PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are wondering where all these big plays on offense and defense were all season.
Tommy Maddox threw three touchdown passes, Jerome Bettis passed Marcus Allen to become the seventh leading rusher in NFL history and the Steelers beat up on the turnover-riddled San Diego Chargers 40-24 on Sunday.
It was the kind of performance the Steelers (6-9) expected but rarely got in perhaps the most disappointing of Bill Cowher's 12 seasons as coach. They can decide the AFC North champion Sunday at Baltimore (9-6), but only by keeping the Ravens at home, not by advancing to the postseason for the third straight season themselves.
"That will be our playoffs," Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said. "If we had played like this all year, we'd have a chance to (win it)."
At least the Chargers (3-12) played like they usually do. Drew Brees had three costly turnovers for the second straight week, with the Steelers' Deshea Townsend intercepting two passes and recovering a fumble. Townsend returned the second interception 25 yards for a touchdown that sealed only the Steelers' fourth win in 12 games.
At least Bettis is enjoying a strong finish. He ran for 115 yards, his second 100-yard game in three weeks after he went more than a year without one. It was his biggest game since he gained 163 yards against Cleveland on Nov. 11, 2001, and he needs 14 yards at Baltimore to overtake Jim Brown (12,312) for sixth place. He has 12,299 yards rushing.
"To be there with the legendary Jim Brown is amazing," Bettis said. "It felt good. I just think it shows that I can do it; there have been some questions about my skills diminishing."
Burress' scoring catches of 25 and 16 yards against man-to-man coverage helped the Steelers open a 21-0 lead before San Diego had a first down.
"They played me bump and run, and hardly anybody does that," Burress said. "I looked over to their coach, I was surprised. I don't get too much of that."
The Chargers threatened a comeback by scoring 17 consecutive points, only to unravel in a familiar way with more Brees turnovers. The fumble led to Hines Ward's 20-yard touchdown catch and the first interception led to the first of two Jeff Reed field goals.
LaDainian Tomlinson scored on a 2-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter. But on the Chargers' next series, Brees' pass deflected off Tomlinson to Townsend, who returned it for his first career touchdown, and an unhappy coach Marty Schottenheimer yanked Brees.
"I understand it was my third turnover of the day, but I was upset that I got pulled," said Brees, who argued with his coach over the move.
Schottenheimer wasn't about to listen to excuses from a quarterback who has 17 turnovers while going 1-9 as a starter this season.
"He just asked me why he was pulled. I told him when you play for Marty Schottenheimer, you can't turn the ball over," the coach said. "You turn the ball over, you're going to lose."
Tomlinson ran for 91 yards, but had only 8 yards on six receptions after having 292 yards receiving in his previous two games. He sat out some of the second half after being hit in the right shoulder by linebacker James Farrior.
Except for the brief Chargers flurry that includes Brees' 57-yard scoring pass to Kassim Osgood and Tomlinson's 5-yard run, the performance was reminiscent of the Steelers' 34-15 opening game rout of Baltimore.
But the Steelers' season soon unraveled with a five-game losing streak, and they must upset the Ravens to avoid their fifth double-digit loss season in the franchise's 71 seasons.
"A lot of things went wrong," Burress said. "It seemed something would go wrong each week. We're were constantly trying to fix leaks. We never got on the same page."
- Tomlinson joined Roger Craig as the only players in NFL history with at least 90 catches and 1,000 yards rushing in a season. Tomlinson has 92 receptions and 1,402 yards rushing.
- The Chargers have given up 36 touchdown passes, more than twice the league average. San Diego has lost 19 of 24 since starting 6-1 last season.
- San Diego has six games with three or more turnovers.
- Cowher is 6-1 against San Diego, with the only loss coming in the AFC title game in January 1995.
- Bettis has 442 yards in his past five games after having only 220 yards at midseason.
The Associated Press News Service
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