It's 2008, week two. Coming off a heartbreaking week one loss in the final seconds to the Carolina Panthers, the Chargers find themselves on the receiving end of one of the worst officiating errors in NFL history.
A clear Jay Cutler fumble, and Chargers recovery, is ruled Denver football as an errant whistle blows just prior to the Chargers recovery. Despite clear video evidence, Ed Hochuli abides by the NFL's rules and awards the football to the Denver Broncos. Instead of the Chargers lining up in victory formation for the win, the Broncos score a touchdown, convert a two-point conversion, and don't allow the Chargers to score in the 0:20 left on the clock.
All this in the same game in which a coaches challenge by the Chargers, which clearly showed a Bailey interception was actually a Chambers catch, was upheld as Broncos football due to a "replay malfunction" in which a Denver-high-school-student-run replay booth failed to work properly.
Needless to say, that game was a Chargers victory that, because of two egregious officiating errors, was given to the Denver Broncos.
Fast forward to week 17, 2008. After being on the receiving end of a slue of lucky results - deja vu? - the Chargers still have an opportunity to reach the playoffs: the Chargers and Broncos were to face one another, with the winner declared the AFC West champ.
The Chargers won that game (and therefore the AFC West) and it wasn't close.
Case closed, right? The "replay malfunction" and Hochuli error didn't cost the Chargers anything, right? They still won the division and everything was as it was supposed to be, yes?
Tomlinson & Gates Injuries
Had the first Chargers/Broncos tilt ended the way it should have - a Chargers victory - the final bout between the Chargers and Broncos would have been irrelevant: the Chargers would have already clinched. Knowing what we know about how Norv Turner treats meaningless late-season games - ie. by resting his starters like he did against Washington the following season - the Chargers would have likely rested Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, and the rest of the crew in week 17.
Instead, because the Chargers had to play that game, those players played...and two of them, Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson, were injured in the game.
Gates re-injured the toe he had surgery on in the prior offseason, but would ultimately still play in the postseason.
Tomlinson, on the other hand, would only get five carries in the postseason, as he was clearly hobbled early in Chargers/Colts wild card round game. This was unfortunate, as Tomlinson had finally appeared to be 100% and "old Tomlinson" during the Broncos game. In fact, NFL.com awarded Tomlinson with the game ball for his efforts that week, saying:
It took 17 weeks, but Tomlinson finally looked like his old self, rushing for 96 yards and a season-high three touchdowns in less than three quarters. Tomlinson left in the fourth quarter with a possible abdominal strain and didn't return. - NFL.com recap
Where the Steelers come in
Do you see where I'm going with this?
The Chargers, without Tomlinson, faced the Steelers in the divisional round that season, losing 35-24. In that game, the Chargers rushed the ball 11 times for a total of 15 yards...with 12 of those yards coming on draws to close the first half.
If you don't think Tomlinson makes some difference in that statistic (and therefore the game), if you don't think he'd convert the 3rd and 2 that Sproles got 1 yard on, and if you don't think that the defensive scheme would have been altered had Tomlinson played, I don't know what to tell you. I don't know how to quantify the impact other than to say it was not meaningless; it was still 1500+ yards from scrimmage Tomlinson.
(Never mind the facts that the most significant penalty of the game - a marginal (classic "bang bang") pass interference call by Eric Weddle - gave the Steelers the football on the one yard line early in the fourth quarter, that Lamar Woodley wasn't called for roughing Rivers (on a third down) when he "picked Rivers off the ground before throwing him to the turf", and that a Rivers interception was upheld despite the football appearing to hit the ground.)
It appears, to me, that the Steelers were an indirect beneficiary of one of the worst calls in Chargers history in a season where the Steelers would eventually go on to win that Super Bowl on a close, judgement call, which should have had a celebration penalty attached to it, if that game even ended at all.
Bad calls and missed calls happen all the time. It's finally Chargers fans' turn to celebrate a minor error - because, really, the defensive line didn't cause Succop to miss - instead of seeing other teams prosper from Chargers' officiating misfortunes. You won't find any sympathy here.