Updated at: 12/10/2012 3:36 AM
By WILL GRAVES
(AP) PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Steelers have gotten pretty good at beating the NFL’s best.
They’ve nearly perfected losing to the worst.
And while San Diego is more underachieving than utterly horrific, the Chargers’ 34-24 win over the Steelers on Sunday continued a perplexing trend for a team that considers itself among the elite.
Pittsburgh (7-6) has won on the road at Baltimore and the New York Giants this season. It has also fallen to lesser-lights Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland and now the Chargers (5-8). It makes for one of the weirder resumes of any playoff contender.
"There’s nothing we can really say," Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. "We know we went out and messed up a lot of games. We know we’re going to pay for it here."
The Steelers certainly paid for it on Sunday.
Pittsburgh hoped the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from a three-week layoff due to a sprained right shoulder would provide the final piece to a puzzle that’s only come together in fits and spurts this fall.
While Roethlisberger’s arm looked fine while throwing for 285 yards and three touchdowns, he got little help from his teammates and was hardly perfect himself, throwing for an interception and having a botched screen pass turn into an easy San Diego score that put the Chargers up 24 midway through the third quarter.
"We felt like we missed a lot of plays out there," Roethlisberger said. "I missed a lot of throws. I threw it to them once. We all have to play better."
Amazingly, the Steelers are still in prime position to secure one of the AFC’s six postseason spots after Cincinnati lost to Dallas. If Pittsburgh can win its final three games _ starting with a road game against the Cowboys next Sunday _ it’s in no matter what happens elsewhere.
"I feel great about this team," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "We didn’t play our best today and they got us but going forward I feel like we’re going to win every game. That’s what we’ve got to do to get in the playoffs."
There are no such visions in San Diego, which came in having lost seven of its last eight. Yet the Chargers were able to make history by winning in Pittsburgh in the regular season for the first time, snapping a 14-game losing streak.
They did it by playing with the fearlessness and tenacity of a team with postseason dreams. Those are long gone, and head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith may soon be on their way out, too.
Not that it mattered on a day the Chargers looked like the team playing with something on the line.
Philip Rivers threw three touchdown passes, two to Danario Alexander, and San Diego cruised.
"This isn’t necessarily the team we thought we’d have on the field in December, but this is the type of performance we thought we’d put together," said Rivers, who completed 21 of 41 passes for 200 yards.
The injury-ravaged offensive line kept Rivers out of harm’s way. The Steelers only sacked Rivers once, and all that extra time in the pocket helped him convert 12 of 22 third downs, allowing San Diego to chew up the clock and keep Roethlisberger from getting going while the game was still competitive.
"We all know that this team has played this way through large parts of many games," Turner said. "We did not make the big mistake in the football game."
Instead, it was the Steelers who couldn’t seem to get out of their own way.
The Steelers didn’t even cross midfield until a last-gasp drive to end the half ended with Shaun Suisham’s 49-yard field goal that pulled them to 13-3.
Any boost the kick provided disappeared during the first 10 minutes of the third quarter.
San Diego converted five straight third downs during a clock-chewing drive, including a 17-yard burst up the middle by Ronnie Brown on third-and-13 from the Pittsburgh 29.
The play wasn’t designed to get a first down, but a pair of missed tackles helped the Chargers extend the drive. Three plays later Rivers found Michael Floyd for a 3-yard touchdown to make it 20-3.
The 17-play march ate up nearly 10 minutes. The Chargers then needed barely 10 seconds to put the game away.
Backed up yet again after Floyd’s score, Roethlisberger tried to hit Brown on a screen pass. The ball smacked into tight end David Paulson’s rear and rolled into the end zone, where Quentin Jammer fell on it.
The play appeared to be overturned on review. Pittsburgh’s offense ran back onto the field when referee Scott Green popped out from under the hood.
Instead, Green pulled a switcheroo, confirming the score to give the Chargers a 27-3 lead and a brief moment of joy in a year full of chaos.
"Yeah we’ve been struggling the last five weeks," tight end Antonio Gates said. "But at the end of the day it only came down to one or two plays in those games we lost. Today, we just were playing the way we were capable of playing, the way we know how to play."
NOTES: Steelers LG Willie Colon left the game with a left knee injury. Pouncey moved from center to guard, with Doug Legursky replacing Pouncey at center. ... Roethlisberger became the 25th quarterback in NFL history to surpass 29,000 passing yards and 1,000 career rushing yards. ... San Diego WR Michael Spurlock had seven receptions for 64 yards, with five of the receptions turning third downs into first downs. ... Steelers WR Plaxico Burress had an 18-yard reception in the first half, his first reception since being re-signed by the Steelers two weeks ago. ... San Diego held the ball for 36:45, the most by a Pittsburgh opponent this season.
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(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)