PITTSBURGH — The reaction of Pittsburgh's three most quotable players said it all about the Steelers' emotions after their 17-13 loss to San Diego at Three Rivers Stadium on Sunday.
Cornerback Tim McKyer was so devastated after getting beat deep on San Diego's winning touchdown pass that he needed four security guards to help him off the field five minutes after the game.
Linebacker Kevin Greene was so upset that he greeted reporters in the locker room still dressed in full uniform from a crawl position and tearfully shouted at them: "You . . . get out of my face."
Linebacker Greg Lloyd was so shocked that he sat alone on a bench in the Steelers' weight room looking down at the ground without talking for 20 minutes before joining his teammates in the locker room.
So what happened to the Steelers' "One for the Thumb Super Bowl Run?"
Overconfidence. Plain and simple.
Throughout the week, the Steelers and their fans acted like Sunday's AFC championship game was only a quick stop on the way to Super Bowl XXIX in Miami.
Instead of worrying about the Chargers, the Steelers appeared more interested in acquiring additional Super Bowl tickets and making a Super Bowl rap video. Defensive end Ray Seals even said that if the Steelers played up to their abilities, the Chargers would not score.
For most of the first three quarters, the Steelers played like a team that had a reason to be overconfident as they dominated the Chargers. At one point, the Steelers had outgained the Chargers, 279 yards to 49, and had held the ball for 25:33 compared to San Diego's 8:50.
Pittsburgh's problem was that it only had a 13-3 lead to show for it.
"We were able to drive the ball all the way down into their red-zone area, but we weren't getting any touchdowns," quarterback Neil O'Donnell said. "Not getting into the end zone really hurt us."
What really added to the Steelers' woes was the fact that their domination was not coming from their running game, which had carried them throughout the season and helped them hold leads in the second half.
Against San Diego, Pittsburgh decided to pass more and rushed for only 66 yards.
"When a team brings up their safeties and plays an eight- or nine-man front, it's tough to run the ball," said Pittsburgh tackle John Jackson. "That's why we had to start passing the ball so much."
In easily his best game as a pro, O'Donnell completed 32 of 54 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown. But his passing wasn't able to keep the Chargers' offense off the field long enough when it counted.
With Natrone Means gaining 69 yards in 20 carries, San Diego quarterback Stan Humphries was able to catch the Steelers off-guard with play-action passes.
Humphries' first big completion came with 8:03 to play in the third quarter, when he faked a handoff to Means and passed to wide-open tight end Alfred Pupunu for a 43-yard touchdown to cut the Steelers' lead to 13-10.
"We dropped coverage on that play and they just caught us with a good run fake," Steeler safety Carnell Lake said. "We knew that Humphries is a good play-action quarterback who likes to throw deep. What they did was execute a play that we hadn't seen before to perfection."
Had the Steelers been able to get their running attack clicking, they would have had a better chance of preventing Humphries from making his second big completion of the game with 5:13 to play.
After converting on only one of eight third-down plays, the Chargers capitalized on two in a row during their game-winning drive, with the clincher being Humphries completing a perfectly thrown 43-yard touchdown pass to Tony Martin, who got behind McKyer on a deep post pattern.
After recording the best record during the regular season to have home-field advantage during the AFC playoffs, the Steelers still had a chance and 61,545 supportive fans behind them.
With the ball at his 17-yard line, O'Donnell led the Steelers on a 10-play drive before having his fourth-and-goal pass to Barry Foster knocked down by the Chargers' Dennis Gibson in the end zone with 1:08 to play.
"We were three yards away and we couldn't get it done," said linebacker Chad Brown. "Most times, we are going to make that play. We had it right there in front of us but we fell short."