the ballgame.”

Nevertheless, all this talk figures to further inflame the emotions of a San Diego team that seems to have been spurred on by derisive comments all season.

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Ross talked Friday night about a preseason prognosis that had the Chargers finishing with the worst record in the league.

Certainly few expected San Diego to win the AFC West title. And when the team slumped toward the end of the regular season, few expected much in the postseason.

Indeed, even their staunchest supporters had to be poised to realistically write their club off last week at Jack Murphy Stadium when the team trailed the Miami Dolphins and quarterback Dan Marino, 21-6, at the half. By coming back to pull out a 22-21 victory in the final minute, the Chargers have found renewed confidence.

Asked about Seals’ statement that San Diego would be shut out today, Charger quarterback Stan Humphries shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s his opinion.”

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It’s the opinion of many that today’s game will be decided on the ground.

These are two very similar clubs. Both have strong defenses. Both have powerful running games. And both have quarterbacks whose production exceeds their reputation.

The Steelers (12-4 in the regular season and winners of the AFC Central title) have reached the conference championship game for the first time since 1984 largely on the strength of the top defense in the AFC and the top rushing game in the NFL.

The defensive unit, an aggressive group that lives by the blitz, is led by former Ram Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd, a pair of linebackers who combined for 24 sacks this season, and defensive back Rod Woodson. All you need to know about Woodson is that he was voted onto the NFL 75th anniversary team this season even though he’s still active.

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Behind perhaps the most mobile offensive line in the league, Pittsburgh runs, interchangeably at times, Barry Foster, Bam Morris and John L. Williams. The Steelers rushed for 238 yards last week in winning their playoff opener against Cleveland, 29-9.

San Diego (11-5 and winners of the AFC West) can counter with a defense that led the AFC against the run. Spearheaded by linebacker Junior Seau and linemen Leslie O’Neal and Chris Mims, the Charger defense has proved it can be a match for the best of rushing attacks but still must show its effectiveness when the ball goes in the air. San Diego was 22nd against the pass this season and let Marino pick apart its secondary in the first half of last week’s game.

On the ground, the Chargers’ attack is powered by Natrone Means, who went seven games without a 100-yard rushing effort before getting 139 against the Dolphins last week.

Both quarterbacks have been more than adequate. Pittsburgh’s Neil O’Donnell throws often enough and effectively enough to keep the defenses honest. Humphries was brilliant in the second half last week.

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While rain is a distinct possibility today, the forecast is for temperatures in the 50s, unseasonably warm for this part of the country at this time of year.

The game forecast is nowhere near as certain. Playing at home with a superior defense, the Steelers deserve their role as the favorite. The key question is, has all the celebration robbed them of their dedication?


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