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Despite Ben, Steelers never threaten in loss

| Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, 4:34 p.m.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger takes off on a second-quarter run against the Chargers on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, at Heinz Field. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' defense sits on the bench during the Chargers game on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, at Heinz Field. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

During an inexplicable season in which they play well against good teams and badly against bad teams, the Steelers saved their worst for the last team they expected to beat them.

Lacking the emotion, purpose and desperation of the week before in Baltimore, they allowed the San Diego Chargers to do something they had never done: beat them in a regular-season game in Pittsburgh.

And it wasn't just that they wasted an opportunity to seize control of a playoff berth; it was how badly the Steelers lost to a playing-out-the-string Chargers team that had dropped seven of eight, was reportedly ready to fire coach Norv Turner and had beaten no one except the Chiefs since Sept. 16.

The Chargers (5-8) are going nowhere, but for most of their 34-24 it-wasn't-that-close victory Sunday at Heinz Field, they didn't allow the Steelers (7-6) to go anywhere, even with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback for the first time in four weeks.

“We did a bad job of handling the whole game,” lineman Maurkice Pouncey said. “We can't go out there and keep playing games like that.”

Yet they do.

A talkative Philip Rivers (21 of 41, 200 yards) threw two touchdown passes to Danario Alexander, who was out of a job only six weeks ago, and a Chargers offensive line that included three players just signed off the street controlled the pace of play. San Diego led 13-0, 20-3, 27-3 and 34-10, and only two Roethlisberger touchdown passes in the final six-plus minutes kept it from being a rout.

“This was never close,” safety Ryan Clark said. “They took their foot off the pedal, and thank God they did that, or who can tell what the score would have been?”

The Steelers couldn't get off the field on third down, on fourth down when the Chargers pulled off a risky fake punt, or during a 17-play Chargers drive to start to the second half that, coupled with a Roethlisberger fumble shortly thereafter, produced two touchdowns in 12 seconds.

The Steelers looked like the team that lost to the sub-.500 Titans, Raiders and Browns — only worse.

Roethlisberger, now 3-4 after returning from an in-season injury, was 22 of 42 for 285 mostly meaningless yards and an interception.

“We know we've messed up a lot of games, and maybe we're going to pay for that,” Pouncey said.

The Steelers' only consolation was the Bengals (7-6) — who travel here in two weeks for what might be an AFC play-in game — lost to the Cowboys, 20-19.

Playoffs? Did someone say playoffs?

“It's like we get to play them in the bowl of the worst teams. We're fighting to be the best of the worst teams,” Clark said. “That's how it feels right now.”

The Steelers don't have much experience in how this feels, given the 25-1 record against nonplayoff teams at Heinz Field they brought in under coach Mike Tomlin.

Rivers, who also hit Malcom Floyd on a 3-yard touchdown pass not long after the fake punt, even yelled derisively at the Steelers bench as the Chargers were piling it on, so loudly that everyone there could hear him.

“He was just talking to be talking. He didn't say anything out of control to make people go crazy,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “When you're executing like that, in Pittsburgh, against the Steelers, hey, you earned it.”

Now, can the Steelers possibly earn — if that's the proper word — a playoff berth?

They've made the playoffs only twice with so poor a record after 13 games. They were 6-7 in 1989 but won their final three to sneak in at 9-7, and they took two of their final three in 1984 to advance after being 7-6.

“We got a few games left, and it's going to be interesting to see how we respond,” defensive end Brett Keisel said.

And what do they have to do differently to get this turned around, with only the Cowboys, Bengals and Browns remaining?

“Guys have got to be ready to play when Sunday comes,” Keisel said.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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