PITTSBURGH (AP) -He dropped to a knee, bracing himself for another bone-crunching hit.
None came this time.
Ben Roethlisberger had finished his job - and the Baltimore Ravens.
Playing an efficient, error-free AFC championship against one of the NFL's most bloodthirsty defenses, Roethlisberger showed why he may be pro football's premier big-game quarterback as he led the Pittsburgh Steelers into another Super Bowl with a 23-14 win Sunday.
``Ben is a special guy,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. ``He recognized the magnitude of the game, and he did what his team needed him to do.''
Big Ben. Big time.
Roethlisberger finished 16-of-33 for 255 yards with one touchdown. But more importantly, he didn't throw an interception or force anything into Baltimore's swarming secondary, a unit that can make even the most polished QB look foolish. The Ravens sacked him four times, but they couldn't force him into a mistake.
to contain a quarterback like Roethlisberger,'' Ravens safety Ed Reed said. ``He's a great quarterback. We knew it and expected it and they made plays when they had to.''
As it turned out, Roethlisberger's biggest play - a 65-yard TD pass to wide receiver Santonio Holmes - came on a ball he considered throwing into the Heinz Field stands.
With the Steelers leading 6-0 in the second quarter, Roethlisberger avoided Baltimore's relentless rush by first stepping up in the pocket and then to his left. He pump-faked and threw back across the field to Holmes, who had worked himself free. Holmes took it from there, weaving his way across the field and into the end zone.
``I don't even remember the play,'' Roethlisberger said. ``I do remember scrambling left and looking back to see if someone was coming. I stepped up and was getting ready to throw it away. I just threw it where he could make a play. I saw the defender had his back turned, so I figured I could get it in there.''
It was one of those plays you'd see in the street or some kid's backyard.
``He's a playground football player,'' Ravens tackle Trevor Pryce said. ``That's what he is, and he's a damn good one.''
Roethlisberger laughed when asked about his improvisational skills.
``That's not planned, I promise you,'' he said. ``The credit there goes to the linemen being able to block so long.''
On a team filled with strong personalities, No. 7 is the unquestioned leader. He has earned his teammates' respect by playing through injuries and by playing his best when his best is mandatory.
Sunday's performance may help ease some of the sting of the 2005 AFC title game against New England. Perhaps trying to prove he belonged on the same field as New England's Tom Brady, Roethlisberger, then a big-armed rookie lacking postseason experience, threw three interceptions as the Steelers were rocked 41-27 by the Patriots.
Even this week, Roethlisberger was bemoaning the performance when he learned a lesson he leans on every time he takes the field.
``Don't turn the ball over,'' Roethlisberger said. ``In the playoffs, that's the big key in a game like this.''
Joe Flacco wasn't so fortunate. Baltimore's first-year QB was picked off three times, and for the first time in this postseason looked like a playoff neophyte.
With the Steelers leading 16-14 in the fourth, Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh couldn't milk any more time off the clock and had to punt back to Flacco.
When Polamalu's flowing, frizzy mane - and the football - crossed the goal line and the Steelers were finally safe, Roethlisberger pumped his fists and began hugging anyone within reach.
He was back in the biggest game.
``When Troy starts running with the ball, you never know what's going to happen,'' Roethlisberger said. ``I was just so happy that he scored.''
A few minutes later, Roethlisberger, one of the few QBs in the league who looks as if he could line up on defense for a few snaps, ran off the final seconds and the Steelers celebrated their seventh trip to the Super Bowl.
They head to Florida with a defense second to none.
And a quarterback who can hold his own with any.

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