CARSON, Calif. -- When the 2019 season began, you'd have gotten good odds on both the Steelers and Chargers winning their respective divisions.
Neither was quite the favorite, mind you, but smart money gave them both solid chances to do so. And both were considered strong playoff contenders in the AFC, which doesn't have the overall depth of the NFC.
That's why when these two teams meet Sunday night at Dignity Health Sports Park, the Chargers' temporary home in Los Angeles, neither has given up on their season, despite slow starts.
Both have been rocked by injuries. For the Steelers, it's been at quarterback, where Ben Roethlisberger and now his replacement, Mason Rudolph, are both out. Undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges will make his first career start while Rudolph recovers from a concussion suffered in last week's 26-23 overtime loss to the Ravens.
For the Chargers, the injuries have been more widespread. All-Pro safety Derwin James was lost at training camp, while left tackle Russell Okung developed a heart issue that has sidelined him all season. Just this past week, the Chargers lost Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey, the twin brother of Steelers' center Maurkice Pouncey, leaving an already sub-par line even more thin.
It's added up to a 1-4 start for the Steelers -- with their past three losses coming by a combined nine points -- and a 2-3 start for the Chargers, including a shocker at home last week to the previously winless Broncos.
But neither team is ready to pack things in.
“We know they have dealt with some injuries on the other side," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. "It will be a tough challenge. You see with them some of the games they have lost, how they have been down to the wire also. It will be a heck of a game, as it seems like we have had a handful the last decade plus with Pittsburgh, and they all come down to the wire. It will be a heck of a game.”
Just like last season's 33-30 win by the Chargers in Pittsburgh, where Rivers led the visitors back from a 23-7 deficit.
But the Chargers were excellent on the road last season. They went 8-0 in games in which they actually got on an airplane in the regular season, with a loss as the road team to the Rams in Los Angeles as their lone road blemish last season. They also won as a home team in London against the Titans.
In two seasons playing games at Dignity Health Sports Park -- a soccer complex that seats 27,000 -- the Chargers are 5-5. They don't have much of a home field advantage.
And the stadium has typically been filled with fans of the other team. There are worse places for a young quarterback to be making his first career start, especially one from a small school such as Hodges, a product of Samford. Seibert Stadium, where Samford plays its home games, has a seating capacity of 6,700.
"You can’t keep it simple that it’s so simple that it’s not effective, but you better be careful, and maybe just go back in time and see the things he’s done really well," Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said of planning for Hodges to start. "He’s had some in-game experience in preseason. He’s had a lot of scrimmage-type opportunities down in training camp. Friday night lights, things like that. So, when you start pulling out some of the old tape there and start looking, and say, “Wow, remember Duck did that.”
That's what little available tape there is of Hodges. Chargers coach Anthony Lynn admitted his team wasn't aware of Hodges in the pre-draft process and has had to play catch-up.
"We just saw a little snap of him last week," Lynn said. "We went back and looked at what he did in college. He broke Steve McNair’s all-time passing records. There were times when he was on the big stage at Florida State, he only threw for 475 yards and two TDs, and he goes to Mississippi State and throws for 470 yards and four TDs. It just seems like being at a small school, every time he had the chance to play on a big stage he showed up.
“I watched him last week when he came in the game, he was very prepared. It was obvious. They went straight down the field and scored. He seems like a good football player.”
Will that be enough? That remains to be seen.
But know that both teams are not just hungry, they're starving for a victory.
"I’m only concerned with the outcome," Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said. "It’s hard to think positive when we’re not getting the outcome we want. We’re trucking along and trying to turn the ship. I know we’ve got good players in here. I know we’ve got the defense to do it."
Now, the only question is whether they have the quarterback to do so.
“He is an exciting kid,” said Maurkice Pouncey of Hodges. “He's motivated. He has a lot of confidence. That is what you like to see in a quarterback.
"He is cool as hell, too.”
It'd be a lot cooler if he'd win.
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