PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger intended for the moment to be private. The camera following him to midfield and the microphone tucked inside Tom Brady’s shoulder pads ended up making that impossible.
Their brief exchange before Brady and the New England Patriots visited the Pittsburgh Steelers in October provided a snapshot into a rivalry that never was. They bro-hugged. They lamented the left knee injury that forced Roethlisberger out the lineup on that warm late fall afternoon.
And then Roethlisberger made an uncharacteristic request : a signed Brady jersey to hang on the wall in Roethlisberger’s home office next to Hall of Famers Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly.
“I consider him one, if not the best of all-time,” Roethlisberger said.
A group Roethlisberger does not include himself in.
Not even with as many championships as Brady’s longtime friend and occasional foil Peyton Manning (two). Not even with a spot in the top 10 in just about every major statistical category out there on Roethlisberger’s still growing resume. Not even with a bust in Canton one day alongside Brady and the rest of the guys whose jerseys adorn the walls of his home almost assured regardless of what happens in Sunday’s AFC title game.
The reason is simple: rings. Brady has four, including two he earned while carving a path through the playoffs that included victories in Pittsburgh in 2001 and 2004. Roethlisberger has two, neither of which required Roethlisberger or the Steelers to take out Brady along the way.
It’s why Roethlisberger just shakes his head when asked if he’s part of the “gold standard” label that he so eagerly attaches to Brady.
“Not as (his) level,” Roethlisberger said. “Obviously, with all the Super Bowls he has.”
This weekend provides Roethlisberger his best – and maybe his last – chance to do to Brady what Brady has done to so many others over the last 16 years. Even if the last thing Roethlisberger wants to do is get pulled into the “star quarterback vs. star quarterback” narrative that fueled so many showdowns between Brady and Manning through the years.
“It’s obviously bigger than the two of us,” Roethlisberger said. “I know he is used to it, with the Peyton Manning and Tom thing. This is two football teams that have won championships. Us going against each other is more than just one man. We aren’t playing tennis. We are going out there to play a football game with 11 guys at a time.”
Maybe, but the outcome will be attached to Roethlisberger’s legacy more than any other player. The list of opposing quarterbacks Roethlisberger has beaten with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line doesn’t exactly roll right off the tongue: Jake Plummer, Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco. Brady and the Patriots they are not.
The two first met in the postseason at frigid Heinz Field in the 2004 AFC championship, Roethlisberger the rookie came in a perfect 14-0 as a starter against Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions. The clinic lasted 3:06. Brady threw for 207 yards and two touchdowns while New England’s defense forced Roethlisberger into three interceptions, including an 87-yard interception return by Rodney Harrison late in the first half that gave the Patriots a 21-point lead they never came close to relinquishing on their way to a third crown in four years.
“They got after me,” Roethlisberger said. “They made me make some mistakes. I just realized kind of what it was going to take to get over that hump.”
Roethlisberger was all of 22 at the time. And while the sting of the first defeat of his NFL career was eased the next season when the Steelers won three postseason games on the road – including an upset of Manning and the Indianapolis Colts – to help the Steelers claim their fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy, the opportunity to even things against Brady when it really mattered never materialized. At least until now, when the 34-year-old Roethlisberger and the 39-year-old Brady are “two old guys that have been playing in this game for a long time,” as Roethlisberger put it.
Just not that often against each other.
Pittsburgh’s lone breakthrough in Foxborough since Brady broke into the league came in 2008, a season Brady missed all but a handful of plays due to a torn ACL in his left knee. Roethlisberger has only beaten Brady twice in eight head-to-head meetings, the last a 25-17 victory in 2011 that was perhaps the last stand by the Pittsburgh defense that propelled the team to three Super Bowl appearances in six seasons.
The team Roethlisberger will lead onto the field this time around is far different. The Steelers have perhaps the best running back, wide receiver and offensive line in the league. And they have a quarterback who has largely abandoned the freewheeling “Ben being Ben” of his younger days for a far more disciplined approach.
It’s a style Brady has long since mastered, and he’s taken notice of Roethlisberger’s evolution.
“To play at his level for as long as he has, and his style of play, has been remarkable,” Brady said.
It’s a sentiment Roethlisberger echoes, even if he’s trying to adopt the “nameless gray faces” approach Mike Tomlin tries to attach to every opponent regardless of pedigree or star wattage. Yes, Roethlisberger wants to get the best of Brady. Badly.
He’d also say that about whoever happened to be on the other side of the field.
“You are going up to the lion’s den, the dragon’s lair,” Roethlisberger said. “They are the dragon. We are trying to slay them. It doesn’t matter who it is.”
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