The Pittsburgh Steelers stormed into the AFC championship game with a convincing 35-24 victory over the visiting San Diego Chargers.
|Willie Parker celebrates his econd touchdown in the fourth quarter [GALLO/GETTY]
The Steelers fell behind 10-7 in the second quarter at a snowy Heinz Field but rallied with 21 unanswered points to set up a home meeting against the Baltimore Ravens on January 18.
The winner of that contest advances to the Super Bowl on February 1 in Tampa, Florida, where they will meet either the Philadelphia Eagles or the Arizona Cardinals.
"We've got a mentally tough group in there and they were able to display it today," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after Pittsburgh (13-4) reached a third AFC title game in five seasons.
Willie Parker ran for 146 yards and two touchdowns and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passed for another for the Steelers, who defeated the Ravens twice during regular season.
Philip Rivers passed for three touchdowns for San Diego, but two of the scores, including a 62-yarder to Darren Sproles, came after Pittsburgh had the game in hand.
The Steelers completely dominated the decisive third quarter on Sunday by restricting the Chargers to just a single offensive play.
"We wanted to come out of the locker room and establish a tone," Tomlin said.
The Steelers, who led 14-10 at half time after Parker's three-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter, stretched the lead to 11 points on Heath Miller's eight-yard pass play from Roethlisberger.
"The ball was flying well tonight," Roethlisberger, who overcame a late-season concussion, said.
Rivers was intercepted on the first play after Miller's touchdown, enabling Pittsburgh to keep the ball.
Even when Pittsburgh were forced to punt they wound up with the football.
The punt bounced off the helmet of the Chargers' Eric Weddle and the Steelers recovered to run out the quarter.
"That was tough," Rivers said of the Steelers' control of the third quarter.
"Obviously it had a huge impact on the game."
A one-yard run by Gary Russell made it 28-10 early in the fourth before Rivers passed for a pair of touchdowns either side of Parker's second TD on a 16-yard run.
"We came into this game wanting to keep the defence off of the field," Parker said.
"That's what we did."
Rivers had opened the game with a 41-yarder to Vincent Jackson but Pittsburgh struck back in dramatic fashion with a 67-yard punt return from Santonio Holmes.
San Diego (9-9) went back in front on Nate Kaeding's 42-yard field goal early in the second but, playing without injured running back LaDainian Tomlinson, never threatened again until it was too late.