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Chargers avoid same ol' headline in comeback win over Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- The Chargers weren't just losing at halftime Sunday night at Heinz Field, they were being embarrassed. They had just 2 yards rushing on nine carries, were 0-for-7 on third down and trailed the Steelers by 16 points in front of a hostile and vocal crowd. When quarterback Philip Rivers got to the locker room, he could foresee the headlines being written at that time.

"I saw 'em in my mind," he would say. "Same Ol' Chargers ... Can't Win A Big Game ... Not Ready For Prime Time."

For his part, Rivers was thinking back to a Sunday night game 12 years ago, in which the Chargers trailed the Broncos 24-7 at Denver with 9:25 to go in the third quarter. Things appeared bleak. The Chargers were being embarrassed. Maybe their 7-2 record was a mirage.

"It was the same thing: Sunday night game, down big, nothing going right," the excitable Rivers continued. "Then LT (LaDainian Tomlinson) took that swing pass and went 51 yards. You remember!"

You don't forget memorable comebacks, and just as the Chargers rallied for a 35-27 victory on that 34 degree night, they stormed back against the Steelers for a 33-30 victory that was as improbable as it was impressive.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Steelers had never lost a home game in which they led by at least 16 points. They were 174-0-1. In addition, they were 8-0 in December prime-time games at Heinz Field. To which the Chargers (9-3) ostensibly said, So what!

"This was a statement game for us," said left tackle Russell Okung. "This game exemplified the character of our team that we've been trying to build for the past two years since (head coach Anthony Lynn) got here, that we can be a tough, resilient football team. When the opportunity came for the gut check, nobody blinked. We were ready to go."

Full disclosure: I was among those thinking Same ol' Chargers. When you've seen them find strange ways to lose games they should have won, or when you've watched them tease you with the possibility of what could be only to realize it never was, well, it's hard to see through murky waters. Particularly when the Bolts entered the game having defeated only one team (Seattle) with a winning record at that time.

But general manager Tom Telesco likes to say that each season and each game is unique to itself, which sounds like executive-speak until you witness something like Sunday night. This group of Chargers is proving that the past does not have to be prologue.

"We knew that we had the talent to get back in this game," said 16th-year veteran Antonio Gates. "We knew we couldn't get it all at once, so we were like, 'Let's go get a stop, D,' then, 'Let's go get a score, O.' The key is that you have to believe, and we did. That's important."

The Chargers have lost so many games that left you shaking your head, perhaps it was fitting they finally won one that defied description. For instance, their first touchdown never should have been. Right tackle Sam Tevi clearly retreated in pass protection before the snap, so much so that some defenders let up. However, no penalty flag was thrown, and Rivers capitalized with a 46-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin.

The Chargers' second touchdown also never should have been. Rivers zipped a pass near the right corner of the end zone, believing he had Keenan Allen for the score. But cornerback Joe Haden undercut the route and had his hands on the ball for an apparent interception, only to have the ball pop into the air and the waiting hands of Allen after Haden was drilled by teammate Sean Davis.

Those sorts of plays have gone against the Chargers in seasons past, but on Sunday night, the ball bounced their way. What should have been a dead ball resulted in a touchdown. What should have been an interception was instead a score. And when Desmond King II returned a punt 73 yards to tie the score at 23 early in the fourth quarter (after a successful two-point conversion throw to Allen), it was clear these Chargers were not going to break from adversity.

They had contributions from across their roster, whether it was Rivers throwing for 299 yards and two scores with no turnovers; Allen catching 14 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown; rookie Justin Jackson rushing eight times for 63 yards and a touchdown; and Mike Badgley -- the team's seventh kicker in two seasons -- converting a 29-yard field goal with no time on the clock after consecutive offsides penalties on Pittsburgh.

"These guys, they play four quarters," Lynn said. "We talked about playing with heart. We knew this was going to be a gut check for us. We believe in one another and play for each other and pull in one direction. We try not to listen to the outside noise. We believed we could come back and win this football game.

"The more times we're in these situations, the more confident we're going to be in these situations, and these young guys, the experience they gain from being on national television, on the road, behind by (16) points, winning on the road, that can only give you momentum and help you down the road."

Consider me a believer.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter @JimTrotterNFL.

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