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BOB MARLEY was on the stereo, the NBA playoffs were on the TV, and the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line was in the water. Leadership is demonstrated through gestures big and small, and on a free weekend last May during the Steelers' organized team activities, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made a major splash. He flew all of his offensive linemen to Atlanta on his private plane, drove them an hour to his lake house, took them on his wakeboard boat, gave them rafts, jet skis and inner tubes, and watched the hilarity that ensues when 300-pounders play aquatic bumper cars. At one point 344-pound guard Chris Kemoeatu slammed into 324-pound tackle Trai Essex so hard that they both rocketed into the air, creating a small tsunami as they came crashing down. "I didn't stop laughing for two days," Roethlisberger says. "A couple of inner tubes were lost on the trip. A couple of shorts were lost too."
Roethlisberger planned the vacation not only for his amusement but also for his long-term health. If he could take care of his linemen on a sunny spring weekend, maybe they would return the favor on a snowy winter Sunday. At times this season it seemed Roethlisberger's generosity would never be repaid. He suffered 46 sacks, second most in the NFL, separated his shoulder in the opener and sustained his third concussion in three years in the finale. But on Sunday night, two weeks after he lay on a stretcher at Heinz Field with no feeling in his arms, Roethlisberger stood in the pocket with a clear head, a clean jersey and time to kill. After dissecting the Chargers 35--24 at Heinz, the fifth-year QB sought out his offensive linemen, shook their hands and thanked them for giving him a pain-free trip to the AFC Championship Game.
The last time Roethlisberger tried to come back from a concussion, in 2006, he threw seven interceptions in his next two games. Against San Diego he completed 17 of 26 passes for 181 yards, did not throw a pick and was sacked only once. "People called us the worst offensive line in the NFL," says right tackle Willie Colon. "I've gotten mail calling me the worst right tackle in the league. I've had an old lady cuss me out on the street. I went to Walmart last week and a guy yelled at me, 'You've got to effin' protect!' I was like, Bro, I'm just trying to get a loaf of bread here."
Roethlisberger recognized early on that this year's line might need extra attention—and affection. The starters include guard Darnell Stapleton, an undrafted free agent who'd never played an NFL game before this season; Kemoeatu, a sixth-round pick who was a backup in his two previous seasons; and center Justin Hartwig, another sixth-rounder who signed last March as a free agent. What the linemen lack in pedigree, however, they make up for in camaraderie. They watch extra film at Hartwig's house and Monday Night Football at Roethlisberger's. To celebrate Hartwig's 30th birthday in November, Roethlisberger flew the line to Chicago, put them up in the Trump International Hotel and stood on the sideline with them at Ryan Field as Illinois played Northwestern, Essex's alma mater. "That stuff matters," Hartwig says. "When you have continuity off the field, it carries over. The more we invest in each other, the better we play."
Pittsburgh was the only home team to defend its turf in the divisional round, a quirk that former running back Jerome Bettis explained thusly: "The weather here is bad, the field is bad, and the defense is bad-ass." On Sunday at Heinz, the Steelers will face a Ravens defense almost as bone-chilling as theirs. "We don't like them," Colon says. "It's the history, but it's also the arrogance and the disrespect they show us."
The signature moments of Roethlisberger's season have come against Baltimore. In September, with the Steelers trailing 13--3 at halftime, he shouted at his linemen, "We can't always rely on the defense! We have to show up too!" Then he persuaded coordinator Bruce Arians to dust off the Lightning Package, Steelers parlance for the no-huddle, which Roethlisberger leaned on for a comeback victory. And when the teams met in December and the Steelers trailed 9--6 late in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger again went to the lightning to direct a 12-play, 92-yard drive that receiver Hines Ward called the quarterback's best ever, capped by a pass that exemplified Roethlisberger's stubbornness and his brilliance.
Facing third-and-goal from the four, on a play Roethlisberger had never run before, he rolled left, looked off three receivers, rolled back right and threaded a pass to fourth option Santonio Holmes for the winning score. A more conservative QB would have thrown the ball away and settled for a game-tying field goal. But that TD gave Roethlisberger the AFC North title, a first-round bye and the most wins (51 now) of any quarterback in his first five seasons. "He always gets criticized for taking hits and not throwing the ball away," Arians says. "But if he throws that ball away, we're probably the Number 6 seed and on the road right now."
Arians was the QB coach in Indianapolis when Peyton Manning was a rookie, and he remembers how fans demanded the Colts throw 50 times a game. Pittsburgh may be the only NFL city where the locals clamor for fewer pass plays. The Steelers ranked 23rd in rushing this season, which prompted running back Willie Parker to chirp in December, "We got away from Steelers football, Steelers mentality." To Parker's delight—and that of 63,899 at Heinz—Pittsburgh ran the ball 42 times for 165 yards on Sunday. Finally up to speed after struggling with shoulder and knee injuries, Parker accounted for 146 of those yards on 27 attempts. During a third quarter that epitomized Steelers-style ball control, the Chargers ran just one play and had the ball for 17 seconds.
To those who still believe that Pittsburgh doesn't run enough, Arians would recommend a look back at their recent Super Bowl team: Not a single rusher gained 100 yards in a postseason game. Rather, the Steelers handed the ball to Roethlisberger, and he took them to the title. Now, despite an inconsistent running game, suspect protection and injuries at the beginning of the season as well as the end, Roethlisberger is back in the AFC title game for the third time in his five years. The other favorites—the Giants, Panthers and Titans—are all sunk. The Steelers, buoyed by their inner-tubing offensive linemen, are happily afloat.