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Steelers vs. Colts: Quarterback Keeper
Jeffri Chadiha
February 15, 2006
Pittsburgh put the game in the hands of Ben Roethlisberger, who engineered the upset with pinpoint passing and a game-saving tackle
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February 15, 2006

Steelers Vs. Colts: Quarterback Keeper

Pittsburgh put the game in the hands of Ben Roethlisberger, who engineered the upset with pinpoint passing and a game-saving tackle

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When quarterback Ben Roethlisberger came out of a revolving door inside the RCA Dome on the evening of Jan. 15, he spotted a large crowd of giddy Pittsburgh Steelers fans waiting near the hallway leading to the team bus. Feeling trapped, he scanned the concourse, weighing his options. Then a friend pointed to a door that would allow him to avoid the throng, and they made a nifty escape that essentially epitomized Roethlisberger's day. Earlier, in the face of unsettling circumstances during the Steelers' 21-18 upset of the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC divisional playoff, he had repeatedly found a way to get out of a jam.

Now Roethlisberger's pal reached into his bag and pulled out a homemade cardboard poster that he'd picked up as a souvenir. It read, CBS: COLTS BEAT STEELERS. Roethlisberger chuckled while wondering how many people had expected that outcome entering the game. "Our team has been riding the nobody-believes-in-us theme lately," he said. "If you asked our families, even they probably didn't think we could get this far. But the best thing about being an underdog is that it forces us to depend on each other. That's been our mentality for a long time, and that's the way it will be next week."

Pittsburgh will travel to Denver to play the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, the first sixth-seeded team to reach a conference title game. It will be the Steelers' third trip to a hostile environment in three games this postseason, but having won six of eight road games during the regular season, they remain undaunted. Suddenly the idea of reaching the Super Bowl by winning three road games isn't so far-fetched, especially after Pittsburgh survived one of the wildest fourth quarters in NFL playoff history.

The Steelers took a 21-3 lead into the final period, but the Colts scored quickly on quarterback Peyton Manning's 50-yard pass to tight end Dallas Clark. After an apparent interception by Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu was overturned upon review (a reversal that the NFL said the day after the game should not have been made), the Colts blew down the field for another TD and tacked on a conversion pass that cut the Steelers' lead to 21-18 with 4:24 left. Manning twice got the ball back--the last time after Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis fumbled at the Indianapolis one-yard line with 1:20 left--but Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, shanked a 46-yard field goal attempt that could have sent the game into overtime.

Credit a defense that sacked Manning five times, and constantly harassed him, for the Steelers' victory. But Pittsburgh still wouldn't have won its sixth straight game without a strong performance by the 23-year-old Roethlisberger, who in his second tour through the NFL playoffs has displayed the calm and efficiency of a seasoned veteran.

Despite all his accomplishments as a rookie last season, including leading the Steelers to an NFL-best 15-1 regular-season mark, Roethlisberger struggled in the end. He threw five interceptions in two playoff games, and the Steelers lost at home to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. "I felt like I let everybody down," Roethlisberger said before the game against the Colts. "We had a great team, and I was the reason we didn't get to the Super Bowl. After that experience I told myself I would be better prepared the next time I had a chance in the playoffs."

In directing postseason wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and the Colts this year, Roethlisberger completed 65.1% of his passes (up from 57.4% in the playoffs a year ago) with five touchdowns and only one interception. Against Indianapolis the normally conservative Steelers placed their faith in their quarterback, throwing on seven of their first 10 plays and scoring on a six-yard touchdown pass to wideout Antwaan Randle El. On Pittsburgh's third possession Roethlisberger threw a seven-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Heath Miller, giving Pittsburgh 147 passing yards and a 14-0 lead before the game was 12 minutes old.

The Steelers could use that kind of start to put the Denver defense on its heels in the AFC Championship Game. The Broncos baffled Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on Jan. 14 with a combination of constant pressure from their front four and timely linebacker blitzes, but Roethlisberger has the pocket presence and the mobility to handle the heat. "He's developed into a very good passer," Colts defensive tackle Montae Reagor said before the game. "He's not taking as many chances with the football as he did as a rookie. He's learned how to manage the game."

Roethlisberger is also in better condition than he was a year ago. He says fatigue was a big factor in his postseason struggles against the New York Jets and the Patriots in January 2005. Specifically he says he was dropping his arm a few inches as he released the ball, leading to errant passes. What's more, his inexperience made it difficult for him to read some of the coverages opponents cooked up for the playoffs.

But despite having arthroscopic knee surgery at midseason and playing with a sprained thumb on his throwing hand, Roethlisberger went into this postseason feeling more comfortable with his ability to lead and to recognize schemes. "You can see how much experience has helped Ben," says Bettis. "I'm sure he has watched John Elway and Joe Montana do their thing in the playoffs, and he figured that's what a great quarterback is supposed to do at this time of year. But what he understands now is that if he just makes the plays he's supposed to make, that's when the memorable moments come."

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