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Kevin Gorman: Why Steelers' game in Denver is special for Big Ben

Kevin Gorman
| Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, 4:30 p.m.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, left, looks for a receiver as Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell (93) rushes during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, left, looks for a receiver as Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell (93) rushes during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Ben Roethlisberger considers himself lucky to have grown up watching a generation of great quarterbacks, including three from the cradle in Joe Montana, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly.

But Big Ben’s idol and inspiration was John Elway, so visiting Denver on Sunday at Mile High Stadium will be both business and personal for the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback. Elway, who led the Broncos to two Super Bowl titles, is their general manager and president of football operations.

“It’s a special place because of the history and because of him,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ve had some history there, as well. Anytime you go into a place, in my opinion, that’s had a legendary-type quarterback that I grew up watching, it is kind of special.”

We’re watching history in the making with a legendary-type quarterback in Roethlisberger, who responded to a performance with a perfect passer rating against Carolina with one of the worst starts in his career at Jacksonville. In Elway-like fashion, Big Ben rallied the Steelers to their sixth straight victory with a fourth-quarter comeback against the Jaguars.

“We always say we want to start fast — that’s one of our big goals — but the only thing better than starting fast is finishing strong,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Truthfully, that’s the most important thing, finishing strong.”

Roethlisberger orchestrated the 41st regular-season, game-winning drive of his career to beat the Jaguars, breaking a tie with none other than Elway. Where that is viewed as a badge of honor among quarterbacks, Roethlisberger was more concerned about his slow start.

“You talk about fourth-quarter comebacks and you get on this list of fourth-quarter comebacks, and it’s a great thing,” Roethlisberger said, “but I always joke that it usually means you stunk it up the first three quarters. I need to play better early.”

That was evident at Jacksonville, where Roethlisberger had a 0.0 passer rating late in the first half and was 11 of 24 for 66 yards and three interceptions before throwing a 78-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown late in the third quarter. Big Ben then completed 15 of 22 passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

The Steelers have pointed to having a future Hall of Fame quarterback as a key to their comebacks and their 15-1-1 road record since losing in overtime at Chicago last season.

But, as Yinzers like to note, the Steelers don’t play good in Denver.

They don’t play well there, either, but that’s beside the point.

Roethlisberger has a 2-3 record in Denver, site of one of his biggest playoff wins and a pair of postseason losses. He called the 2006 AFC championship game, where he passed for 275 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-17 victory to lead the Steelers to Super Bowl XLIII, both special and unbelievable.

But Roethlisberger is still smarting over how the Steelers lost to the Broncos, 29-23, in the 2012 AFC wild card, when Tim Tebow threw an 80-yard TD to Demaryius Thomas in overtime. The Steelers lost at Denver again, 23-16, in the ’16 AFC divisional round.

Make no mistake, those losses fuel his fire.

But Big Ben had a gleam in his eye when reminiscing about his childhood hero, joking Elway had such a big arm “he could throw the ball through the car wash, and it wouldn’t get wet.”

Roethlisberger said he molded his game after Elway, as a quarterback who’s not really a runner but could run, and “not afraid to run and get the yards when you need to.” Then Big Ben, who scored the winner against the Jaguars on a 1-yard dive in the final seconds after being stopped earlier on a sneak, added the punch line to punctuate his point: “Because I’ve gotten faster in my old age.”

Fourth-quarter comebacks like the one he directed in Jacksonville make it seem like the 36-year-old is getting better with age. Roethlisberger eclipsed the 3,000-yard mark for the 13th consecutive season, the longest active streak among NFL quarterbacks and fourth longest in league history, and passed Elway (51,475) on the NFL’s career passing yards leaders in the process.

“That’s why I wear 7, because of him. A hero of mine growing up,” Roethlisberger said. “Anytime you get in the record books, it’s humbling. It means a lot. When your name is close to his and then you pass him, it’s just an honor.”

That’s not just an honor but a childhood dream come true, and it would be something special if Roethlisberger can end his career in the same fashion as Elway by winning two more Super Bowls.

Those are the mile-high ambitions for Big Ben. Like his idol, he knows something special about starting fast and finishing strong.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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