BALTIMORE – Ben Roethlisberger scrambled to his left and saw an opening, and for a split second the Pittsburgh Steelers’ relentlessly confident quarterback was sure he’d be the one to score the first and decisive touchdown in a game of perpetual door-slamming.
This is it. I’m going in.
Or not: As he stepped forward to the 10-yard line, Roethlisberger saw a trio of Baltimore Ravens defenders closing fast and he realized that running for the end zone on third-and-goal with a three-point deficit and less than a minute remaining wasn’t a viable option.
Should he throw the ball away to set up a tying field goal, which would likely mean that this bruising showdown between the NFL’s top two defenses would extend to overtime?
Forget about it.
“You know me,” Roethlisberger said afterward in a cleared-out visitors locker room at M&T Bank Stadium. “I hold onto the ball too long. Throw it away early and go for the field goal, or keep running around and try to win it? I chose the second option, ‘cause that’s how I am. Oh well.”
If the fifth-year quarterback couldn’t resist taking a jab at his critics in that context, it was hard not to excuse him. Roethlisberger had just willed his team to a 13-9 victory over the Ravens that clinched the AFC North title and put the Steelers (11-3) in position to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, all by drawing on the same improvisational skills that some analysts have cited as a flaw in his game.
So yeah, Big Ben may absorb a few extra takedowns behind the line of scrimmage, but there’s no denying that he has a lot of sack when his team needs him most.
Having driven the Steelers from their own 8-yard line to the brink of a season-defining victory against the NFL’s second-ranked defense, Roethlisberger wanted no part of a throwaway. After he saw “everything collapse” and decided against running it in,
Roethlisberger bought time by rolling back to his right. He then coolly fired a hard pass on the run to wideout Santonio Holmes, who caught it while standing in the end zone but appeared to be pushed back to the 1 by Baltimore safety Ed Reed before the ball broke the plane.
“You’ve got to have that swagger,” Roethlisberger says. “Playing all these tough games, it’s not going to make us any weaker. We’re getting stronger and stronger every week, whereas last year we were getting weaker as the year dragged on. At this stage last year we felt like we were tired.”
The 2007 AFC North champion Steelers lost three of their final four regular season games, then suffered a 31-29 home defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars in their playoff opener.
On Sunday, Pittsburgh earned its fifth consecutive victory and reaffirmed the notion that no NFL team will be as battle-tested or prepared to pull out a tight game come playoff time.
Roethlisberger radiated confidence in the huddle, relishing the chance to go deep to Holmes on the first play. The Ravens, however, had tight coverage on Pittsburgh’s deep threat, causing Roethlisberger (22 of 40, 246 yards, three sacks) to look elsewhere. Fortunately for the Steelers, he found St. Elsewhere – or, as wideout Hines Ward is known in Baltimore, Satan In Cleats – in heavy traffic on the right side.
After Sunday, their counterparts in black-and-gold can’t help but set their sights even higher.
“There’ve been a lot of people who’ve criticized our offense – it’s not flashy, and we’ve had our rough moments – but as a team we’re all in this together,” Ward said as he walked to the team bus. “And what better way to win it than to take it 92 yards against the Baltimore Ravens, in their house? That’s the best feeling in the world. And with a leader like Ben, we know we’re capable of anything.”
Get ready, Music City. Right now, no one in the NFL is making more noise than the Steelers, and you know they’ll embrace the moment.
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