In human years, Ben Roethlisberger is 33 years old, but I imagine he is an octogenarian in football years, because for more than a decade, Roethlisberger is the quarterback who has absorbed the most overt punishment in professional football. I also imagine all these hits may catch up to him later in life, but Roethlisberger is the kind of guy who appears not to give a shit about anything but what’s right in front of him, and right now, the AFC playoffs (if not another Super Bowl) are directly in his grasp.
Regardless of how you feel about Roethlisberger’s personal ethics (and given what we know, there’s little reason to champion them), this is what he does: He plays quarterback with a hard head and a force of will that is, by turns, admirable and stupid. Few passers in the history of the NFL have been more effective at extending plays that were presumed dead, and few passers in history are more capable of resurrecting games that were presumed to have flatlined. His style is ugly and gruff and physical; he fights through tackles and brushes off seemingly concussive blows and occasionally throws perplexing interceptions in the midst of all this, like the one he uncorked late in Sunday’s 34-27 comeback win over Denver, with the game largely in hand. But in the end, Roethlisberger did it again for the Steelers: He wound up completing 40-of-55 passes for 380 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Steelers back from a 27-10 first-half deficit.
These are the kinds of things Roethlisberger is capable of when he is healthy and able. In September, he suffered a knee injury against the Rams that looked serious enough to maybe derail his career for a good long time. It turned out to be a sprained MCL and a bone bruise, and he came back four weeks later, then sprained his foot against the Raiders; he didn’t start against the Browns the next week, then came in for Landry Jones in relief and threw for 379 yards and three touchdowns.
If he hadn’t missed that month of play, Roethlisberger would likely be a prime MVP candidate: He’s throwing for far more yards per game this season than he ever has in his career. He has multiple weapons at receiver, most notably Antonio Brown, who torched a very good Broncos secondary for 189 yards on 16 catches and two touchdowns –including the game-winner – on Sunday. Roethlisberger is now presiding over a team that has taken on that ever-shifting moniker of “Team You Really Don’t Want To Face In The Playoffs.” It didn’t matter that Pittsburgh rushed for 23 yards yesterday, because they had Roethlisberger, and with only winnable division games remaining against the Ravens and Browns, the Steelers would appear to be in prime position to earn a wild-card berth. Two of the 9-5 Steelers’ losses, against Baltimore and Kansas City, came when Roethlisberger was out with that knee injury; the other three are to the Patriots (28-21), Seattle (39-30) and Cincinnati (16-10), three playoff-bound teams with a combined record of 32-10.
This is the time of year when quarterbacks begin to separate themselves, and that was readily apparent yesterday in Pittsburgh. For a half, the Broncos’ Brock Osweiler staked his team to a 27-10 lead by throwing for more than 200 yards and three touchdowns. But then Osweiler’s receivers began dropping passes – it’s becoming a routine for Demaryius Thomas, who’s tied for the league lead in drops, and it appears to have spread to tight end Vernon Davis, a relatively new acquisition who’s dropped two key balls over the course of two weeks. In the midst of all that, a rattled Osweiler couldn’t generate any real offense in the second half, and the Steelers and Roethlisberger slowly caught up, and soon lapped him.
For the moment, then, these are two teams that appear to be headed in opposite directions. Osweiler still appears to be the Broncos’ quarterback of the future, but with Peyton Manning slowly working his way back from a foot injury, the present is far more murky; it’s hard to imagine that the Broncos would choose to bench a healthy Hall of Fame quarterback with the playoffs in view, but the question is whether Manning can ever be his old self again. Eventually, quarterbacks start to age out of the position; maybe very soon, it will happen to Ben Roethlisberger, too. But for now, he’s still upright, still ducking and dodging, still playing the position with a bruising ethos that, when it gathers momentum, feels a little bit like watching a boulder careen downhill.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb