Po­si­tion in tight AFC race at stake for both teams

The Morning Call (Sunday) - - NFL - By Will Graves

PITTS­BURGH — Philip Rivers didn’t ex­actly spend a lot of time por­ing over the most accurate per­for­mance by a quar­ter­back in NFL his­tory.

The long­time Charg­ers quar­ter­back un­der­stands there’s no time.

Not with the Charg­ers (8-3) scram­bling to stay ahead in the mid­dle of a tight AFC play­off race and a trip to AFC North-lead­ing Pitts­burgh (7-3-1) loom­ing, one that could erase all doubts about whether Los An­ge­les is for real.

“We’ve got a heck of a De­cem­ber ahead of us,” Rivers said.

So Rivers gave his 28 for 29 day in an al­most com­i­cally easy 45-10 win over Ari­zona last Sun­day a cur­sory look, lin­ger­ing over his one mis­take — a sec­ond-quar­ter fum­ble on a play he au­di­bled to — far longer than any of his three touch­down passes or his record­ty­ing 25 straight com­ple­tions.

The 15-year vet­eran is well aware mis­cues of any va­ri­ety need to be avoided when Ben Roeth­lis­berger is on the other side­line just wait­ing to pounce in a place that’s not ex­actly hos­pitable to teams in vis­it­ing white jer­seys, par­tic­u­larly as the cal­en­dar hits De­cem­ber.

The Steel­ers are an NFL-best 18-3 in De­cem­ber since 2013 and 8-0 in De­cem­ber prime-time games at Heinz Field since it opened in 2001.

“It’s one of those old-school NFL at­mos­pheres,” Rivers said. “Throw in fact it’s in De­cem­ber they are right there in the hunt in the AFC and you ex­pect a heck of a game.”

One the Steel­ers need just as badly as the Charg­ers. Pitts­burgh had its six-game win­ning streak end last week in Den­ver, a 24-17 set­back lit­tered with the kind of sloppy mis­takes the Steel­ers largely avoided while right­ing their sea­son fol­low­ing a 1-2-1 start. Pitts­burgh turned it over four times, three times in the red zone, the last one a Roeth­lis­berger pick at the goal line on a pass in­tended for An­to­nio Brown.

The loss cost the Steel­ers the in­side track at the No. 2 seed in the AFC play­offs and set up the pos­si­bil­ity that Los An­ge­les’ visit to Heinz Field could be the first of two such meet­ings.

Not that Pitts­burgh is get­ting caught up in “what ifs,” not with a De­cem­ber schedule that in­cludes games against the Charg­ers, New Eng­land and New Or­leans.

“We’ve done it from all the dif­fer­ent seeds,” Roeth­lis­berger said. “So just get­ting in is the most im­por­tant.”

Roeth­lis­berger and Rivers are sev­enth and eighth on the all­time list for ca­reer yards pass­ing, throw­ing for a com­bined 108,196 yards — or 61.5 miles — since they came into the league in 2004. The two un­der­stand they are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked, though there’s one thing — two ac­tu­ally — that Roeth­lis­berger has that Rivers does not: a Su­per Bowl ring.

A vic­tory to­day wouldn’t guar­an­tee a shot at one, but it would stamp the Charg­ers as a team built to com­pete in Jan­uary and per­haps beyond. Rivers isn’t con­sumed by the big pic­ture, how­ever. Fo­cus­ing on the small one is tough enough.

Keep an eye on

The Charg­ers re­ceivers, who will need to pick up the slack with run­ning Melvin Gor­don’s in­jury. Gor­don is week to week with a sprained MCL in his right knee.

Mike Wil­liams had two touch­down catches last week while Keenan Al­lan has a TD in three straight games. Wil­liams was a deep threat early in the sea­son, but showed off his ath­leti­cism in last week’s win over Ari­zona with two catches near the bound­ary line at the back of the end zone.

Op­tions aplenty

The emer­gence of JuJu SmithSchus­ter has taken some of the pres­sure off Steel­ers star wide re­ceiver An­to­nio Brown. SmithSchus­ter is tak­ing ad­van­tage of de­fenses who focus ex­ten­sively on Brown, one of the reasons the 22-year-old ranks sixth in the league in re­cep­tions (77) and yards re­ceiv­ing (1,055). Still, Roeth­lis­berger is quick to shoot down the no­tion Pitts­burgh now has two No. 1 re­ceivers. If any­thing, the num­ber is far greater than that.

“I’d put James Con­ner in there,” Roeth­lis­berger said. “Vance McDon­ald, Ryan Switzer, Ju, AB. So, I’d put a lot of them as num­ber ones.”

Bosa’s re­ally back

Los An­ge­les de­fen­sive end Joey Bosa missed the first nine games be­cause of a bone bruise to his left foot, but made his pres­ence felt in his sec­ond game back last week with two sacks. Roeth­lis­berger has al­ways been a dif­fi­cult quar­ter­back to take down, but Bosa’s speed could give him an ad­van­tage.

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