January 18, 2009

AFC: Steelers, ‘Big Ben’ return to Super Bowl

Tom Withers The Associated Press
The Associated Press photo

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, center, is congratulated by teammates LaMarr Woodley (56) and Brett Keisel after scoring a touchdown after intercepting a pass from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco during the fourth quarter of the NFL AFC championship football game in Pittsburgh tonight.
(Full-size photo)

PITTSBURGH — 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 2-point lead, Roethlisberger had an effective and turnover-free AFC championship Sunday as the Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl with a 23-14 win over the Baltimore Ravens.

Now No. 7 will help the Steelers try to win No. 6.

Roethlisberger finished 16-of-33 for 255 yards and one touchdown, a pass that 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 he was also able to avoid trouble by dancing out of the pocket to buy himself time to throw.

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, the rookie 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 lessons he leans on every time he takes the field.

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 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.

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.

“I’m really proud of this band of brothers,” Roethlisberger told the crowd before dedicating the win to troops overseas.

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