PITTSBURGH, Jan. 23 -- As Ben Roethlisberger's first pass of the AFC championship game fluttered high into the frigid Western Pennsylvania night, his dream season was already unraveling. The rookie quarterback, a 22-year-old rushed into the starting quarterback job in Week 3, had never tasted defeat in the NFL until Sunday night, and now has all winter to come to grips with his fallibility after suffering a painful loss in the biggest game of his life.
Roethlisberger, the 11th overall pick out of Miami of Ohio, was no match for the New England Patriots' Super Bowl-tested defense, tossing a career-worst three interceptions in a 41-27 loss at Heinz Field. The Patriots intercepted his first pass and converted the turnover into a 3-0 lead, then safety Rodney Harrison rendered the second half largely obsolete by returning another misguided attempt 87 yards for a touchdown, putting the margin at 24-3.
"This is a tough learning experience" for Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said.
(Gene J. Puskar -- AP)
"Ben did some things well," Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said, "but you can't throw three interceptions, not in a game of this magnitude. . . . But the kid will learn. He's going to be a really good quarterback, he really will be, but this is a tough learning experience."
The Roethlisberger who made winning seem almost preordained in the regular season, was humbled in the postseason. The 6-foot-5, 241-pound passer -- nicknamed "Big Ben" -- was 14-0 and on the verge of history in the NFL: No quarterback so young has ever started in the Super Bowl; no passer had ever won more consecutive regular season games heading into the conference championship game. But this night belonged to New England quarterback Tom Brady, as it so often does this time of the year. The 27-year-old delivered an array of huge plays to improve to 8-0 in his playoff career.
The Steelers, without an NFL title since 1980, were fortunate just to reach this game. They overcame Roethlisberger's miscues, a propensity for turnovers and critical special teams breakdowns last week to defeat the New York Jets in overtime, when Roethlisberger posted a 57.8 passer rating. Against New England he appeared nervous early, completed only 5 of 10 passes for 77 yards in the first half with two interceptions, and finished 14 for 24 for 226 yards, two touchdowns and a modest 78.1 rating.
"I just made too many mistakes today," he said.
Harrison's interception was the ninth Roethlisberger had thrown in more than 95 attempts, a staggering rate and a stark contrast to the way he began his NFL career. Roethlisberger was the model of poise and efficiency after taking over for injured veteran Tommy Maddox, throwing just six interceptions and 14 touchdowns in his first 229 attempts over 11 games. He led Pittsburgh to a 34-20 victory over New England on Oct. 31, completing 75 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions to snap the Patriots' league-record 21-game win streak.
New England Coach Bill Belichick, whose team dominated Indianapolis's MVP quarterback Peyton Manning last week, made adjustments to stymie Roethlisberger, disguising his cornerback blitzes, changing his fronts at the line of scrimmage and often dropping eight or nine players into coverage. It all rattled the rookie.
"Bill does a great job after we've played a team," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said, "of seeing what we did wrong, and correcting the situation."
Things could not have started worse for Roethlisberger. The Steelers faced third and three from their 32 when his first pass sailed well beyond receiver Antwaan Randle El, his intended target. New England cornerback Asante Samuel tipped the ball and teammate Eugene Wilson caught it. The half ended more miserably; Harrison baited him into a dangerous sideline pass to Jerame Tuman, stepped in front of the falling tight end and waltzed to the opposite end zone.
"I thought I might be able to squeeze it in to Jerame," said Roethlisberger, who was knocked to the turf by linebacker Mike Vrabel while Harrison strutted down the sideline. "I made a bad choice."
"When you get down to the red zone, you have to think you're going to come away with a minimum of three points," Cowher said. "We got down there and we gave up seven. . . . We got ourselves into a hole we really couldn't get out of."
Roethlisberger tried to rally his team in the second half, and nearly did so, but the first-half deficit was simply too steep. He combined with Hines Ward for a 30-yard touchdown on fourth and five late in the third quarter to get within 31-17. Pittsburgh again trailed by 14 points midway through the fourth quarter, when Roethlisberger again badly overthrew Ward; Wilson dove to intercept the pass, ensuring the Patriots were back in the Super Bowl, with 65,242 freezing Pittsburghers heading home unfulfilled.
"It's hard," Ward said, "not only for the players, but for the city of Pittsburgh. . . . It's just a sick feeling seeing those guys celebrate on our field."