PITTSBURGH -- So the Chargers are in the Super Bowl, which is the best news San Diego has had since someone first yelled, "Fleet's in!"
The discomforting news is, as part of making the trip they will be required to actually play San Francisco. Yet even that grim prospect cannot dampen the moment for the delirious Lightning Bolts.
Yesterday, on a gray, Gothic afternoon, in the junior-varsity portion of the Super Bowl tournament, the resourceful Chargers made the most of their infrequent opportunities to wrench victory away from the hugely favored and flagrantly overconfident -- and now thoroughly stunned -- Steelers.
Speaking for all of us, Chargers tight end Alfred Pupunu blinked into the klieg lights and said: "I am very speechless right now."
So the City of Three Rivers is now the City of Teardrops. The home team let what was presumed to be a sure one get away, and everyone is inconsolable.
And the Chargers are in the Super Bowl and no one is sure exactly why. Or how.
Here, however, are some theories:
* The Steelers outsmarted themselves. Knowing the Chargers would be massed to stop their running game, which is the best in the NFL, the Steelers decided to pass instead. Fifty-four times in all. And only 26 runs. The Steelers, inexplicably, stupidly, turned away from what they do best. In the most important game of the season. In retrospect, it was a flawed game plan doomed to self-destruct.
* The show-biz factor. The Steelers seemed to spend less time last week talking football than they did working on their hoofing and warbling for a Super Bowl video. Now it is a video that they will not be making. They insisted that they weren't looking past the Chargers. Their play suggested otherwise.
* The big-play factor. The Steelers ran 80 offensive plays, the Chargers only 47. Of those 127, three mattered most. And San Diego made all three -- two long touchdown passes by the Chargers, one pass broken up in the end zone by the Chargers. The moral is, if you make a little do a lot, then it doesn't matter if you hardly ever see the ball.
You have to rejoice for the Chargers. The Bolts are going to their first Supe, and now there are only eight franchises who have never been.
They might as well enjoy themselves because little will be expected of them. Just lie there and bleed. The role of the AFC representative in the Supe, after all, is similar to the role of the pig at a luau. Besides, can the Bolts do any worse than the Bills, the Broncos or any other appetizers the AFC has served up over the last decade? Hardly.
This Super Bowl will also be Junior Seau's richly deserved moment in the sun.
That's Junior "Say Ow."
He plays linebacker with a predatorial fury, and yesterday he was the best one-armed football player you have ever seen. He raged all over the field, departing it only once, and then only momentarily, when the pinched nerve in his neck left him without feeling above the waist.
He sat on the bench and seemed to will his body to come back to life. Then he arose and went out and cut somebody else in half.
Over the press box public address system there streamed a constant torrent of praise to his participation:
"Brought down by Seau. . .
"Stop made by Seau. . .
"Broken up by Seau. . .
"Broken in two by Seau. . ."
He is a Butkus, with range.
In the locker room afterward, the Chargers sought him out, one by one, for an embrace, a tap, a touch, as though just by making contact with him something might rub off.
Seau admitted that the Steelers' perplexing strategy on offense bewildered him.
"It surprised me that they threw that much that early," he said. "I figured they'd try to pound us, like they have everyone else. The way they altered things. . . I don't know, maybe they thought they'd catch us by surprise."
They didn't. The Chargers accepted the gift gratefully. The Steelers' defense of their mystifying play-calling was that they felt a need to, in coach Bill Cowher's words, "mix things up."
In the end, they succeeded only in mixing themselves up. And as a result, it is the Bolts, not the Steelers, going to the Supe, filling the role of sacrifice.