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Big Ben Strikes Again

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By Michael Wilbon
Monday, January 19, 2009

PITTSBURGH

It's probably not a good thing that the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens can play each other three times a year. Maybe the NFL, purely for health reasons, should set a two-game maximum. Their third game produced a concussion on the opening kickoff and a frightening knockout in the fourth quarter that led to on-field prayers.

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After the latest go-round, Ben Roethlisberger removed his uniform and tape slowly, looking for the contusions he presumed were there. "It just can't get much more brutal than us playing each other," he said. "It's a slugfest, a fight, 12 rounds. It's always that way, violent from start to finish."

Of course, it's easier to talk about when you've won all three violent battles in a year, the third of which sends you and your team to the Super Bowl. It's easier to dissect the game and review the plays when the rookie, Baltimore's Joe Flacco, has thrown three interceptions and you've avoided throwing one to Ed Reed or Ray Lewis. Ben Roethlisberger has done it again, which is to say he's led the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Super Bowl for the second time in four seasons.

It didn't seem possible, after watching the Kurt Warner show in the first conference championship game of the day, that the nightcap could produce as much drama. Yet, it nearly did in its own brutal way.

It was almost predictable, the way Steelers and Ravens despise each other, that tough talk and violent collisions would lead to violence of an extreme nature. The most significant news out of Heinz Field at day's end was that Ravens' running back Willis McGahee had "significant movement in his arms and legs." Only the Ravens and Steelers, in today's offensive-minded football, could slug their way through what will be remembered as defense-only football.

Appropriately, the signature play was authored by a safety. Troy Polamalu's 40-yard interception return for a touchdown delivered victory and a trip to the Super Bowl and what happened thereafter probably just frightened the masses.

The last full day of pro football this season delivered the full range of championship football. The Cardinals' victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, long on passing and catching, was downright civil. The Steelers' victory over Baltimore was anything but.

Flacco, who had received much credit, and deservedly so, for being the first rookie quarterback to win back-to-back playoff games, made the critical mistakes that sabotaged his team and stood in stark contrast to the matinee performance of Arizona's Warner.

Of course, Warner will receive mountains of praise for getting the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, as should be the case, seeing as the Cardinals have been about as awful as you can get in American sports.

But in terms of results, Warner's got nothing on Roethlisberger, who just might be taking Tom Brady's place on the big stage in January and February. Okay, 16 for 33 for 255 yards and one touchdown might not sound like much in the current climate of 70 percent completion rates and 400-yard totals. But Roethlisberger, remember, was going up against the Ravens' defense. The first thing he did was avoid being picked off. Second, he found Santonio Holmes for a 65-yard touchdown on a broken play, the kind that would have people writing love songs about Brady.

"As long as I've watched football, I've never seen anybody extend plays the way Ben does," his backup, Byron Leftwich said. Baltimore's Terrell Suggs said he believes such plays are drawn up that way because Roethlisberger is so big (6 feet 5, 241 pounds) and agile the coaches and linemen presume Big Ben can shake or level the first defender. Told of Suggs's comments, Leftwich laughed and said: "No, no, no. That touchdown pass to [Holmes] wasn't drawn up. It was total ad-lib. Ben was that way in college."


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