Ben Roethlisberger tries to avoid a Reggie Nelson sack Saturday night in the Steelers' 18-16 win against the Bengals.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It had been almost five years since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger showed off the quality that defined the early portion of his career.
Once known for being one of the most clutch quarterbacks of his era, Roethlisberger rekindled that magic Saturday night in Cincinnati when he orchestrated a nine-play, 74-yard drive in the final minute that ended with Chris Boswell’s 35-yard field goal in the Steelers’ 18-16 victory in an AFC wild-card game at Paul Brown Stadium.
It was Roethlisberger’s fourth, fourth-quarter playoff comeback and the 38th of his career overall. Among active players, only Tom Brady (nine) and Eli Manning (five) have more fourth-quarter comebacks in the postseason. And by getting his fourth, Roethlisberger wrote his name in the record books alongside Terry Bradshaw, John Elway and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who notched his fourth, fourth-quarter comeback in a playoff game Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
It was Roethlisberger’s first fourth-quarter comeback since he led the Steelers on a late touchdown drive that beat the Ravens, 31-24, in a 2010 AFC divisional-round game. He had failed in his previous three fourth-quarter comeback attempts. He had the ball with a chance to win at the end of Super Bowl XLV, but the Steelers turned the ball over on downs. He had a chance to beat the Broncos at the end of regulation in the playoff loss at Denver after the 2011 regular season, and he couldn’t find a way to beat the Ravens at Heinz Field a year ago when he had the ball and a chance to tie the score in the fourth quarter.
“The only one I can’t put it ahead of was the Super Bowl against Arizona,” said veteran tight end Matt Spaeth, who witnessed firsthand three of Roethlisberger’s four postseason comebacks since joining the Steelers in 2007. “That was pretty amazing. But [Saturday] was up there. It was close. It was a crazy game. The fact that he did it the way he was feeling and hurt. It was pretty awesome.”
Roethlisberger’s first fourth-quarter playoff comeback came as rookie against the New York Jets in a divisional-round game in 2004. And of course, his most famous comeback came in Super Bowl XLIII. That drive ended with one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history, a 6-yard pass to Santonio Holmes that completed an eight-play, 78-yard drive.
What made this one special were the circumstances. Roethlisberger made like Willis Reed and re-entered the game with 1:23 remaining after being injured on the final play of the third quarter when Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict sacked him.
He was 5 for 8 on the final drive, including a fourth-and-3 conversion to Antonio Brown with 28 seconds remaining.
“For me, it was probably his gutsiest one because he was in no way, shape or form, 100 percent out there,” said longtime long snapper Greg Warren, who has been with the team since 2005. “He was just grinding through, probably a lot of it on adrenaline and just trying to do everything he could to get this team through because we were that close. He knew if he could just go out there and help a little then that’s what he’d do. And he did. He gave us exactly what we needed. It was amazing.”
For a while it appeared the shoulder injury would prevent Roethlisberger from going back into the game. He didn’t immediately re-enter the game upon returning to the sideline. Backup Landry Jones led three drives, including one that ended in an interception with 1:36 remaining.
After Ryan Shazier stripped Jeremy Hill on the first play of the next series, Roethlisberger came on to lead the final drive.
“When he was out and then came back on the field everyone kind of got excited,” Spaeth said. “And then when he doesn’t go out there you realize he’s in a lot of pain because it’s not in Ben’s nature to not play. He’s a tough guy, and this is what he lives for. So it was a little disheartening when he wasn’t out there. And then when he did go back out there I think everyone got that little excitement and that little bit of energy that we needed.”
“Wild”, “awesome”, “amazing”, all words used by players Sunday to describe what took place Saturday night in Paul Brown Stadium. For the way it ended, with two personal foul penalties on the Bengals that set up the winning field goal, it will go down as one of the strangest endings in NFL annals.
For the teammates who watched Roethlisberger gut out the victory with an injured shoulder, it was one of the sweetest.
Sometimes, it takes time for moments to crystallize in sports history. And sometimes the moment is recognized immediately for its brilliance.
Warren said he knew as it happened that he had just witnessed one of the most remarkable endings to a playoff game in NFL history.
“Yeah, while it was happening we knew it was the greatest comeback that we’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “Even 24 hours later it hasn’t sunk in. We’re still excited about winning. It’s pretty special.”
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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