PITTSBURGH -- Desperately in need of a win over San Diego to improve their playoff chances, the Pittsburgh Steelers hoped Ben Roethlisberger's return would be the perfect spark.
Instead, the absence of cornerback Ike Taylor and linebacker LaMarr Woodley proved to be too much to overcome.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offense struggled while Philip Rivers and the San Diego receiving corps picked on backup corners Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown in a 34-24 win over Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.
Rivers was 21-of-41 for 200 yards and three touchdowns, far from spectacular but more than efficient enough against a Steelers secondary missing its top shutdown corner due to a fractured ankle. Allen, a second-year pro, got his first career start, but it was Brown who the Chargers victimized the most. Brown was caught out of position on a 39-yard touchdown to Danario Alexander that helped give the Chargers a 13-3 halftime lead, and San Diego converted multiple third downs to receivers covered by Brown.
Even without three starters on the offensive line, San Diego gave Rivers enough protection. Woodley, second on the team in sacks, missed the game with a sprained ankle. Backup Jason Worilds couldn't team with fellow outside linebacker James Harrison to put much pressure on the Chargers, as the Steelers sacked Rivers just one time.
Emboldened by their first half success, the Chargers landed a heavy blow on the Steelers defense to start the third quarter. San Diego marched 78 yards over 17 plays and 9:32 before Rivers tossed a 3-yard touchdown to Malcom Floyd to give San Diego a 20-3 lead.
After a penalty on the ensuing kickoff return pushed the Steelers deep in their own territory, Roethlisberger tried a short screen pass to Antonio Brown on first down. The ball bounced off of tight end David Paulson, who was blocking on the play, and Quentin Jammer recovered it for the Chargers. The officiating crew reviewed the play to see if it was a forward pass, but it was ruled a fumble and the touchdown -- and San Diego's 27-3 lead -- stood.
Pittsburgh got a late touchdown on a 40-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace, but the Steelers couldn't muster much more of a comeback. Roethlisberger was picked off early in the fourth quarter, and Rivers tossed a 15-yard touchdown to Alexander to make it 34-10 and put the game out of reach despite the Steelers adding two late touchdowns. Roethlisberger finished 22-of-42 for 285 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception.
Pittsburgh fell to 7-6, but stayed tied for the sixth and final playoff spot thanks to Dallas' 20-19 win over Cincinnati. That makes the Bengals' trip to Pittsburgh in two weeks essentially a playoff game.
Even with the win, San Diego is all but out of the playoff hunt at 5-8.
Game notes: Rivers didn't throw an interception, marking the first time this season that he went back-to-back games without throwing a pick. ... Recently signed wide receiver Plaxico Burress made his first catch in a Steelers uniform in eight years. Burress, signed on Nov. 20, hadn't played since the end of the 2011 season when he was with the New York Jets. The 35-year old Burress was active for the last two games but didn't record a stat. He was originally drafted by Pittsburgh as the No. 8 overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft. ... San Diego DE Vaughn Martin left early in the first with a groin injury and did not return. ... Steelers left guard Willie Colon injured his left knee and did not return. Center Maurkice Pouncey moved over to left guard and Doug Legursky came into the game to play center.