O'Donnell comes up inches short AFC CHAMPIONSHIP

January 16, 1995|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- It was possibly Neil O'Donnell's greatest chance to become fully vindicated in this city, but the former University of Maryland star came up a few inches short.

O'Donnell almost put the Steelers in a position to win a fifth Super Bowl, but his fourth-down pass from the San Diego 3 in the final 1:08 was knocked down in the end zone as the San Diego Chargers held on for a 17-13 victory in the AFC championship game yesterday.

"It's a tough loss and it's going to be a hard one to swallow," said O'Donnell. "We've been at this for a long time. The guys played their hearts out."

O'Donnell had been criticized heavily earlier in the season and many Pittsburgh fans wanted him replaced by backup Mike Tomczak.

But since returning to play nearly a month ago after missing two games with injuries, O'Donnell has played well. Yesterday he completed a career-high 32 of 54 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown.

If he had pulled out the victory for the Steelers, he could have gone from almost getting run out of town to owning it.

"I'll look back probably in about three weeks on this game," said O'Donnell, "when I'm sitting at home and relaxing. We won our division and that's a positive. You come this close, all the weights you lift, all the miles you throw, all the miles you run, it's hard to lose this way.

"The records mean nothing," said O'Donnell. "I never was a big stat guy and never will be."

Where was Jonassen?

Chargers offensive guard and Glen Burnie native Eric Jonassen played very little yesterday, except in the Chargers' Jumbo Package in short-yardage situations.

Jonassen's absence was somewhat of a surprise since he had played in nearly 50 percent of the Chargers' offensive plays this season, and has been the top replacement for guard Joe Milinichik, who was scratched from the starting lineup at the last minute yesterday.

Comeback kids

The Chargers' come-from-behind win was the second straight in the playoffs. San Diego rallied from a 15-point deficit to beat Miami last week.

"That's the way we've been all year," said San Diego quarterback Stan Humphries. "They ran a few stunts that we hadn't seen in a while. A couple of times it was bad throws by me. I don't know if it was the wet weather. But to come back says a lot about the character of this team."

Iron City light

Despite remarks to the contrary from the Chargers, the Steelers said they did not take San Diego lightly.

"San Diego came in here, strapped on their helmets and was ready to play," said Pittsburgh defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "The Chargers made the big plays and we didn't. There's nothing more to it than that."

An empty feeling

Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said there were few words that could console his team, and the ones he used his team probably didn't hear.

"What you say probably is not going to sink in," said Cowher. "It's very disappointing. It's a hard loss to take. We had been playing so well. We obviously felt very good about this game, but now there is an empty feeling. All you can do is wake up tomorrow. The sun is going to come up and you've just got to move on."

Miscellaneous

Yesterday's crowd of 61,545 was the largest ever at Three Rivers Stadium, breaking the record of 60,804 set Dec. 18 against the Cleveland Browns. . . . The Steelers are now 4-3 in AFC championship games. . . . Parking prices in Pittsburgh jumped $5 in a week -- from $10 to $15. "Inflation," said the parking attendant. . . . Pittsburgh had beaten San Diego nine of 10 times at Three Rivers before yesterday's game.

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