Big Ben turns perceived flaw into weapon

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Editor’s note: Michael Silver will not have a Live Trippin’ session on Tuesday, Dec. 16. Live Trippin’ will return later this month.

BALTIMORE – Ben Roethlisberger scrambled to his left and saw an opening, and for a split second the Pittsburgh Steelers’ relentlessly confident quarterback was sure he’d be the one to score the first and decisive touchdown in a game of perpetual door-slamming.

This is it. I’m going in.

Or not: As he stepped forward to the 10-yard line, Roethlisberger saw a trio of Baltimore Ravens defenders closing fast and he realized that running for the end zone on third-and-goal with a three-point deficit and less than a minute remaining wasn’t a viable option.

Should he throw the ball away to set up a tying field goal, which would likely mean that this bruising showdown between the NFL’s top two defenses would extend to overtime?

Forget about it.

Photo Roethlisberger is pursued by the Ravens’ Terrell Suggs.
(AP Photo/Rob Carr)

“You know me,” Roethlisberger said afterward in a cleared-out visitors locker room at M&T Bank Stadium. “I hold onto the ball too long. Throw it away early and go for the field goal, or keep running around and try to win it? I chose the second option, ‘cause that’s how I am. Oh well.”

If the fifth-year quarterback couldn’t resist taking a jab at his critics in that context, it was hard not to excuse him. Roethlisberger had just willed his team to a 13-9 victory over the Ravens that clinched the AFC North title and put the Steelers (11-3) in position to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, all by drawing on the same improvisational skills that some analysts have cited as a flaw in his game.

So yeah, Big Ben may absorb a few extra takedowns behind the line of scrimmage, but there’s no denying that he has a lot of sack when his team needs him most.

Having driven the Steelers from their own 8-yard line to the brink of a season-defining victory against the NFL’s second-ranked defense, Roethlisberger wanted no part of a throwaway. After he saw “everything collapse” and decided against running it in, Roethlisberger bought time by rolling back to his right. He then coolly fired a hard pass on the run to wideout Santonio Holmes, who caught it while standing in the end zone but appeared to be pushed back to the 1 by Baltimore safety Ed Reed before the ball broke the plane.

In a highly controversial replay reversal, referee Walt Coleman ruled that Holmes, as he told a pool reporter afterward, “had two feet down and completed the catch with control of the ball breaking the plane of the goal line.” This was, in the eyes of Ravens fans, a cross between grand larceny and an optical illusion.

“Don’t get me started,” said Olympic swimming icon Michael Phelps – a man who knows a thing or two about incomprehensibly close calls – as he socialized with several Ravens players at a downtown Baltimore club Sunday night.

Whatever its merit, Coleman’s call deprived the crowd of 71,502 from witnessing a mano a mano snap to decide the game – several Pittsburgh players said coach Mike Tomlin planned to go for it – and, after William Gay’s end-zone interception of Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco with eight seconds remaining, consigned Baltimore (9-5) to chasing a wild-card berth.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh travels to Nashville to face the Tennessee Titans (12-2) next Sunday for first place in the conference. “Everything we’ve played for all season, so far, is right there in front of us,” inside linebacker James Farrior says. “Now we’ve got to go get it.”

It’s the latest in a seemingly endless series of epic encounters for the Steelers, and guess who’s feeling confident about his team’s chances?

“You’ve got to have that swagger,” Roethlisberger says. “Playing all these tough games, it’s not going to make us any weaker. We’re getting stronger and stronger every week, whereas last year we were getting weaker as the year dragged on. At this stage last year we felt like we were tired.”

The 2007 AFC North champion Steelers lost three of their final four regular season games, then suffered a 31-29 home defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars in their playoff opener.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh earned its fifth consecutive victory and reaffirmed the notion that no NFL team will be as battle-tested or prepared to pull out a tight game come playoff time.

“We’ve been in so many of them,” Tomlin said as he walked through the locker room offering congratulations to his players. “There’s no way to prepare yourself for it other than to go through them, and winning it at the end is something we’ve come to expect. When we get in that situation we feel like we’ve got a job to do, and we embrace the moment.”

Given that the Steelers’ defense had keyed the previous Sunday’s comeback victory over the Cowboys, Roethlisberger and the rest of Pittsburgh’s offensive players felt an obligation to seize the moment. Said halfback Willie Parker: “The defense went out and played hardball. We came up big on the last play. I guess we got the glory, but they made it all possible.”

As with the Steelers’ Week 4 overtime victory over the Ravens, their top-ranked defense and opportunistic offense seemed to have achieved a perfect symbiosis. After linebacker Lawrence Timmons’ sack and forced fumble knocked the Ravens out of field-goal range with just over four minutes to go, Holmes called for a fair catch of Sam Koch’s punt at his own 8.

Roethlisberger radiated confidence in the huddle, relishing the chance to go deep to Holmes on the first play. The Ravens, however, had tight coverage on Pittsburgh’s deep threat, causing Roethlisberger (22 of 40, 246 yards, three sacks) to look elsewhere. Fortunately for the Steelers, he found St. Elsewhere – or, as wideout Hines Ward is known in Baltimore, Satan In Cleats – in heavy traffic on the right side.

Ward (eight catches, 107 yards) reached up to make a terrific grab, energizing his teammates with the 13-yard gain. He made another nice catch for 13 more on the following play, but Pittsburgh soon faced third-and-10 on its own 34. Roethlisberger stayed cool and relied upon his mobility to buy time before finding Nate Washington on the left side for a 16-yard gain.

Photo Holmes gets pushed back over the goal line by Reed.
(Getty/Jim McIsaac)

Later, after a 24-yard completion to Washington set up first down at the Baltimore 14, Roethlisberger went to Ward once again, hitting him underneath and watching the physical wideout ramble to the 4. After a spike and an incompletion it was time for one of the biggest plays of Big Ben’s five-year career – though had Holmes’ catch not been ruled a touchdown, a potential sneak (or handoff or play-action pass) on fourth-and-inches might’ve been even bigger.

“We were going to go for it,” Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu confirmed afterward. “We had to. We had made the decision, because that’s how it had to be. You don’t deserve to go to the Super Bowl, to the playoffs, if you don’t have the guts to do that. I think [the Ravens] really would’ve respected that, whether we made it or not.”

Said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis: “We would’ve loved that. What a way to decide a great game.”

Unfortunately for the man who carried Baltimore to the franchise’s lone championship eight seasons ago, it didn’t go down that way. Now Lewis and the Ravens must concentrate on their Saturday night battle with the Cowboys, as the two teams most recently stung by the Steelers close Texas Stadium while battling for their respective playoff lives.

After Sunday, their counterparts in black-and-gold can’t help but set their sights even higher.

“There’ve been a lot of people who’ve criticized our offense – it’s not flashy, and we’ve had our rough moments – but as a team we’re all in this together,” Ward said as he walked to the team bus. “And what better way to win it than to take it 92 yards against the Baltimore Ravens, in their house? That’s the best feeling in the world. And with a leader like Ben, we know we’re capable of anything.”

Get ready, Music City. Right now, no one in the NFL is making more noise than the Steelers, and you know they’ll embrace the moment.

I’M HOT CAUSE I’M FLY …

Two weeks ago, the Giants shrugged off the drama surrounding Plaxico Burress’ accidental shooting and rolled over the Redskins, creating the impression they were impervious to distraction. On Sunday night at Texas Stadium, it was the Cowboys’ turn. Jerry Jones questioning Marion Barber’s toughness? Terence Newman calling out his coaches? Beef between Tony Romo, Terrell Owens and Jason Witten? Nooooo problem. Dallas (9-5) defeated the Giants, 20-8, and can make the playoffs by beating the Ravens and Eagles to finish the regular season. This was a physically impressive effort by a desperate bunch, one which included eight sacks of Eli Manning – against a team that had given up just 15 sacks in 13 previous games. Three of the sacks were recorded by linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who now leads the NFL with 19 and has a shot at Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22½. I’ve heard Albert Haynesworth, Joey Porter and James Harrison mentioned as potential MVP candidates, but don’t we need to inject Ware into the conversation as well? On a more realistic note, the race for defensive player of the year remains highly competitive.

Or how about AD for MVP? Hasn’t Adrian (All Day) Peterson been overlooked to this point, and after another stellar effort by the Vikings halfback on Sunday – 165 yards on 28 carries in Minnesota’s 35-14 thrashing of NFC West champion Arizona – isn’t it time we move him to the forefront of the discussion? The Vikings (9-5) have won four consecutive games and are one victory (or a Bears defeat) away from clinching the NFC North. Peterson, a target after his breakout rookie season in ’07, has run for an NFL-best 1,581 yards – 160 more than the next most productive runner, Michael Turner – and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 112.9 per game. He’s getting stronger and stronger, and suddenly Tarvaris Jackson looks smooth and comfortable, and no one is talking about firing coach Brad Childress. I’d say that’s pretty valuable.

The Panthers have had their iffy moments this season. They got blown out by the Bucs in mid-October; they had one of the most atrocious offensive games imaginable in a November victory over the Raiders; they came scarily close to losing to the Lions; they gave up 45 points to the Falcons. And you know what? They’re a legitimate Super Bowl threat, a team that will almost certainly get a first-round bye and which can clinch home-field advantage in the NFC by defeating the Giants next Sunday night. Considering the Panthers are undefeated at home, that’s a daunting prospect for their prospective postseason opponents. They were humming on both sides of the ball in a 30-10 victory over the Broncos Sunday, with Steve Smith (nine catches, 165 yards) the most conspicuous star. They can run, they can throw, they can pressure the quarterback and they can cover receivers. And, since the Smith-Ken Lucas training camp fight, they’ve been the anti-Cowboys in terms of distractions. Even if Carolina loses to the Giants, here’s my advice: Do not sleep on this team.

… YOU AIN’T CAUSE YOU’RE NOT

Suddenly, that presumptive Titans-Giants Super Bowl doesn’t look so destined, with both conference leaders losing Sunday (Tennessee to the Texans by a 13-12 score) to set up showdowns with their closest pursuers six days from now. Each team seems more vulnerable than before: New York has lost consecutive games amid questions about whether it can compensate for Burress’ absence, and the Titans are now staring at a potentially serious knee injury to Haynesworth, their most important player. Both of these teams are aggressive and physical and won’t back down from the challenges they face Sunday and beyond, but “vacation” time – as Tennessee linebacker Keith Bulluck referred to his team’s misadventure in Houston – is most certainly over. Meanwhile, for all you excited Texans fans, realize that this is the second consecutive season in which your team has played its best football only after its season ceased to have any meaning. That’s a Texas-sized bummer.

Even after losing to the Falcons, 13-10, in overtime, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) remain in control of their postseason future. Beat the Chargers and Raiders in consecutive home games, and the Bucs will finish no worse than sixth in the NFC. But as with a year ago, when the NFC South champions slumped at the end of the regular season before dropping their playoff opener, Tampa Bay’s inability to close is disturbing. The Bucs had a great chance to do so on Sunday at the Georgia Dome: Having somehow hung around despite scoring just seven points through 57 minutes against the Falcons – Atlanta failed to build on its 10-0 lead after Tampa Bay forced a pair of turnovers just shy of its end zone – the Bucs did what they usually do, somehow finding a way to turn the game in their favor. With 2:37 remaining, Brian Clark blocked a Michael Koenen punt and Sabby Piscitelli picked it up and returned it to the Atlanta 22. If the Bucs were going to steal a game, this was the time. But on second-and-7 from the Falcons’ 9, Brian Griese (playing because starter Jeff Garcia has a calf injury) took an 11-yard sack from John Abraham, and then there was a holding penalty, and Tampa Bay had to settle for a game-tying field goal. The Bucs got the ball in overtime and managed a pair of first downs before another Abraham sack killed the drive, and the Falcons scored on their next possession. Come to think of it, this team is in danger of turning into the anti-Texans: Strong all season until it really matters.

Nice work, Redskins. You have now lost to the Bengals (20-13 on Sunday) and the Rams, two appallingly bad teams. (Fortunately, you did beat the Lions and Seahawks, though not by much.) Now, with five defeats in your last six games, your playoff hopes are pretty much shot. And you have a head coach, Jim Zorn, who told reporters after Sunday’s game, “It’s kind of frustrating – the penalties, the errors, the fumbles. Those are things that take their toll on you. I’m frustrated, and it’s heartfelt. I can sense the emotion welling up in me.” At this point, every Washington fan I know is thinking the same three words: Too much information.

TWO THINGS I CAN’T COMPREHEND

1. The design plan for the bathroom in the studio where I tape my regular Y! Sports video segments. There’s a urinal on one side, with a sink nearby; on the other side are two stalls. And, a few feet from the stalls, right out there in the open, is an unenclosed toilet. This presents an intriguing option: Well, I have to relieve myself, and a urinal is unsuitable for this particular situation. And the stalls are occupied, or perhaps on this occasion I merely choose to avoid them. Think I’ll handle my business in the middle toilet instead. Now, where did I put that sports page?

2. What Bills coach Dick Jauron was thinking when he called for a play-action pass with 2:06 remaining and Buffalo facing second-and-5 from its own 27 with a 27-24 lead over the Jets. The Bills had run on their previous six plays and gained 37 yards: 11 on a powerful touchdown run by Fred Jackson and the rest courtesy of powerful Marshawn Lynch (21 carries, 127 yards). The Jets hadn’t recorded a first down since the third quarter and, even if they could have stopped Lynch from gaining five yards on two carries, didn’t seem very threatening on offense. So what did Jauron do? He overruled offensive coordinator Turk Schonert and called for the pass. That left Losman, who is more deliberate in the pocket than a DMV clerk, vulnerable to, you know, the kind of play that can cost a flailing team a game it would otherwise win. Sure enough, Abram Elam came off the blind side and knocked the ball loose from Losman, and Shaun Ellis made a manly recovery and 11-yard return for the winning touchdown. After that the Bills had to pass, and Losman threw a pair of interceptions. Not only did Jauron earn the enmity of the Patriots, Dolphins and Ravens (the teams competing with the Jets for playoff spots), but he also gave the people calling for him to be fired some handy ammunition. Is Jauron trying to get Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson to dump him? Just awful.

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

I’m not going to devote a lot of space to breaking down the bizarre behavior of T.O., from his reported rift with Romo and Witten to his apparent effort to be considered for a spot in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (judging by his postgame attire). But I will say this to Owens.: Dude, given that you were the guy who took it upon himself publicly to question the sexuality of Garcia when you were both with the 49ers, haven’t you left yourself open to similar charges from equally closed-minded and ignorant people? I mean, running to your offensive coordinator to complain that Romo and Witten are going over plays behind your back? Doesn’t that reek of, ‘Hey, I want to be Tony’s special friend’? Look, I’m not saying you’re gay – and if you were, to paraphrase a certain iconic sitcom star, there’d be nothing wrong with that – but you might want to keep your emotions about your QB on the QT. Otherwise, you know, one of your teammates might say, “If it looks like a rat …”

TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

“Lol yeah he funny”
– Text Sunday night from Falcons wideout Roddy White regarding coach Mike Smith’s sideline spat with Bucs receiver Antonio Bryant

“I would throw a pair of shoes at Norv …”
– Text Sunday afternoon from my buddy Malibu (of fantasy adventure fame) during the bleaker moments of the Chargers-Chiefs game, on how he’d have reacted had he been at Arrowhead Stadium. (He was considerably less riled up after San Diego rallied for a 22-21 victory to keep its playoff hopes alive.)