SAN DIEGO (AP) – Monday Night Football is returning to San Diego for the first time in nine seasons, and wouldn’t you know it, the Chargers actually look like prime-time players.

Drew Brees is throwing with authority. LaDainian Tomlinson is doing what the NFL’s highest-paid running back is supposed to do. And Antonio Gates is back to giving defensive coordinators headaches – and maybe, just maybe, making his general manager wonder why he made the star tight end sit out a season-opening loss to Dallas as punishment for a training camp holdout.

Fresh off a 41-17 upset of the two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, the Chargers (2-2) host the other team that played in last year’s AFC championship game, the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1).

It will be San Diego’s first crack at Ben Roethlisberger. Steelers coach Bill Cowher gets another chance to beat his former boss, Marty Schottenheimer.

And the Chargers will look sharp. They’re breaking out their AFL-vintage powder-blue jerseys and white helmets with black numbers and yellow lightning bolts.

“It’s going to be really exciting man, especially in the powder blues,” Tomlinson said. “On top of that, it’s on Monday night and the fans, I’m pretty sure, are going to be pretty crazy. So I’m looking forward to it.”

The Chargers haven’t played a home Monday night game since Nov. 11, 1996, when Stan Humphries and Tony Martin led them to a 27-21 win over Detroit in the waning weeks of the Bobby Ross era.

They were scheduled to host the Miami Dolphins on Oct. 27, 2003, but were chased out of town because deadly wildfires forced authorities to use Qualcomm Stadium’s parking lot as an evacuation center. Playing in Tempe, Ariz., the Chargers looked awful in losing 26-10.

The defending AFC West champion Chargers are rejuvenated after scoring 86 points in their last two games, including the win at New England.

“We needed a victory bad,” Tomlinson said. “We needed to get back to even so we could feel good about ourselves and the direction we were going. It just happened to be the Super Bowl champs and their 21-game home winning streak on the line.”

The Chargers are trying to keep that win in perspective. Brees expected the offense to be efficient; he just didn’t expect the Chargers to open with losses to Dallas and Denver.

“I don’t look at it that we’re 2-2. We won two in a row. We’ve just got to keep that streak going,” said Brees, who threw four touchdown passes in the last two games, with no interceptions and no sacks.

The Chargers may be on the verge of being considered one of the NFL’s elite teams.

“We’re probably just flying under the radar, just going out and taking care of our business,” Brees said. “And all that stuff takes care of itself when the time comes. We’re a team that if we keep going at the rate we’re going, yes, we’ll reach that level. But it just continues to take work and work and work, and we’re not there yet.”

Brees will have two of the NFL’s best offensive players at his disposal as the Chargers face Pittsburgh’s disruptive defense. Tomlinson has scored an NFL-high eight touchdowns and is second with 450 yards rushing. Gates caught six passes for 108 yards against New England.

“They’re young, confident and talented,” Cowher said.

Even Cowher thinks the Chargers might have beaten Dallas if they’d had Gates. Instead, Gates was finishing a three-game suspension meted out by GM A.J. Smith.

“In Denver, they had a chance to win. I think this team could very easily be 4-0,” Cowher added. “I think that says a lot about the fact that they’ve really picked up where they left off a year ago. I don’t feel like we’re playing like we did a year ago, but I think San Diego is.”

The Steelers are coming off their bye. Before that, they lost at home to New England, 23-20.

Chargers defenders are expected to be busy with the Steelers’ running game. Willie Parker carried the load while Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis were injured. With Staley and Bettis healthy, the backfield is so crowded that Bettis could be inactive Monday night.

“They just beat the defending champs and, conversely, they watched the film of us losing to that same football team,” Bettis said. “So they’re going to have a lot of confidence saying, We just smacked around the team that just beat this team.’ You’ve got to think they’ll have some confidence.”

Cowher is 4-1 against Schottenheimer, with the loss coming in the playoffs in 1993 while Schottenheimer was with Kansas City. Cowher is 6-2 against the Chargers, including a loss in the AFC championship game following the 1994 season.

Cowher was a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns from 1980-82 when Schottenheimer was an assistant coach, then was an assistant for seven seasons under Schottenheimer at Cleveland and Kansas City before becoming Pittsburgh’s head coach in 1992.

AP-ES-10-06-05 2008EDT

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