Correction to This Article
A Feb. 5 Sports article misstated the childhood home of former NFL quarterback Dan Marino. He was born and raised in Pittsburgh, not in the city's suburbs.

A Battle of QBs, With Super Bowl in the Balance

Matt Hasselbeck, Ben Roethlisberger
Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hold the key to their teams' success in the Super Bowl. (Getty/AP)
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 5, 2006

DETROIT -- Among the many story lines to Super Bowl XL is the smash-mouth Pittsburgh Steelers and their frenetic blitzing against the softer, more cerebral Seattle Seahawks and their West Coast passing game.

There are plenty other intriguing angles: Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, a Detroit native, playing what could be his final game in his home town; Bill Cowher, the longest-tenured head coach in the league, trying to win his first Super Bowl after 14 years in Pittsburgh; and Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren attempting to become the first to win Super Bowls with different teams.

But the main focus today probably should start at quarterback, where the play of Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, 23, and his 30-year-old counterpart, Matt Hasselbeck, likely will go a long way toward determining the outcome. With quarterbacks winning the Super Bowl MVP 19 times, don't be surprised if No. 20 comes from this game.

Though conventional wisdom indicates the Steelers (14-5) and Seahawks (15-3) got this far because of their running games, both teams have become far more balanced in the playoffs.

The Steelers have said they will try to turn Seattle one-dimensional by focusing on shutting down Shaun Alexander, the league MVP with 1,880 rushing yards and a record 28 touchdowns. The Seahawks are hoping to do the same to Bettis and leading rusher Willie Parker, meaning the game could hinge on both quarterbacks' ability to throw under heavy pressure.

Roethlisberger has the chance to become the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl (Tom Brady was 24 when he led the New England Patriots to the title after the 2001 season). Dan Marino, who grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs, had been the youngest to start a Super Bowl when he lost to the San Francisco 49ers in 1985.

Marino, who never got back to the Super Bowl, has befriended Roethlisberger, and the two have spoken several times since the Steelers, the sixth seed in the AFC, upset the Denver Broncos two weeks ago at Invesco Field to get a chance to win a fifth Super Bowl.

"We talked a couple of times this week," Roethlisberger said. "He called me and said, 'Listen, enjoy it and have fun there because you never know if you'll come back.' He said he always thought he was going to make it back, and he never got to play in it again. I asked him things like what he did and how he enjoyed the experience because of all the attention and the media was on him. I asked him how to deal with it. He just told me to stay focused and that I'd get butterflies and get nervous, and there would be a lot of anxious feelings. He said to make sure to keep that under control and not let it get the best of me."

Roethlisberger has played this season as if he were a 10-year veteran. As a rookie, the 11th overall choice in the 2004 draft made a splash when he came off the bench early that season because of an injury to veteran starter Tommy Maddox and finished 14-0 as a regular season starter. The playoffs exposed his inexperience, especially in an AFC title game loss to New England when he threw three interceptions to give him five for the postseason.

The Steelers, 15-1 a year ago, were 7-5 entering the playoff stretch drive this year, mostly because Roethlisberger missed three games with a knee injury, then hurt his right thumb in a Monday night loss to the Colts. He got healthy in a hurry and helped lead his team to seven straight victories, including three on the road in the playoffs against the three highest seeds in the conference.

Roethlisberger's regular season numbers weren't spectacular. He was 21st in the league in passing yards (2,385) and tied for 14th in touchdown passes (17), with nine interceptions. But when it came time to make a critical throw for a first down or keep a drive alive by running, Roethlisberger had few peers, and his 98.6 passer rating ranked third in the league.

In playoff victories over Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver, the Steelers used a start-fast blueprint that allowed them to take early leads, mostly by throwing. In the regular season, Pittsburgh ran on 57 percent of its offensive plays; in the first half of the three postseason wins, they threw 56 percent of the time and outscored the opposition 52-23. They would build a lead, then go back to the run in the second half to protect it and use clock.

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