Quarterbacks often get too much credit and too much blame in the NFL.
A mediocre one can be saved by an outstanding receiving corps while a stellar one can be limited by a below average line.
But Saturday’s AFC divisional game between the Ravens and Steelers - which now ranks among the best rivalries in pro sports - came down to the play of the two quarterbacks.
Ben Roethlisberger made the plays when he needed to in the Steelers’ 31-24 victory while Baltimore’s Joe Flacco didn’t.
“It wasn’t our best day today,” Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. “But anytime we have Ben on the field, he is a winner. He may not be (Tom) Brady or all the other guys, but you can’t knock the guy for what he has done.”
That’s become apparent. As many questions as Roethlisberger’s off-the-field behavior has raised - and with two sexual-assault accusations and a life-threatening motorcycle crash in his background there are many – he’s had almost as many answers on the field.
He was the answer in 2004, when he filled in for an injured Tommy Maddox by becoming the first rookie to start his career with a 13-0 record.
His first foray into the playoffs was a bit rougher, but the next season Roethlisberger became the youngest starting quarterback in NFL history to win the Super Bowl.
He added a second Super Bowl ring by finding Santonio Holmes for the go-ahead touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Saturday’s victory over the Ravens was nearly as dramatic. Roethlisberger – with plenty of help from a dominant defense – rallied the Steelers from a
14-point halftime deficit, but still needed to produce another game-winning drive in the closing minutes.
Ward never doubted Roethlisberger.
“I know I’ve always got a chance to win a ballgame with him in the huddle,” Ward said.
“Regardless of how we do it – it may be unpredictable how we do things – but when situation football comes around, we find a way to pull it out, and we did (Saturday).”
Ward was a big part of the game-winning drive against the Ravens, as Roethlisberger found him for a 12-yard completion on a third-and-10 play.
But as Ward said, Roethlisberger often takes an unpredictable route to success. He was sacked for a 9-yard loss on the ensuing first-down play, then threw incomplete on second down.
Facing a third-and-19 play from the Steelers 38, coach Mike Tomlin could have opted for a safe play and let his defense try to stop the Ravens again. But with Roethlisberger leading the offense, Tomlin had a big reason to go for the win.
“It’s Ben,” he said. “You give this guy an opportunity to snap it, he is capable of producing plays. It’s not always how you draw it up, but he has a no-blink mentality. He is a competitor and a winner. And those guys follow him.”
This time he led rookie Antonio Brown with a perfectly lofted ball down the right sideline.
Brown ran under it and, after it popped up and lodged against his helmet, controlled it for a 58-yard pickup.
That set up Rashard Mendenhall’s 2-yard touchdown run, which gave Roethlisberger a seventh consecutive victory over the Ravens.
It didn’t come as a surprise to Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who harried and hurried the Steelers quarterback for almost four quarters before watching Roethlisberger beat him again.
“I told you early in the week, Hines Ward and Ben (Roethlisberger) they know how to win playoff games,” Suggs said. “We didn’t put them away, so we had nobody but ourselves to blame.”
A large portion of that blame should be shouldered by the Ravens quarterback. Flacco and the Baltimore offense was so bad in the third quarter it would have been better off punting the ball as soon as the Ravens got it. Fifteen minutes of playoff football produced minus-4 yards of offense and three turnovers. Two of those turnovers were on Flacco.
After a Ray Rice fumble allowed the Steelers to cut the deficit to 7 points, Flacco had a chance to settle his team and build on the lead. Instead, he was baited by Ryan Clark into throwing into double coverage, and the Steelers safety intercepted him to set up another touchdown.
Then, with the game still tied, Flacco couldn’t master the most basic of offensive maneuvers: The snap. Brett Keisel recovered the fumble to set up the Steelers’ go-ahead score.
Even when the Ravens gave Flacco great field position to work with - as they did after Lardarius Webb’s punt return set him up at the Steelers’ 19, he couldn’t do anything with it.
Four plays later, “Joe Cool” was replaced by the field-goal unit.
It was indicative of the difference between the Ravens and Steelers on Saturday.
“(The Steelers) didn’t make those mistakes, so they get to go home and play in the AFC championship, and contend for a Super Bowl when we go to the couch,” Suggs said about an error by the Baltimore defense.
He could just have easily been addressing the play of the teams’ respective quarterbacks.