The Pittsburgh Steelers had planned to celebrate their storied past Sunday night. Instead, they made the wrong kind of history.
While the Chargers made the most of their opportunity under the bright lights of “Sunday Night Football,” the Steelers had to grapple with this dark reality: They have never blown such a big lead at home.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Steelers were 174-0-1 at home with at least a 16-point lead — yet the Chargers dug their way out of a 16-point hole to secure a monumental 33-30 victory before a stunned crowd at Heinz Field.
In the Three Rivers city, it was one Rivers — the Chargers’ Philip — and a Three Mile Island-style meltdown.
“Not disbelief, just mad that we lost,” said defensive tackle Cam Heyward, speaking softly from his locker stool. “It’s unacceptable.”
The Steelers, in their near-silent locker room, were as mild as the December night. It was actually warmer in Pittsburgh (59 degrees) than Los Angeles (57), though it felt a lot colder than that for the frosted home team.
The uneven game was a shocking pendulum swing for a team that held the visitors to two yards rushing in the first half, and repeatedly hit Rivers, who absorbed a lot of shots but somehow was still able to find his receivers.
“He’s a really good quarterback,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “He’s able to get it out of his hands really fast. We were putting some pretty good pressure on him, and he was just standing in the pocket making some very, very tough throws.”
More than half of those were to Keenan Allen, who was targeted 19 times — two more than the combined total of the other six Chargers receivers — and finished with 14 catches for 148 yards.
Most memorable of those Allen receptions was also the strangest. On the stat sheet it’s memorialized as a 10-yard touchdown completion by Rivers in the third quarter. But really, it was a ball that popped up in the air when two Pittsburgh defenders, Haden and Sean Davis, crashed into each other while trying to make an interception. Allen then made a diving grab of the tipped ball, immediately transitioning into a touchdown dance.
“I just heard the crowd and I knew they weren’t excited,” Haden said. “I just felt like [the Chargers] scored.”
The Steelers were hoping they could do what the Chargers did the week before, and shake off a mystifying loss to Denver. And Pittsburgh did that … for a half, but couldn’t land the knockout blow to a pesky team from the West Coast that hadn’t played on Sunday night in four years.
Even as player after player on both sides limped off the field, with little-known reserves stepping into the fray, the Chargers didn’t blink.
“We came here to win,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said.
“And we were going to play four quarters, and that’s what we did. It wasn’t pretty, and we know we have to do some things better and be more consistent with this effort, but these guys are going to play four quarters.”
The Steelers, meanwhile, felt drawn-and-quartered on a night that began with such hope. Hours before kickoff, the triumphant members of the Super Bowl XIII and XLIII teams had a reunion on the occasion of their 40- and 10-year anniversaries.
Ben Roehtlisberger and Philip Rivers meet up at the 50-yard line after a 33-30 win.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers running back Justin Jackson is tackkled after a short run on fourth quarter drive at Heinz Field.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers receive Keenan Allen scores a two point conversion to tie the game at 23 in the fourth quarter on Sunday in Pittsburgh.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Steelers defensive backs Joe Haden and Sean Davis collide while trying to intercept a Philip Rivers pass only to have it end up in the hands of Keenan Allen for a third quarter touchdown.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Keenan Allen Chargers receiver pulls in a tipped ball for a touchdown in the third quarter at Heinz Field.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler struggled to gain yards against the Steelers defense at Heinz Field.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers safety Derwin James intercepts a Ben Roethlisberger pass in the second quarter at Heinz Field on Sunday in Pittsburgh.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LJ Fort blocks a punt by Chargers’ Donnie Jones in the second quarter at Heinz Field on Sunday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers quarterback Phiiip Rivers is sacked by Pittsburgh Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds during first quarter action at Heinz Field Sunday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers cornerback Michael Davis is called for pass interference as he breaks up a pass intended for Pittsburgh Steeers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster during a second quarter drive at Heinz Field on Sunday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler is held to no gain on a second quarter screen pass by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Anthony Chickillo at Heinz Field on Sunday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown catches a long pass over Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. in the first qurater at Heinz Field on Sunday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Roethlisberger dropped by that party — he threw the winning touchdown to beat the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl a decade ago — and he was poised to get Pittsburgh back on track Sunday night.
He was the 11th pick in the 2004 draft, selected seven spots after Rivers, whom the Chargers got by sending No.1 pick Eli Manning to the New York Giants.
Whereas both Manning and Roethlisberger have two Super Bowl rings each, Rivers has played in just one AFC Championship game. But on this night, as he bounded into the visitors’ locker room and yelled at the top of his lungs, Rivers savored one of the best wins of his career.
Roethlisberger had to ponder what might have been. He was asked if this was one of the most bizarre losses he’s ever had.
“No,” Roethlisberger said curtly. “Just a bad one.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer