When quarterback Ben Roethlisberger came out of a revolving door inside the RCA Dome on Sunday evening, he spotted a large crowd of giddy Pittsburgh Steelers fans waiting near the hallway leading to the team bus. Feeling trapped, he scanned the concourse, weighing his options. Then a friend pointed to a door that would allow him to avoid the throng, and they made a nifty escape that essentially epitomized Roethlisberger's day. Earlier, in the face of unsettling circumstances during the Steelers' 21-18 upset of the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC divisional playoff, he had repeatedly found a way to get out of a jam. ¬∂ Now Roethlisberger's pal reached into his bag and pulled out a homemade cardboard poster that he'd picked up as a souvenir. It read, cbs: colts beat steelers. Roethlisberger chuckled while wondering how many people had expected that outcome entering Sunday's game. "Our team has been riding the nobody-believes-in-us theme lately," he said. "If you asked our families, even they probably didn't think we could get this far. But the best thing about being an underdog is that it forces us to depend on each other. That's been our mentality for a long time, and that's the way it will be next week."
Pittsburgh will travel to Denver to play the Broncos this Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, the first sixth-seeded team to reach a conference title game. It's the Steelers' third trip to a hostile environment in three games this postseason, but having won six of eight road games during the regular season, they remain undaunted. Suddenly the idea of reaching the Super Bowl by winning three road games isn't so far-fetched, especially after Pittsburgh survived one of the wildest fourth quarters in NFL playoff history.
The Steelers took a 21-3 lead into the final period, but the Colts scored quickly on quarterback Peyton Manning's 50-yard pass to tight end Dallas Clark. After an apparent interception by Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu was overturned upon review (a reversal that on Monday the NFL said should not have been made), the Colts blew down the field for another TD and tacked on a conversion pass that cut the Steelers' lead to 21-18 with 4:24 left. Manning twice got the ball back--the last time after Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis fumbled at the Indianapolis one-yard line with 1:20 left--but Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, badly shanked a 46-yard field goal attempt that could have sent the game into overtime.
Credit a defense that sacked Manning five times, and constantly harassed him, for the Steelers' victory. But they still wouldn't have won their sixth straight game without a strong performance by the 23-year-old Roethlisberger, who in his second tour through the NFL playoffs has displayed the calm and efficiency of a seasoned veteran.
Despite all his accomplishments as a rookie last season, including leading the Steelers to an NFL-best 15-1 regular-season mark, Roethlisberger struggled in the end. He threw five interceptions in two playoff games, and the Steelers lost at home to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. "I felt like I let everybody down," Roethlisberger said last week. "We had a great team, and I was the reason we didn't get to the Super Bowl. After that experience I told myself I would be better prepared the next time I had a chance in the playoffs."
In directing postseason wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and the Colts this year, Roethlisberger has completed 65.1% of his passes (up from 57.4% in the playoffs a year ago) with five touchdowns and only one interception. On Sunday the normally conservative Steelers placed their faith in their quarterback, throwing on seven of their first 10 plays and scoring on a six-yard touchdown pass to wideout Antwaan Randle El. On Pittsburgh's third possession, Roethlisberger threw a seven-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Heath Miller, giving Pittsburgh 147 passing yards and a 14-0 lead before the game was 12 minutes old.
The Steelers could use that kind of start on Sunday to put the Denver defense on its heels. Last Saturday the Broncos baffled New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady with a combination of constant pressure from their front four and timely linebacker blitzes, but Roethlisberger has the pocket presence and the mobility to handle the heat. "He's developed into a very good passer," Colts defensive tackle Montae Reagor said before Sunday's game. "He's not taking as many chances with the football as he did as a rookie. He's learned how to manage the game."
Roethlisberger is also in better condition than he was a year ago. He says fatigue was a big factor in his postseason struggles against the New York Jets and the Patriots last January. Specifically he says he was dropping his arm a few inches as he released the ball, leading to errant passes. What's more, his inexperience made it difficult for him to read some of the coverages opponents cooked up for the playoffs.
But despite having arthroscopic knee surgery at midseason and playing with a sprained thumb on his throwing hand, Roethlisberger went into this postseason feeling more comfortable with his ability to lead and to recognize schemes. "You can see how much experience has helped Ben," says Bettis. "I'm sure he has watched John Elway and Joe Montana do their thing in the playoffs, and he figured that's what a great quarterback is supposed to do at this time of year. But what he understands now is that if he just makes the plays he's supposed to make, that's when the memorable moments come."
Roethlisberger's most memorable play on Sunday was one he was not supposed to be making. After the Bettis fumble, Colts cornerback Nick Harper, who was playing with three stitches in his left knee after being stabbed by his wife on Saturday, scooped up the ball and took off. Because the Steelers were in their goal line offense, they had little speed on the field, and it appeared Harper might go all the way for the go-ahead touchdown. But Roethlisberger had started drifting back toward midfield as soon as he saw the ball pop loose, and he hustled to get into position to stop Harper, lunging to make an ankle tackle at the Indianapolis 42. Manning drove the Colts 30 yards in four plays before Vanderjagt missed his kick with 21 seconds left.
At the postgame press conference Roethlisberger joked that he couldn't remember the last time he'd made a tackle--in last year's AFC title game he never got a hand on Rodney Harrison as the Patriots' safety returned an interception 87 yards for a score. Such is the manner in which the fortunes of Roethlisberger and the Steelers have changed in one year's time. "I think my teammates now know," he said, "that they're getting my best every time we go out there."