Greatest Chargers Playoff Wins: #1, 1994 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

Photo by Rick Stewart/Stringer, Courtesy of Getty Images

While not a league Championship like the 1963 game and not a classic NFL game like The Epic in Miami, this game was the most significant win for the Chargers since joining the NFL in 1970. It was also one of the most unlikely wins in franchise history with the Bolts having to beat an excellent team in a city where they seemed to never win, against a team the Chargers have rarely beaten.

The Season

Not much was expected from the 1994 Chargers. Coach Ross was coming into his 3rd year, and yes, he had coached the team to a division championship in 1992 after starting the season 0-4. The 1993 team had not done so well though, finishing 8-8. With a resurgent Kansas City team under coach Schottenheimer and a declining (but still capable Joe Montana), the Raiders having a solid team, and the John Elway led Broncos, the Bolts were expected to battle for the AFC West Cellar with the Seahawks.

Those predictions confirmed why you should actually play the games. The 1994 team, as I recall, was…strange. They had a knack for doing things at the right time, getting more breaks than their opponents, and not beating themselves. The timely turnover, the well-executed 2 minute drill, and successful goal-line stands were big parts of the story for the 1994 team.

The team also played with a chip on its shoulder most of the season. This team believed in itself and believed it was better than the projected 4th or 5th place finish For a lifelong Bolts fan, these qualities and the knack for making the right thing happen at the right time, plus the edge and anger in their play, made the team somewhat unusual compared with a "typical" Bolts team.

As a case in point; the season opener against Denver, played in Denver, on Sunday Night Football. The Broncos jumped all over the Bolts in the first quarter of the game, with Elway shredding the defense (which Elway did far too often) to get the Broncos a 17-0 lead. The lead was extended to 24-6 early in the 2nd quarter, before Stan Humphries started to get hot and put up two TD’s on long passes. Elway worked his usual 2 minute magic and had the Broncos inside the 5 about to score the knockout TD with seconds to go in the half.

In any other season, the Broncos score and the Chargers go on to lose. Not in 1994. Elway dropped back to pass, Junior Seau came on a blitz, destroyed some poor running back with a two fisted swipe that knocked the would-be blocker on his butt, and charged full speed after Elway. Elway panicked (a rare sight) and threw a ball up for grabs. Bolt Safety Stanley Richards snagged the ball at the 1, with the closest Bronco 5 yards away from him and nothing but 99 yards of Mile High green grass between him and the end zone. The Bolts took a 3 point lead into halftime and ended up winning 37-34. As I watched that night, I remember thinking that games like that do not happen in Denver against the Broncos and that this might be a special season.

The Chargers finished up 11-5 and winners of the AFC West, and seeded #2 in the playoffs. A lot of myths about that team have become "fact" over the years. Myth #1 – The Bolts had a dominating defense that year. Fact -The Chargers were ranked 14th out 28 teams in yards allowed, right in the middle of the pack. They did get stingy in the red zone though, as their scoring defense was ranked #9. Myth #2 – The Offense was average. Fact – In yards, yes, the offense was ranked 11th out 28 teams, but they did make those yards count. The team was 5th in the league in scoring offense. Myth #3 – The defense was loaded with Pro-Bowlers. Fact – There were 2 Pro-Bowl players on defense, Junior Seau and Leslie O’Neal.

What made this team good was a positive turnover differential (32 – 23), the leg of John Carney (34 of 38, with both +50 yard attempts made), taking advantage of just about every opportunity and mistake by an opponent, and an incredible run of good health. The next man up was not really needed in 1994.

The Set Up

Miami had won the AFC East and was the #3 seed playing the Chiefs at home in the Wild Card week. With their win, the last playoff game appearance by Joe Montana and last playoff win by Dan Marino, they traveled to San Diego for the divisional round game. That game itself nearly appeared on this list, as it was a hard fought game and a nail biter at the end. The Chargers squeaked by, as they often had that season.

Chargers 1994 playoffs (via D Wan)

For the third time since the 1970 merger, the Bolts were in the AFC Championship game. That was the good news. The bad news was that the game would be hosted by the #1 seed Pittsburgh Steelers, a 12-4 team that season. The Chargers record against the Steelers stood at 6-14 going into that game, with a 1 – 9 record when playing in Pittsburgh. That win had happened in 1983, also during the playoffs, a tournament style affair to cap the strike shortened 1982 season. Vegas set the opening line as the Chargers 11 point dogs.

The Steelers had every reason to be confident; their defense, then in the height of their "Blitzburgh" days, had recorded 55 sacks in the season. Their rushing attack was #1 in the league. And they let that confidence spill over into some widely reported quotes and events. This started with a quote from Steelers radio announcer Myron Cope: "Were it Marino dramatically coming back to his hometown and bent upon getting to a Super Bowl, we’d be a little more worried than we’ll be looking at the San Diego beach boys." This continued when DE Ray Seals predicted the Chargers offense would not score a point on Wednesday.

Then there was the capper; a report published in the Union on Friday that the Steelers had taped a "Super Bowl" rap video. (This was not accurate; Steeler TE Eric Green had held a meeting in the Steeler’s offices with several players after Tuesday’s practice to talk about scheduling shooting the video and promoting it.) The Chargers, predicted by many to finish last in the AFC West that year, had played all season with a chip on their shoulders and many of the Chargers later were quite honest in their belief that the simmering anger at "disrespect" had fueled many of their wins. The Charger players did not publicly react to any of the reports coming out of Pittsburgh. Privately though, all of the players that boarded the flight to Pittsburgh were barely controlling their rage.

The Game

At first, Pittsburgh’s play matched up with their pre-game swagger. Countering their primary offensive tendency to run the ball, they threw 9 times on an opening drive score. The Bolts were able to force a fumble on the next Steeler drive and the game settled in to a hard hitting defensive stalemate. The Steelers and Chargers each managed to put up field goals before halftime set the score at 10-3. Throughout the game, Junior Seau seemed to be everywhere. He recorded 16 tackles and a forced fumble that afternoon, was active in pass coverage, and was doing it all on a bad left shoulder.

The 3rd quarter produced more of the same defensive hard hitting competition. Both sides traded possessions and midway through the 3rd quarter, the Bolts managed to put together a couple of first downs and had the ball on the Steelers 43. A beautifully executed play fake left Alfred Pupunu, primarily a blocking TE, 5 yards past any Steeler defender. Humphries dropped the ball right over Pupunu’s left shoulder and the footrace ended with the first Charger TD of the day. The defenses than took the game back over, the Chargers D-line was able to keep Barry Foster from getting anything and after O’Donnell had gotten the Bolts attention to start the game, that was fairly ineffective, too. It was not for lack of trying; Pittsburgh attempted 51 passes that afternoon, but only had sustained success with the game on their first and then last drives.

With a 13-10 lead with 4 minutes left in the game, and the Chargers facing a 3rd and long from the Pittsburgh 43, it looked like the only thing in jeopardy was the Vegas line. On the 3rd down play, Pittsburgh (as usual) brought extra rushers, leaving Tony Martin singled on Tim McKyer. Martin blew past McKyer, Humphries delivered a strike and the Bolts had a 17-13 lead on another 43 yard catch and run. On Pittsburgh’s next possession, they drove down the field to get a first and goal from just inside the 10 with 2:00 to go.

In most other seasons, the Steelers score the go ahead TD with 10 seconds left on the clock. Not in 1994. After a stuffed run, an incomplete pass (nearly intercepted) and short pass that Seau & company crashed in on quickly, the Steelers were left on the 3, with a 4th and goal. On the 4th down play, Barry Foster released up the middle and turned around right inside the end zone. O’Donnell fired the ball past a diving Chris Mims, and as the ball arrived, Charger LB Dennis Gibson went over Foster’s left shoulder in a perfectly timed up play to knock the ball down.

Chargers AFC champions ! (via D Wan)

For the first time in 25 NFL seasons, the San Diego Chargers were going to the Super Bowl.

How It Played Out

That afternoon, the Bolts found out that their opponents in Super Bowl 29 would be the San Francisco 49ers. The ‘niners had the league’s best scoring offense, 6th best scoring defense, and a 13-3 record in the regular season; their last loss coming in the final week of the season when they had nothing to play for and rested their starters. Vegas promptly opened the line at 24 points in favor of the 49ers, but at game time, the line had come down to 19.

The 1994 run of rising to the occasion, getting the breaks they needed, and finding a way to win ended in Pittsburgh. From the opening kick-off to the 49ers to the end of the game, it was clear that the Chargers were over-manned and quickly overwhelmed. The final score was 49 – 26; the Bolts were unable to even reward the bettors that took the points. It took the 49ers another 18 seasons to get back into the Super Bowl; the Chargers are still looking for another shot at the brass ring.

So there are the 5 Greatest Playoff wins in Bolt history. You can vote on the one that you think is the greatest below. Maybe the next playoff game the Chargers play will make another list in a few years. Its football, so on any given Sunday...

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