Roethlisberger tops Steelers' question marks

| Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009

In a tournament that began without Tom Brady and has since rid itself of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger stands alone as the only Super Bowl-winning quarterback on the AFC side of the bracket.

The Ravens' Joe Flacco is a rookie.

The Chargers' Philip Rivers has only been as far as the conference final.

And the Titans' Kerry Collins has been to a Super Bowl, but he hasn't won one.

In theory, that's a huge advantage for the Steelers.

In practice, Roethlisberger's postseason career, much like his current season, has been as disappointing at times as it has been brilliant at others.

There's really no way to know for certain what to expect from Big Ben against the Bolts and beyond, particularly given that he'll be playing for the first time since sustaining a concussion when he plays Sunday against San Diego.

The Steelers would gladly settle for Roethlisberger being as clutch as he was the first time against the Chargers.

Playing with a bad shoulder and from behind with less than seven minutes remaining, Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 73 yards in 13 plays for the game-winning field goal with seconds to play.

It was one of five such rallies orchestrated by Roethlisberger that produced the winning points inside the two-minute warning or in overtime.

Roethlisberger was better than Rivers on Nov. 16 at Heinz Field, but he was worse than Collins on Dec. 21 in Nashville.

That was the day Roethlisberger coughed the ball up four times — the Steelers lost two of those fumbles — and threw it to the other guys twice.

As good as he was when he needed to be against San Diego, Roethlisberger was that inadequate in Nashville.

That's how you wind up with five comeback wins on your resume during a season in which you throw for 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, and finish behind Rivers, Flacco and Collins, among others, in passer rating. Roethlisberger also fumbled an NFL-high 14 times.

Such inconsistency is the stuff that gets you beat in January, as Roethlisberger is well aware.

It was a year ago in January — Jan. 5, to be exact — that Roethlisberger threw three first-half interceptions in the playoff opener against Jacksonville, and the Steelers headed to their home locker room down, 21-7.

Seemingly through sheer will, Roethlisberger led a second-half assault that brought the Steelers back from a 28-10 deficit and established a 29-28 lead late in the fourth quarter. The lead would have been larger had coach Mike Tomlin not been obsessed with going for two. Alas, it was a game the Steelers lost, 31-29.

The compelling question heading into Sunday is, will the Steelers get the Roethlisberger from the first half of last year's Jacksonville game or the second?

Without question, his regression from the $100 million contract-earning franchise quarterback he was a year ago deserves an asterisk. The respective states of the offensive line and running game have contributed to his downfall.

But it's not as if those two areas will get dramatically better in advance of San Diego.

Once again, Big Ben will have to work around that stuff.

His ability to do so shouldn't be taken for granted as being destined to deliver anticipated playoff salvation.

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