In a game of grunts and groans and boasts and taunts and the din of the crowd, it is easy to underestimate the power of silence. While the Pittsburgh Steelers and their maniacal fans were whooping it up last week in the Iron City, predicting shutouts and choreographing rap videos, their opponents in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, the San Diego Chargers, were as mum as a bunch of Buckingham Palace guards. The Chargers weren't tight, just resolved. We now know that the sentiments they were not voicing were as powerful as the cocksure cackles emanating from the Steelers, a team that convinced itself of its worthiness for the Super Bowl before bothering to qualify for the game.
Ultimately, San Diego would have plenty to say on that subject, but not until it had completed a nonverbal statement that shocked the football world. The Chargers' 17-13 victory over the Steelers in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium not only catapulted them to their first Super Bowl appearance but also gave them a right to blab their tongues off, to lash out at their detractors, who had given them no chance of winning. The San Diego players had been quiet all year, from the summer, when many experts picked them to finish last in the AFC West, to the unsettling moments before they took the field on Sunday. Once it was over and the Chargers had qualified for a date with the San Francisco 49ers at Joe Robbie Stadium on Jan. 29, someone finally turned off the mute switch, and the members of this proud and gutty team began to roar.
Some of the statements were joyous, such as the ones uttered by incomparable inside linebacker Junior Seau, the man who lifted San Diego to victory. Others were snide: Chargers joked about two-for-the-price-of-one sales featuring the Steelers' prematurely conceived Super Bowl rap video. And if you talked to enough players, you found anger, too—an anger that went beyond the usual "nobody respects us" drivel.
"If we had believed everyone on the outside, we wouldn't even be here," cornerback Darrien Gordon said afterward. "I think the Steelers were afraid to win this game. The bottom line is the better team won. We can beat them anywhere on earth. They thought they were the most physical team in the AFC, and that's not the case. Because we're a California team, everyone assumes we're not overly physical. But we showed them today who the most physical team is. You could see it in their eyes—they did not want to win that game. They were looking for the Steelers of old, the Steeler mystique, I guess, to win that game for them. Well, that's not enough. There's no way that team was anywhere near the teams the Steelers used to have, the teams with Jack Lambert and Jack Ham and Mel Blount. We'll play these guys anywhere, anytime, and the result will be the same."
Then Gordon stopped, caught his breath and stared deep into the eyes of his questioner. "Yeah, we're mad," he said. "You're damn right!"
Pittsburgh learned that as early as the game's first play from scrimmage, when Seau began one of the best days in the history of linebacking by bursting to his left, pounding Steeler running back Barry Foster to the turf after a gain of two yards and, eyes ablaze, pumping his right arm—his one good arm—in a jackhammer motion at the San Diego bench. His teammates knew what he was talking about or, rather, not talking about: Having been cooped up in their hotel rooms and left alone to read about their opponents' inevitable march toward Miami, the Chargers by game time were a cranky, even bitter group of men.
They were mad because the Wednesday before the game the Steelers had gathered after practice to discuss their rap video, with taping scheduled for the following Tuesday. The Chargers were further inflamed by a prediction from Pittsburgh defensive end Ray Seals (Sunday stats: no tackles, one assist, one offside penalty) that the San Diego offense would not score a point. The Chargers were annoyed by the Steelers' open discussion of their own Super Bowl qualifications and by Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher's decision not to run a full practice the day before the game. Most of all, they were angry because they are a team that everyone, even their own fans, tends to berate.
Last Saturday night, San Diego coach Bobby Ross gathered the Chargers for a final meeting. He quoted from a column in that day's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which said that the Steeler players, like all citizens of Pittsburgh, were taking the Chargers lightly. Ross's words were measured and his tone restrained, but the players absorbed his ire. "No one gives us any respect," Ross told them. "No one has given us any respect all year long. You can't just talk a game, though. You have to go out and play."
Sitting in a car a few minutes later, San Diego linebacker, H-back and special teams ace Steve Hendrickson was still struck by his coach's mood. "No, he didn't swear and he didn't yell," Hendrickson said of Ross. "He was just like our team—calm, serious and not really talking much. But underneath you could just feel his anger."
The next day, while the Steelers put on their game faces and a crowd of 61,545 waved their Terrible Towels in unison, the Chargers sat quietly in their locker room, channeling their bile. At 12:20 p.m., Ross said simply, "Hey, it's down to the two-minute call. Let's go play football." Forty-four players heeded his instructions while one, Seau, was listening to a voice from another realm.
Normally, Seau is an intense player, perhaps the NFL's most rabid defensive star since Ronnie Lott. On this day he was more than intense. From his first tackle on Foster to his 16th and final stop of the day, a thumping of Steeler fullback John L. Williams three yards from the goal line with 1:22 left in the game, Seau played like a man who had spent the morning mainlining ginseng. He did this despite aggravating a nerve injury that has plagued him since November, an ailment that renders his left arm ineffective. Seau made sure Pittsburgh felt his pain. This was his moment, and he seized it.
There is no more satisfying circumstance in sport than to see a great player play the game of his life in the biggest game of his life. The Chargers had never seen anything like it. Seau would charge across the line and bury Foster (20 carries for 47 yards) or another Steeler, and his fellow defenders would simply gape in amazement. "He was quiet before the game, just sitting in here and waiting, and then, when the game started, he exploded," San Diego safety Stanley Richard said. "Seeing him, you told yourself, I need to get out and start playing, because he's stepping up."
Eventually, outside linebacker David Griggs and defensive tackle Reuben Davis did step up, and the Chargers took away Pittsburgh's primary weapon, its league-leading rushing attack. Amazingly, Steeler quarterback Neil O'Donnell, who came into the game averaging 23 attempts an outing, threw 29 passes in the first half and 54 overall, probing the middle of the soft San Diego zone for 32 completions and 349 yards. O'Donnell's 16-yard touchdown pass to Williams on the game's first drive helped stake Pittsburgh to a 10-3 lead at halftime, at which point the Chargers had only four first downs, 46 total yards and one completion from quarterback Stan Humphries.
It appeared that all the predictions would come true, but as they sat in a typically quiet locker room, the Chargers knew better. The previous week against the Miami Dolphins they had come back from a 21-6 deficit to win. Would they do it again, or would they confirm the Steeler boasts that San Diego's 37-34 victory over Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale was a fluke, the product of Cowher's decision to rest many of his stars?
The answer was provided by Humphries. He completed only 11 of 22 passes in the game, but two of them went for 43-yard touchdowns, the second a sweet strike to Tony Martin that Humphries delivered before absorbing a personal-foul hit from Pittsburgh linebacker Chad Brown. Martin caught the ball ahead of mouthy cornerback Tim McKyer, who the week before had generated headlines by claiming that the selection of 49er cornerback Deion Sanders as the league's defensive player of the year was "messing up the credibility of the award." At game's end on Sunday, McKyer, alone on the Steeler sidelines, went limp and had to be carried into the locker room by a pair of security guards.
Martin's touchdown gave the Chargers a 17-13 lead with just over five minutes left in the game, but the Steelers still had a chance to win. Upon taking over at his own 17, O'Donnell saw the same Cover 2 cone he had been devouring all afternoon. He proceeded to complete seven straight passes to set up a first-and-goal at the nine before San Diego went to a tighter, two-jeep zone called the Picket Fence.
The gatekeepers prevailed, thanks to a huge play from an eight-year veteran inside linebacker named Dennis Gibson. After Seau's stop of Williams on third down, the game came down to a final Steeler play from the three. O'Donnell looked to Foster in the middle of the end zone, and Gibson read the pass beautifully, leaping forward to knock it away.
At that point, the silence ceased, and composure retreated on both sides. Kevin Greene, Pittsburgh's star pass rusher, became so angry at a postgame question ("Was this a tough loss emotionally?") that he threatened to "coldcock" the next reporter who submitted a "stupid ass" query. Two minutes later, Greene declared, "You have to accept the defeats with humility," and he walked away.
The Chargers, meanwhile, were through being humble. "I'm going to show you what a real Super Bowl video is like," vowed Davis. "Theirs probably would have been on Beta. We'll put ours on VHS."
The barbs and cigar-waving and buoyant cellular phone conversations continued in the San Diego locker room, as well they should have. The Chargers have now come from behind in each of their last seven victories, and in 10 of 13 this season. In beating Pittsburgh, whom oddsmakers had called a 9½-point favorite, San Diego had pulled off the biggest upset in conference championship game history.
In the Charger locker room, everyone was loose and animated, except for Seau, who still seemed locked in a zone. "You can never measure character," he said. "You can never measure heart. You saw it out there today. You don't know whether to cry, to laugh, to smile. This is a great moment for San Diego and for everyone in the organization. That's how big this is."
Then Seau put on his clothes—a multicolored bathing suit, a green-hooded SAY OW pullover, white sneakers, no socks—kissed his wife, Gina, and walked silently to the team bus. All around him, teammates were being detained by autograph seekers and well-wishers and family members, but no one dared stop Seau. He walked purposefully to the bus and boarded, saying nothing, conveying everything.