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Gorman: Big Ben leads comeback to remember

Kevin Gorman
| Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016, 9:59 p.m.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass during the third quarter against the Ravens Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass during the third quarter against the Ravens Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016, at Heinz Field.

We will remember this game as the Christmas Day Comeback, the one that won the AFC North.

Whether we reminisce on it the way Steelers fans do the Immaculate Reception, which occurred 44 years and two days earlier, remains to be seen.

But it's no stretch — Antonio Brown's or otherwise — to say that the Steelers' 31-27 victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday at Heinz Field will go down as one of their most memorable.

And it's because Ben Roethlisberger forgets as easily as he remembers, showing the short-term memory required to put interceptions in the past and the long-term know-how to win games in the fourth quarter.

“I've been doing this a long time, and I've thrown a lot of interceptions and it's hard,” Roethlisberger said. “You feel like you let guys down. When you take the field, you have to take the field with a purpose.”

Despite a 10-point deficit and having thrown two interceptions, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to three fourth-quarter touchdown drives.

He was practically perfect in running the no-huddle, including throwing a do-or-die 4-yard pass to Brown with nine seconds remaining, with the division title and Steelers' playoff hopes hanging in the balance.

“He's a Hall of Famer, bro,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “Hall of Famers don't flinch.”

That the Ravens did was not the result of an epic collapse, like the bone-headed Bengals.

The Ravens weren't just at the mercy of Roethlisberger. They were at his mercy while operating out of the no-huddle offense, slinging from the shotgun to the likes of Le'Veon Bell and Brown and, somewhat surprisingly, Jesse James and Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers, a seventh-round pick playing in his first NFL regular-season game.

Ayers marveled at Big Ben's poise and precision, saying the Steelers have “extreme confidence” in Roethlisberger, who completed 14 of 17 passes — including two spikes to stop the clock — for 164 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

“When you've got 7 behind center, there's never a situation you have to worry about,” Ayers said. “We trusted in him and just followed his plan and let him lead us. There's never a situation too big for him.

“When he's under center, we have a chance of winning any game, no matter what the score is. I think he just lives for that moment. I've seen him make plays pretty much my whole life, since college and middle school. To just be in the moment with him is awesome.”

We watched in wonder as Big Ben did it again, taking the field with a purpose, trailing 20-10 with 14:18 remaining and the season on the line.

Roethlisberger hit James for 21 yards, then threw deep along the right sideline to Ayers to draw a pass-interference penalty on cornerback Tavon Young. On second-and-2 at the Ravens 7, Bell pushed off nose tackle Brandon Williams and bounced left for a 7-yard touchdown run to cut it to 20-17.

The next drive covered 90 yards on 10 plays, sparked by Bell's 23-yard run on first down and 13-yarder on a draw. Roethlisberger finally found his rhythm, connecting with Brown for back-to-back gains of 21 and 26 yards.

What happened next turned the tide in the Steelers' favor. On first-and-goal at the 7, Roethlisberger rolled right, dumping it to Bell. At the goal line, Bell was met head-on by Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley when left guard Ramon Foster plowed both into the end zone for 24-20 lead.

“There is nothing specific to point to,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “They made great throws. They made catches. Ben got out of the pocket and made a couple plays. I think it was just playmaking. You have to come up with plays against him.”

Joe Flacco responded in kind, converting four third downs in leading the Ravens on a 14-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped by fullback Kyle Juszczyk's 10-yard run for a 27-24 lead with 1:18 to play.

That's where Roethlisberger running the no-huddle was the difference. He has arguably two of the NFL's finest players at their position in Bell and Brown, but time was precious and the stakes were at an all-time high.

“It means everything in the world,” Bell said. “Not only the playmakers and the quarterback, but we've got a great offensive coordinator (Todd Haley), who's out there and putting us in that situation in practice all the time. The fact that we can overcome 10 or 13 points, it really doesn't matter because we understand that there's always enough time for us.”

So Big Ben found James for 3 yards, Brown for 8 and a first down. Roethlisberger stepped up in the pocket to find James for 16 yards. He hit Ayers for a 9-yarder, then rolled right and threw to Rogers, who made a spectacular leaping catch at the Baltimore 19. After a spike to stop the clock with 41 seconds left, Roethlisberger hit Cobi Hamilton for a 6-yard gain and then James for 9 yards.

“Everyone expects Bell and Brown to make the plays,” Roethlisberger said, “but when other guys step up, it's huge.”

One more spike stopped the clock at 14 seconds. Roethlisberger warned his teammates that if the play failed, they had to hurry to the line of scrimmage to spike it and set up for a field goal. Instead, he went for broke. Roethlisberger looked left, and zipped it to Brown, who absorbed a hit by Mosley and strong safety Eric Weddle but had the presence of mind to stretch the ball across the goal line.

“It was nice that we got in at the end like that,” Pouncey said. “That's what championship teams do.”

On this Christmas Day, they followed a star to find a miracle.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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