Down six with 1:59 left and 87 yards standing between his team and Super Bowl glory. It’s the type of situation that can cement a Hall of Fame career. It’s the type of situation in which a superstar can become a legend.
It’s the type of situation that seemingly was made for Ben Roethlisberger.
“I thought it was going to be one of those magical moments,” said Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, who’s seen enough of those over the years from his quarterback to know when one’s coming. “Two minutes left, one timeout, we have the ball . . .”
Ward likely wasn’t the only one with that thought running through his head. With the memory of Super Bowl XLIII and the last-minute, game-winning score Roethlisberger engineered against the Arizona Cardinals still relatively fresh in the collective subconscious, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy already was being second-guessed for settling for a late field goal, potentially leaving the door open for another Roethlisberger-led miracle.
But there would be no miracle this time. The Steelers never made it across midfield, Roethlisberger completed just two of five passes on that final drive and when his fourth-and-5 attempt to Mike Wallace fell incomplete, the Packers were able to claim the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl title with a 31-25 win.
“We’re a team of fighters,” a clearly dejected Roethlisberger said. “We don’t quit. We believe in each other. We were going to fight all the way to the last second, which I think we did. . . . If I’d have played a little bit better, I felt like we would have had a better chance to win the game.”
It’s fairly typical for a quarterback to accept responsibility when his team fails to win. But in this case, it also happens to be more than just mere lip service.
That’s because in the first half, Roethlisberger’s play hearkened back to a different Super Bowl – XL in 2006 against the Seattle Seahawks, which the Steelers won in spite of their quarterback (and his 22.6 passing rating), rather than because of him.
On Pittsburgh’s first play from scrimmage Sunday, after falling behind 7-0 on a 29-yard Aaron Rodgers touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson, Roethlisberger was hit as he threw by Packers defensive lineman Howard Green. The result? A wounded duck of a pass that Green Bay cornerback Nick Collins could have signaled a fair catch for before he intercepted it and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown and a 14-point lead.
Roethlisberger’s second interception of the game was less egregious; Jarrett Bush actually had to work to wrestle the ball away from Wallace. But it proved to be just as costly. Given the short field, Rodgers needed just four plays to find Greg Jennings for a 21-yard score and a 21-3 lead that the Packers would never relinquish.
“There’s a lot of throws I’d like to have back,” Roethlisberger said. “I don’t put the blame on anybody except myself. I feel like I let the city of Pittsburgh down, the fans, my coaches, my teammates. It’s not a good feeling.”
Asked to assess his quarterback’s performance, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was typically succinct: “It was a losing one, just like mine.”
Of all the pejoratives that have been attached to Roethlisberger in the past year, which began with him serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s conduct policy, that’s the one that may hurt him the most.
Coming into Sunday’s game, the conventional wisdom was that while Rodgers might have the stronger arm and the more impressive passing numbers, Roethlisberger simply was better prepared to do whatever it took to win the game. If the game came down to a situation in which one quarterback needed to summon some manner of intestinal fortitude and lead his team back from impossible odds, Roethlisberger was going to have the advantage.
Well, the game came down to precisely such a moment. And when it did, the man that couldn’t lose did just that.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing to lose,” Roethlisberger said. “For me, it’s even more disappointing because you feel like you let a lot of people down that stood up today to fight – people like Doug Legursky, Trai Essex, Ramon Foster, Antwaan Randle El. Personally, I feel like I let a lot of people down.”