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Starkey: Steelers need 'Good' Ben

| Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger eludes the Browns' Paul Kruger to throw a touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton during the fourth quarter Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, in Cleveland.

I can't get this Marvin Lewis “exorcism” quote out of my mind.

Lewis, the Cincinnati Bengals coach-who's-never-won-a-playoff-game, said it's time to slay the demons against the Steelers.

“It's time to right the ship,” Lewis told reporters Sunday. “You know, exorcism.”

I keep picturing Lewis, if the Bengals win, going to midfield with his head turned all the way round and shaking Mike Tomlin's hand.

But that's my problem. It's one way to analyze this game, too — from the psychological perspective (suffice to say, the Steelers are so far in the Bengals' heads it would take the Jaws of Life to pry them loose).

You could break it down a thousand different ways. I keep coming back to the quarterback matchup: Ben Roethlisberger versus Katherine Webb-McCarron's husband AJ.

That is why the Steelers are favored.

That is why the Steelers should win.

But there's a nagging question here. A fair one, too: Which Ben will the Steelers get Saturday?

Over the past two seasons, we've often seen one of two extremes: Historically Spectacular Ben (six touchdown passes on consecutive weeks) or Reckless Ben (remember the Baltimore game nine days ago?).

Sometimes both emerge on the same day.

Remember the Cleveland game two days ago?

It seems Historically Spectacular Ben becomes too emboldened. Too convinced that he can and should attempt any throw at any time, usually with an eye downfield.

Last season, Roethlisberger staged possibly the greatest back-to-back passing days in NFL history, throwing for 12 touchdowns against the Colts and Ravens. He then inexplicably faltered against three of the league's weakest defenses (Jets, Titans, Saints).

This season, we saw him light up several teams, notably the stingy Denver Broncos. But we also saw him plummet to Matt Schaub levels in two monumental divisional losses (home against Cincinnati, at Baltimore), throwing five interceptions and leading the offense to just 27 total points.

Roethlisberger's overall numbers reflect the mercurial nature of his performance. He was No. 1 in the league in passing yards per game and fourth in completion percentage. On the other hand, of quarterbacks who started at least 10 games, he had by far the worst interception percentage (3.41). Nobody else who started 10 games was above 3.0.

After Sunday's game, Roethlisberger said the Steelers “need to be perfect” in the playoffs.

They really don't. Not this weekend. And he doesn't have to shoot for Historically Spectacular, even if he gets nothing from the ground game. He merely needs to be Good Ben, the Ben we saw in the win at Cincinnati.

On that day, Good Ben didn't throw for 300 yards or any touchdowns. He merely controlled the game, completing 30 of 39 passes for 282 yards and only one mistake — a deep shot into double coverage with the Steelers in control late.

“Good” Ben mostly took what was given, used the middle of the field (10 catches for Heath Miller), accepted a sack when appropriate and settled for field goals when prudent.

Here's the deal with the Bengals: They typically rush four and drop seven into coverage. The idea is to tempt Reckless Ben into taking chances, and the Bengals have experienced some success there. They have intercepted Roethlisberger 10 times in their past eight meetings (he is 5-3 in those games, with 10 TD passes).

Free safety Reggie Nelson alone has picked off five Roethlisberger throws, three of them factoring majorly into Bengals victories.

On the other side, while AJ McCarron isn't liable to win the game single-handedly, he likely will be under strict orders not to lose it. He had zero interceptions in his three starts after a rough relief outing against the Steelers, who are 0-5 when they lose the turnover differential.

Roethlisberger, great as he is, has seen his big-game reputation fade some. In his past five playoff games, he has six touchdowns and seven interceptions. That doesn't include a de facto playoff game against the Bengals in 2012, when Reckless Ben completed only half his passes and was picked off twice — once by Nelson on an insane throw that set up the Bengals' winning field goal.

Before it's over, the Steelers might need Historically Spectacular Ben. This weekend, Good Ben will do.

Good Ben will get you to Denver.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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