PITTSBURGH (AP) — Big Ben went ballistic.
When Troy Polamalu's flowing, frizzy mane - and the football - crossed the goal line and the Steelers were finally safe, Ben Roethlisberger pumped his fists and began hugging anyone within reach.
He's back in the NFL's biggest game.
Reduced to a 6-foot-5, 240-pound cheerleader in the fourth quarter as Pittsburgh desperately hung on to a two-point lead, Roethlisberger had an effective and turnover-free AFC championship Sunday as the Steelers advanced to their seventh Super Bowl with a 23-14 win over the Baltimore Ravens.
``We're a team,'' Roethlisberger said. ``There's no offense. There's no defense. There's no special teams. We're one. We're a band of brothers.''
And No. 7 is the one who leads them.
Roethlisberger finished 16-of-33 for 255 yards and one touchdown, a pass he thought about throwing away before wide receiver Santonio Holmes turned into an electrifying 65-yard score in the second quarter against the league's toughest defense not dressed in black and gold. Roethlisberger was sacked four times, but also was able to avoid trouble by dancing out of the pocket to buy himself time to throw.
On the TD to Holmes, Roethlisberger first stepped up in the pocket and then to his left. He pump-faked and then threw back across the field to Holmes.
``I don't even remember the play,'' Roethlisberger said. ``I do remember scrambling left and looking back to see if someone was coming. I stepped up and was getting ready to throw it away. I just threw it where he could make a play. I saw the defender had his back turned so I figured I could get it in there.''
That wasn't the case in the 2005 AFC title game against New England. Perhaps trying to prove he belonged on the same field as New England's Tom Brady, Roethlisberger, then a big-armed rookie lacking postseason experience, threw three interceptions as the Steelers were rocked 41-27 by the Patriots.
Even this week, Roethlisberger was bemoaning his performance on that day, when he learned a lesson he leans on every time he takes the field.
``Don't turn the ball over,'' Roethlisberger said. ``In the playoffs, that's the big key in a game like this.''
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin couldn't say enough about his QB, who played with an assortment of injuries all season.
``Ben is a special guy,'' Tomlin said. ``He is at his best in the midst of the most difficult adversity, in other years and in this year. Such was the case today. He recognized the magnitude of the game, and he did what his team needed him to do. He was very efficient and made great decisions.''
With the Steelers up 16-14 in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh couldn't milk any more time off the clock and had to punt to Baltimore.
On the Steelers' sideline, Roethlisberger traded his helmet for a stocking cap and cheered on the Steelers' No. 1-ranked defense. When Polamalu picked off Ravens rookie QB Joe Flacco, Roethlisberger grabbed one of his teammates and held on as Polamalu began a zigzagging run to the end zone.
``That's Troy,'' Roethlisberger said. ``I actually thought he overran the ball. Even if he would have batted it down it would have been great. But he reaches back and makes the play and when Troy starts running with the ball, you never know what's going to happen. I was just so happy that he scored.''
Roethlisberger, one of the few quarterbacks in the league who looks as if he could line up on defense for a few snaps, later took a final knee to run the final seconds off the clock as the Steelers clinched their seventh trip to the Super Bowl, where they are 5-1 and he is 1-0.
They'll got to a Tampa with a defense second to none and a quarterback who knows how to get it done.
``Nothing can ever replace experience,'' Polamalu said. ``Ben has a lot of big-game experience and when we get in these tough situations, close games, we have a lot of confidence.''
The Associated Press