ARLINGTON, Texas -- The other Steelers had Ben Roethlisberger's back as long ago as that disgusting March night in Milledgeville, Ga., despite assertions to the contrary that you might have heard this week from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. They had his back when Dennis Dixon and mostly Charlie Batch led the team to a 3-1 start during his four-game NFL suspension. They had his back here, deep in the heart of Texas, all week during the hysterical run-up to Super Bowl XLV.
Tonight, Roethlisberger will return the favor. Tonight, he will say thank you to his teammates in the best possible way. Tonight, he will lead the Steelers past the Green Bay Packers for their third Super Bowl title in the past six seasons and their record seventh in franchise history.
I write that even though a big part of me thinks the Packers are going to win. They are 2 1/2-point favorites for a reason -- they are very, very good. Their powerful front seven could cause fits for the Steelers offensive line, which will play without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. Their franchise quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, and his cast of thousands at wide receiver could do the same to the Steelers secondary, much as Tom Brady and his New England bunch did earlier in the season.
But now that it's time to pick the game, I can't pull the trigger and go with the Packers. I can't pick against Roethlisberger. There's just no way. I fully expect him to find a way to win the game for the Steelers.
It's funny, I had to laugh the other day when Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace called Roethlisberger "one of the best clutch quarterbacks probably to ever play the game." Wallace is 24, hardly old enough to remember Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana and maybe even John Elway. But I'm more than old enough to know those players' greatness. Roethlisberger is right there with them, at least he will be if he leads the Steelers to that third title. I believe he's Hall of Fame-worthy right now, but he'll be an absolute lock if he gets that third ring, a number reached only by Montana and Terry Bradshaw, who have four, and Brady and Troy Aikman, who have three.
Roethlisberger already has led an Elwayesque-drive in a Super Bowl. Two years ago, in Super Bowl XLIII, he took the Steelers 78 yards in the final two minutes for the winning touchdown to beat the Arizona Cardinals, 27-23. His 6-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Santonio Holmes is one of the fabulous plays in the Steelers' long, storied history.
Roethlisberger is 10-2 as a postseason starter after victories in these playoffs against the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets. He wasn't even close to being spectacular against the Jets -- his 35.5 passer rating is pretty good proof -- but he made two throws in the final three minutes that the Steelers had to have to win.
That's what Roethlisberger does.
He wins football games.
Don't be fooled by the front that Roethlisberger puts up for the media. Before the game against the Jets, he talked about their great defense beating Brady and the Patriots and Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do against them." Here, when told that national surveys showed that more people would pick Rodgers to be their quarterback than him, he grinned and said, "I'd take Aaron, too."
That's nonsense, of course.
Roethlisberger hardly lacks confidence.
Especially late in games when everything is on the line.
"I don't know what it is," he said. "I think it's probably the competitiveness, the drive to want to do whatever it takes to win the game. I want it to be on my shoulders. I don't do it for the glory. I don't want to be a hero. I just want to win the game."
Or, as Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler put it so eloquently, "Competitiveness, desire, that unbelievable will to win, you name it, this guy has it."
The other Steelers see it. They appreciate it. Mostly, they love that Roethlisberger wins games, puts money in their pockets and rings on their fingers.
That's why it wasn't surprising when all of the Steelers rushed to support Roethlisberger last week after Goodell was quoted by Sports Illustrated that "not a single player" came to Roethlisberger's defense after he was accused of sexual assault in Milledgeville. I know Roethlisberger wasn't the most popular player in the locker room at the time, but I don't believe Goodell for one second in this instance. Nor does Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel, who is among Roethlisberger's closest friends.
"All of us care about him," Keisel said. "We are his brothers."
Roethlisberger anticipated the questions about his personal life during Super Bowl week. But he was blind-sided by Goodell's assertion, which was deplorable considering the timing of the story. Clearly, he appreciated the united show of support from everyone from coach Mike Tomlin to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who said, "I couldn't ask for a better person for [my kids] to hang out with," from Keisel to running back Rashard Mendenhall, who said, "Ben is a great teammate and a great leader."
Said Roethlisberger, "I'm just lucky to be on this team with these guys."
Roethlisberger said he wants to win tonight for Steelers offensive tackle Flozell Adams, who spent the first 12 years of his NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys and was a part of just one wild-card round playoff win before joining the Steelers in the summer. But that's only a part of Roethlisberger's motivation. He wants to win for all his guys. He is determined to have their backs in the biggest game after they had his for so long.
I can't pick against that.
Steelers 24, Packers 17.
Ron Cook: email@example.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published February 6, 2011 5:00 AM