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Steelers and Seahawks the last two left standing

Roethlisberger doesn't dazzle, but his poise and efficiency help lead his team to Super Bowl XL

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Denver — Ben Roethlisberger's story is just beginning.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' sophomore quarterback went a long way toward building his legend during the first half of yesterday's American Football Conference championship game.

Leading his team in its third consecutive playoff road game, against a Denver Broncos team that hadn't lost at home all season, Roethlisberger did to the Broncos' vaunted defence exactly what he'd done to the Indianapolis Colts during the first half of their game a week earlier.

There weren't any home-run passes, and he didn't dazzle the opposition. But Roethlisberger was remarkably efficient, directing his offence with precision and calmness while dissecting the same defence that had unsettled New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady the week before.

Roethlisberger threw two first-half touchdown passes to help the Steelers build a 24-3 halftime lead en route to a 34-17 win that sent Pittsburgh to its first Super Bowl game in a decade.

Roethlisberger, 23, the third quarterback selected in the 2004 National Football League draft behind Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, will be the second youngest quarterback to start an NFL championship game behind Dan Marino, who played his first and only Super Bowl game with the Miami Dolphins in 1984.

"We're going to enjoy this for the next few days," said Roethlisberger, his youthful face partially hidden by a beard. "We've been playing underdog the past six weeks. It's been win or go home. Now, we've got one more to play."

Anyone who thinks Roethlisberger might succumb to the pressure of professional football's biggest stage might want to consider what he pulled off yesterday in front of 76,174 Bronco fans intent on seeing their team reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998.

Just as they'd done in Indianapolis a week earlier, the Steelers came out throwing in the opening half, relying on the instincts of their young quarterback, who produced scores on each of Pittsburgh's first three possessions.

"A lot of people say that if we have to throw the ball, we can't win the game," Roethlisberger said. "Myself, the offensive line, we took offence at that. The last couple of weeks, we've proven that's not the case. We have to keep going and make sure we remain a balanced offence like we've been doing."

During the first 30 minutes, Roethlisberger completed 13 of 17 passes, including two for touchdowns. Aside from a near interception by Champ Bailey, Roethlisberger was nearly perfect.

But it was his efficiency on third downs -- the Steelers converted six of seven during the first half -- that defined his performance more than anything else.

"We had a young quarterback who didn't play young," Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher said.

"When you're around Ben, he's much more mature than his age would indicate. This kid has been successful all his life. I don't think he knows what not having success is."

One of the few times Roethlisberger has tasted defeat was last season's AFC championship game, which the Steelers lost at home to New England. During the dying minutes of that game, Roethlisberger made a promise to veteran running back Jerome Bettis, asking him to delay his retirement for a chance to reach his first Super Bowl, in his hometown of Detroit.

"It was in the middle of tears," said Bettis, who has spent 10 of his 13 NFL seasons in Pittsburgh. "It was on the sidelines of the AFC championship game and he was boo-hooing and I was boo-hooing and he said: 'Come back and I'll get us to the Super Bowl. Just come back.' "

Part way through the season, it didn't appear that would happen. With the Steelers sitting at 7-5, their eventual path to the Super Bowl was one never travelled before.

So the Steelers will head to Detroit as the only sixth seed ever to reach a Super Bowl and just the second team ever (1985 New England Patriots) to get there with three consecutive road wins.

They also have a chance to become the third team to win five Super Bowl titles, joining the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. It all stirs up memories of the 1970s when the Steelers became one of the NFL's earliest dynasties.

That identity has given way to one of a team that couldn't win the big games, as Pittsburgh were 1-4 in AFC title games in 12 seasons under Cowher. But after three successive AFC title game losses at home, the road proved friendly.

"I think of us at 7-5, understanding that every game at that point is going to be a playoff game, got us battle-tested," Bettis said. "[We were] ready for the playoffs a lot earlier because we turned it on in the latter part of the season and we were in playoff mode."

Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, who threw only seven interceptions all season, fired two yesterday and also fumbled the ball twice.

Ordinarily a run-first offence, the Broncos were forced to go to the air for most of the second half as the Steelers did a good job eating the clock to protect their lead.

Plummer gave the home crowd a brief thrill when Denver narrowed the gap to 27-17 with seven minutes remaining. But with a chance to cut the lead on its next possession, Plummer fumbled deep in the Broncos' territory and it was recovered by Pittsburgh, leading to the Steelers' final touchdown.

"The interceptions were bad and I really haven't fumbled the ball all year," Plummer said. "They ended up capitalizing on some turnovers and put us in a hole. Against a defence like that, it's hard to come out of a hole like that."

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