By Michael Wilbon
Monday, January 19, 2009
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.
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."
Roethlisberger is big, he's strong, and has taken more punishment than any quarterback in the league the last couple of years, perhaps save Leftwich. He's been carted from the field after hits. He's been carted from the street after a motorcycle accident. He's proven to be nearly indestructible. Oh, and he wins more than anybody out there, even though the talent around him is, well, pretty good. Eli Manning might miss Plaxico Burress, but Big Ben doesn't.
He's 15-4 as a starting quarterback vs. teams in the NFC, which ought to be of great interest to the Cardinals. He's got 24 touchdown passes to only 14 interceptions in those games, with a passer rating of 90.7. He was the difference between the two teams in the AFC championship game, as he is in most games the Steelers have played in his five seasons.
You want to know what quarterbacks in modern history (since 1950) have been better than Roethlisberger through five seasons? None. Nobody. Not Joe Willie Namath, not Joe Montana, nobody. Big Ben is the only quarterback to win 51 games his first five seasons. That's three victories better than Otto Graham, Dan Marino, Tom Brady and John Elway. If I had to win a game to save my own life I'd take Roethlisberger over everybody who played in the NFL this season, and that includes everybody named Manning. It's difficult to understand why the praise is so grudging.
"It's unfair," Leftwich said of the reluctant praise. "Not that it matters to Ben. But the Steelers are seen as a running team. When he first got here it was Bus [Jerome Bettis], then Willie Parker. They didn't throw it a lot. But he wins. They don't throw it 35, 40 times. Ben's capable of doing that if they ask, but they don't. It's run-run-run-run-pass. So what? He wins. I'll take him any day. He can win 10-7 or 37-34."
Roethlisberger and Donovan McNabb do more with less than any other quarterbacks in the NFL. We were reminded of that in the final minute of the first half here on Sunday when Roethlisberger heaved a perfect pass to Limas Sweed, who dropped it as he was going uncovered into the end zone. The ballgame should have been over right then and there at 20-7. Sweed should have been fined for staying on the ground for a minute because he was embarrassed after dropping so beautiful a pass.
Even so, Roethlisberger kept throwing it to him, kept at it patiently, kept taking whatever punishment the Ravens doled out (which was plenty), kept making small plays that added up to a field goal here, another field goal there, until it was 16-7 and the Ravens were two scores down with no way to strike quickly themselves.
In the championship game Sunday, in the cold and wind and swirling snow, all Roethlisberger needed to do was manage the game, not screw it up, which wasn't within Flacco's power. Asked after the game what he learned as a rookie quarterback who lost the AFC championship game to the Patriots, Big Ben said: "Don't turn it over. Flacco will be fine. He faced the best defense in the world tonight; they're ranked that way for a reason."
So now the Steelers have a shot at a second Super Bowl championship in four seasons because of the defense and because of Roethlisberger, who in terms of pregame attention very likely will be overshadowed by Warner.
Yet, the Steelers have to know that at just 26, Roethlisberger's best years should be ahead of him.