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Clutch moments becoming old hat for Big Ben

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

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PITTSBURGH – The Tennessee Titans called tails, the coin came up heads, and while 65,110 fans at Heinz Field roared their powerful roars and waved their Terrible Towels, Ben Roethlisberger(notes) sidled up to a ballboy and made a four-word request.

Get me my hat.

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Roethlisberger and Holmes celebrate the second-quarter TD.
(Jason Miller/US Presswire)

A brutally physical NFL season opener between the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans was deadlocked and headed for overtime late Thursday night, and the quarterback's statement carried an unspoken but obvious tagline: Get me my hat, because I'm about to take us down the field for the winning points, and I want to cover up my sweaty hair when I do that postgame interview with Andrea Kremer.

And what did the ballboy do?

"He got me my hat," Roethlisberger said about half an hour later as he undressed at his locker, grinning like a schoolboy who'd just drained a game-winning jumper at the recess bell.

Smart kid, that ballboy. Clutch dude, that quarterback. Right now, with apologies to the NFL's two reigning greats in New England and Indy, is there any passer you'd rather have with the ball in his hands and the game on the line than Big Ben?

Not on Thursday: Just as he'd predicted, Roethlisberger completed 5-of-7 passes for 60 yards in Pittsburgh's lone overtime possession, Jeff Reed(notes) blasted a 33-yard field goal through the uprights, and the Steelers walked off with a 13-10 victory over the last team to have defeated them late in the '08 season.

Much has changed since that December day when the Titans blasted Pittsburgh in Nashville and some of them offended the visitors by stomping on Terrible Towels on the sideline. At that point Roethlisberger was merely a top-notch quarterback with a three-year-old Super Bowl triumph under his belt and a well-deserved reputation for keeping plays alive and keeping cool under pressure.

And now? I don't know how to put this, but he's kind of a big deal.

Last February in Tampa, Fla., Roethlisberger engineered one of the most memorable drives in NFL history, hitting Santonio Holmes(notes) on a gorgeous, 6-yard touchdown pass to the corner of the end zone with 35 seconds remaining to give Pittsburgh a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

At that point, Roethlisberger became a mega-star with a clear path toward football immortality. At 27, he seems to be getting better, and the Steelers are so obviously his team that even a potentially severe left knee injury to star safety Troy Polamalu (coach Mike Tomlin said after the game he believes Polamalu has a sprained medial collateral ligament and will likely be out three-to-six weeks, which would be a terrific and relieving diagnosis if confirmed) became a secondary story Thursday night.

One other significant event in Roethlisberger's life occurred since the most recent Super Bowl triumph: In July a Nevada casino worker filed a civil suit alleging that the quarterback sexually assaulted her in the summer of 2008. Roethlisberger, through his own words and those of his attorney, has steadfastly professed his innocence.

If there was a fear that the lawsuit would distract him on the football field, it was extinguished on Thursday. Despite being pummeled with regularity by a defense he called Ravenesque – even without departed defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes), Tennessee still ranks with Baltimore and Pittsburgh as the league's most physical D – Roethlisberger shook off four sacks and a pair of interceptions to complete 33 of 43 passes for 363 yards and a pretty 34-yard touchdown pass to Holmes.

With all of that said, Big Ben was nervous before the game, something he insisted had nothing to do with any off-the-field drama.

"It was my first time being back out there in awhile – that's all," he said. "I definitely had the jitters. I told my coach in warm-ups, 'Man, every one of my balls is high. I can't throw it where I want to.' At the start of the game, it showed."

It was apparent on the game's third play when, with the Steelers facing third-and-8 at their own 44-yard line, Roethlisberger gave a pump fake and threw deep down the middle to rookie wideout Mike Wallace(notes). "I had him for a touchdown," Roethlisberger said. "I just missed the throw." His short pass fell incomplete, and thanks to a pair of atypical missed field goals by Tennessee kicker Rob Bironas(notes) (one off a bad snap, one blocked), the game remained scoreless until shortly before halftime.

Roethlisberger changed that with 1:22 remaining in the second quarter when, on first-and-10 from the Titans' 34, he dropped back in the shotgun, stared down Hines Ward(notes) and sold a gorgeous pump fake in the veteran wideout's direction, drawing in former Pittsburgh safety Chris Hope(notes). That left Holmes, whose nine catches for 131 yards would exactly match his Super Bowl MVP stats from February, streaking across the middle of the end zone with plenty of room to catch Roethlisberger's resplendent spiral.

In the process of absorbing the four sacks and wriggling out of many other potential takedowns, Big Ben hung in and frustrated his increasingly winded opponents.

"That big [expletive] is tough as hell," Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse(notes), who had one of the sacks, said as he walked off the field following Reed's game-winner. "He just stays alive. He takes sacks, but he also buys time to find receivers."

After Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 56 yards on 12 plays to set up Reed's 32-yard tying field goal with 2:57 remaining, he approached Pittsburgh's defenders on the sideline and told them, "You get me the ball back, and I'll win this game."

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David Thornton(notes) (left) and Jovan Haye(notes) get to Roethlisberger for one of the Titans' four sacks.
(Scott Boehme/Getty)

He would have delivered, too, had it not been for a stunning occurrence: Ward, one of the league's most reliable performers, fumbling inside the Tennessee 5 with 51 seconds to go. On first-and-10 from the Titans' 34, Roethlisberger hit the wideout at the 18 and watched him race through the secondary and bull toward the goal line.

"I thought I was going in," Ward said. "I figured, 'The game's a wrap.' "

But at that instant Tennessee safety Michael Griffin(notes) reached across from the side and dislodged the ball, and teammate Stephen Tulloch(notes) recovered at the 4, allowing the Titans to kill the remaining time and set up the fateful coin flip.

"Who would have ever thought Hines Ward would fumble in that situation?" Roethlisberger said. "It's like Jerome [Bettis] fumbling against Indy." And we all remember who saved the day with a shoestring tackle of Nick Harper(notes) after The Bus' goal-line cough-up in that '05 playoff game, preserving what turned out to be a Super Bowl title run for the black-and-gold.

On Thursday, Big Ben was the savior again, producing his 20th career come-from-behind victory in the fourth quarter or overtime (playoffs included) with the poise that few others in his profession can match. The final blow on the OT drive came when Wallace broke free over the deep middle and snagged a 22-yard rope from the quarterback before being tackled at the Tennessee 15.

Reed trotted onto the field, and Roethlisberger took off his helmet and looked for the ballboy, in search of a kinder, gentler form of head ware.

We know now that "Get me my hat" is the equivalent of Red Auerbach's victory cigar – and that Big Ben is still coming up huge when it counts most.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

In a reversal of last year's season opener, Jim Zorn's Washington Redskins will be bold and effective down the stretch in an upset victory over the New York Giants. … The Kansas City Chiefs won't defeat the Ravens in Baltimore, but they'll put up a much better fight than anyone expects before succumbing. … Before the end of the NFL season, my colleagues Jason Cole and Charles Robinson will consider making predictions that aren't completely in line with the opinions of Yahoo! Users.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Arizona, where I can check in on last season's NFC champions and determine whether the Cardinals' limp preseason showing has anything to do with anything. As for the 49ers, the team I think has the best chance to unseat the Cards in the NFC West, they nearly won in Arizona last year (in Mike Singletary's second game as coach), and I think they'll come with another strong effort.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson sent an email requesting that I rename this section in honor of President Obama. (It went to my Spam folder.)

2. There is nothing that screams relevance! like Hank Williams Jr. returning for a 21st season to open Monday Night Football telecasts.

3. Based on recent predictions, I'm obviously a Chargers hater (even though I picked San Diego to win the Super Bowl before last season).

WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL

OK, we're back with the scintillating suicide pool you know and love, same rules as usual: Each week I pick one team to win one game outright, and if I'm correct I live to pick another week. Once a team is picked to win, it's off limits for the rest of the regular season. Given that caveat, you may think I'm crazy to use my New England Patriots chip in Week 1, but I just can't help it. They're playing at home, in Tom Brady's(notes) return, on Monday Night Football, against an opponent that recently fired its offensive coordinator and waived its presumed starter at left tackle (and whose best offensive player, Marshawn Lynch(notes), is suspended for having violated the league's personal conduct policy). Could the Buffalo Bills be any more discombobulated heading into their opener? Sorry, I can't resist picking on them right out of the chute, especially after my miserable, one-and-done performance last season.

MY BUDDIES' ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE

After the brutal post-draft spanking he received from Y! Sports expert Brad Evans, my buddy Malibu has grown a little sheepish about Sabbath Bloody Sabbath's prospects. "My team sucks, doesn't it?" Malibu asked at the start of our conversation Thursday. That's to be determined, but second-overall pick LaDainian Tomlinson's(notes) history of success against the Oakland Raiders gives him cause for optimism that he'll beat out rival Bangas (Tony Romo(notes), Matt Forte(notes), Brandon Jacobs(notes), Steve Smith, Vincent Jackson(notes), Dustin Keller(notes), Greg Olsen(notes), Fred Jackson(notes)) by the time Monday night's second game is complete. "LT usually starts slow, but my theory is that it's because he doesn't play in the preseason, so the first game is like his preseason," Malibu reasoned. "This year he played in the preseason, so I think he'll rock it." The fanatical Chargers-lover is also playing a banged-up Steve Breaston(notes) (over Joey Galloway(notes)) and, prodded by yours truly, picked up Todd Heap(notes) on waivers and will start him ahead of Zach Miller at tight end. "The Raiders might not score against the Chargers," Malibu said before agreeing to the move. "And Heap is playing the Chiefs, so [expletive] them."

Meawhile, UCSB women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb has a dilemma. Her boss, athletic director Mark Massari, is hosting a barbecue Sunday at 5:30 p.m. PT – the precise starting time of the pivotal Packers-Bears game. "Do you think it's bad form if I spend most of the party unceremoniously looking at the TV every few seconds to yell for Greg Jennings(notes), Greg Olsen, Mason Crosby(notes) and the Packers' defense?" Gottlieb asked on Thursday. I told her it most certainly was, but I don't think that'll stop her. Earlier Sunday she'll be screaming for the Cincinnati Bengals (Carson Palmer(notes), Chad Ochocinco(notes)) to light it up against the Denver Broncos, though she resisted the temptation to play Chris Henry instead of Braylon Edwards(notes) against The Punt Blockers (Matt Ryan(notes), Matt Forte, Chris "Beanie" Wells, Andre Johnson(notes), Hines Ward, Keller, Anthony Gonzalez(notes)). I also talked Gottlieb into following Evans' advice to pick up Cleveland Browns halfback James Davis and waive Vernon Davis(notes). After much hand-wringing Gottlieb bit.

Evans' take on this week's drama: "No tourniquet could be applied to stop Malibu's bleeding this week – he's a certified hemophiliac. LT's tango with Al Davis' group of rotting corpses is positively juicy, but his remaining options are suspect at best. Though his opponent is faced with a number of difficult matchups (i.e. Romo, Jacobs, Smith and Jackson), Matt Forte and Greg Olsen against the Pack's exposable 3-4 defense and Vincent Jackson versus a banged up Nnamdi Asomugha(notes) will prove devastating. Plus, his blatant pro-Chargers homerism has swayed his logic in the wrong direction. No defense has allowed more fantasy points to tight ends over the past three seasons than San Diego. Zach Miller, not the 'Trash' Heap, is the proper play.

"Due to the plethora of Bears/Packers in her starting lineup, Professor Gottlieb might as well indulge in a pregame meal of beer and cheese-injected meats (i.e. the artery-clogging heaven of Hillshire Farm CheddarWurst). Minus her defense, the expected shootout between the NFC North archrivals should benefit her team nicely. Similar to Malibu's situation, Forte will be a thorn in her side, but if she comes to the realization Henry is the better start over Banana hands Braylon, she has excellent odds of emerging victorious."

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

Here's my theory on why Richard Seymour(notes) balked at reporting to the Raiders after being traded by the Patriots for a first-round draft pick last Sunday morning: Inside information. For two-plus years, Seymour had been exposed to Randy Moss(notes), whose career was revived after being shipped from Oakland to New England. I'm not exonerating Moss for having been a dog during his time with the Raiders; I'm simply saying that he likely had a very negative impression of his previous employer relative to his current one, and I'm guessing he wasn't shy about sharing. Then, a month ago, the Patriots acquired defensive end Derrick Burgess(notes) from the Raiders, reportedly for third- and fifth-round picks. Now Seymour had someone in his position meetings who, I surmise, couldn't contain his elation about having escaped a dysfunctional franchise for a first-class organization. Think Seymour heard a few horror stories about life with the silver-and-black? I do.

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

My friend Bob Schuster, who's feeling lousy but fighting hard in L.A. Also, on the eighth anniversary of 9/11, let's remember to toast the brave police officers and firefighters who risk their lives for our safety on a regular basis.

DISPATCHES FROM THE LAIR OF THE BEAR

After making his Gameface debut last Friday, Cal sophomore David Seawright unleashed a pair of second-half kickoffs in Saturday's 52-13 thrashing of Maryland at Memorial Stadium. This week the San Diego native puts his figurative foot in the posterior region of a certain Chargers linebacker (and Maryland alum) who was arrested on suspicion of battery charges the following morning. Seawright, who's competing this week for the kickoff-specialist gig, may be a very tired man come Saturday: The 10th-ranked Bears and revived quarterback Kevin Riley host Eastern Washington at 2:30 p.m. PT.

Perhaps Shawne Merriman(notes) is the victim of a has-been reality star and wanna-be singer desperate for any measure of publicity.

Or, perhaps he was suffering from a bout of "tainted supplement" rage. Or maybe he was just unhappy with the performance of his alma mater Saturday night.

What really happened between the Chargers' outside linebacker and MTV star Tila "Tequila" Nguyen last Saturday night may not ever become public knowledge. Even if fully vindicated, the damage to Merriman's already dubious reputation has been done.

The lesson to be learned from Merriman is that athletes – at both the collegiate and professional levels – and public figures in general is that they must be wary of both their actions and the perceptions of their actions.

While the actions of, say, a Pac-10 kicker might not gain national attention, you can be sure that local media outlets would pick up on the story. If I were to do something particularly stupid, I might even earn a spot on a "SportsCenter" ticker.

Athletes, particularly football players, stick out. At a school rich with world-class academic talent, it's fair to consider it nearly impossible to hide. That's why every Cal athlete is constantly reminded to make wise decisions in both action and perception.

But I have to wonder: Did Merriman do the "Lights-Out" dance to win a "Shot at Love" with Tila?

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

Boom Tho The Resuscitation

ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS

Reading's roster turnover continued last week with midfielder James Harper's move to Sheffield United on loan, as first-year manager Brendan Rodgers progressively puts his stamp on the team. The revamped Royals (18th in the Football League Championship standings) hope to earn their second consecutive victory Saturday when they host Doncaster at Madejski Stadium, with another home game four days later against third-place Cardiff City.

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

It didn't take Merriman and his lawyers long to come up with a simple defense against the allegations made by former reality-TV personality Tila Tequila. (Hint: Her last name provides a logical opening.) Then, via the magic of micro-blogging innuendo, Ms. Tequila struck back. Shawne's hypothetical reaction? Here's Lights Out and his attorney doing the Jamie Foxx/T. Pain thing, to the Auto-Tune of "Blame It".

Keep her, keep her, keep her …

Blame it on the Goose, got her feeling loose
Blame it on Patron, that's her name, y'know?
Blame it on a-a-a-a-a alcohol (blame it on a a a a a a a a a a a a alcohol)

Ey, she said she is allergic?
But I know that's a trick
Cause shawty know what she wants
Cause she don't want to seem like she's sleazy
Set up a foursome – she didn't want to
And then she walked into the bedroom
And then she tried to go outsi-i-i-ide-oh-ri-i-i-ght

Girl think I'm cheatin'?
Now you up tweetin'
Then you're deletin', not-sleepin'
We can fight it out in court
Move this drama forward
Just one more round if you're down I'm for it
You can make more stuff up
I'll call you a slut – what?
Gonna scorch the earth now
Tell the whole wide world how
Banned substances were behind it all (behind it all)

Blame it on the juice? Got me in a noose
Blame it on the 'roids? Got me paranoid
Blame it on the A-a-a-a-a Anodrol (blame it on the A-a-a-a-a Anodrol)
Blame it on the Dbol, blame it on the Deca
Blame it on the product, now you feel better?
Blame it on the Sta-a-a-a-Stanozolol (blame it on the Sta-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-Stanozolol)

Ohh see
She gonna play dirty
Take it from me she was tipsy
She tried to grab her car keys
After I told her not to drink and drive
This is how she repay her dude?
Lights me up like Maurice Jones-Drew(notes)?
And raises her sagging profi-i-i-ile
Thrown under the pi-i-i-ile

Girl think I'm cheatin'?
Now you up tweetin'
Then you're deletin', not-sleepin'
We can fight it out in court
Move this drama forward
Just one more round if you're down I'm for it
You can make more stuff up
I'll call you a slut – what?
Gonna scorch the earth now
Tell the whole wide world how
Banned substances were behind it all (behind it all)

Blame it on the juice? Got me in a noose
Blame it on the 'roids? Got me paranoid
Blame it on the A-a-a-a-a Anodrol (blame it on the A-a-a-a-a Anodrol)
Blame it on the Dbol, blame it on the Deca
Blame it on the product, now you feel better?
Blame it on the Sta-a-a-a-Stanozolol (blame it on the Sta-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-Stanozolol) …