Big Ben's return

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws during a workout Friday, Jan. 20, 2006 in Pittsburgh. The Steelers face the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game in Denver Sunday.

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
Published: Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Pittsburgh Mark Malone: three interceptions. Neil O'Donnell: three interceptions. Kordell Stewart: six interceptions and a fumble in two games. Ben Roethlisberger: three interceptions.
Put any Steelers quarterback not named Terry Bradshaw into a championship game and something is bound to happen, most of it bad. The Steelers are 1-6 in title games since they last won the Super Bowl in the 1979 season, in great part because their quarterback play has been as bad as their record.
But as they go into their sixth AFC championship game in 12 seasons under coach Bill Cowher on Sunday in Denver, these Steelers seem less worried about their quarterback than any previous Cowher-coached team.
That's because Roethlisberger, for all of his mistakes in last year's AFC title game loss to New England, is giving them the stability, leadership and the downfield throwing they haven't had consistently in the playoffs since the Bradshaw days.
That he is the first quarterback since the NFL merger in 1970 to take a team to a title game in his first two seasons on the job partly reflects the confidence he has created among his teammates. That he has gotten them there by winning consecutive difficult road games against the Bengals and Colts also has boosted their trust and respect in him.
"I think he really puts out an aura of confidence for the whole team to feed off of," tight end Heath Miller said.
A confidence that, several players alluded this week, they never had when Kordell Stewart was the losing quarterback in the January 1998 AFC championship game to Denver or the January 2002 AFC title game to New England.
"Things can get overwhelming and hit you by storm in the playoffs," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "But he's calm and collected."
What struck Broncos coach Mike Shanahan while watching game tapes was Roethlisberger's competitiveness, one Shanahan hasn't yet seen in person since the teams haven't played since 2003.
Shanahan raved to Pittsburgh reporters this week about Roethlisberger's game-saving tackle that likely prevented Colts cornerback Nick Harper from returning Bettis' goal-line fumble for a touchdown in the final 80 seconds of Pittsburgh's 21-18 win Sunday.
"What I would do with him if I was in Pittsburgh is put him over on defense because of his tackling ability," Shanahan said. "That was a great, great job of making a play. That gives you an idea of how competitive he is."
As a rookie last year, Roethlisberger felt he needed to play like a John Elway or a Joe Montana for the Steelers to win in the playoffs, according to running back Jerome Bettis. Now, Roethlisberger understands he needs only to manage the game as mistake-free as possible and make the plays he would make in any other game.
"He was a worn-out guy, more mentally than anything, by the end of the year last year," Cowher said. "He was a robotic quarterback a year ago. He's been able to pace himself over the course of the year by understanding the length of the season. All these things are why you're seeing the difference from this year to last year."
So does this: Roethlisberger had the option of ending his season to have thumb surgery two months ago, but he has played through the pain by wearing a protective split under a glove. He also had two knee injuries this season, one requiring surgery, and he hurt his right arm during the second half against the Colts. Roethlisberger still has a large welt on his arm from that injury, which the Steelers have not discussed.
However, the NFL Films-produced game film shown on the NFL Network on Thursday night revealed Roethlisberger hyperextended his arm - perhaps one reason he threw only five passes in the second half. He has missed no practice time this week and there is no indication of any lingering effect from the injury.
If Roethlisberger can pull off one more road upset at Denver, he would become the first quarterback to lead a team to consecutive road playoff victories over the three top-seeded teams. The Steelers already are the first sixth-seeded team to reach an AFC conference final since the present six-team playoff format was adopted in 1990.
"We like the underdog role," said Roethlisberger, who jokingly urged reporters this week to keep picking against Pittsburgh. "I think we play good football when we have each other's backs and we believe in each other and no one else believes in us. That's kind of us."

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