There's nothing more compelling than human drama in the playoffs, than the theater of an athlete responding positively in the face of pressure or being crushed by it. And there was so much of it Saturday, from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger twice escaping apparent defeat to kicker Doug Brien twice handing back apparent victory.
Jaded or naive fans think that grown men who are paid millions of dollars don't care as much as college boys on scholarship. They should have seen the Steelers and Jets in the AFC playoffs. They should have seen grown men praying and looking away from the field and wiping away tears. They should have heard the sighs of both relief and disappointment. It isn't often you see the hero and the goat switch places more than once in the final minutes, but that's what made the Steelers' 20-17 victory over the Jets an instant classic.
Ben Roethlisberger hadn't lost a game as a professional, not a single one. He had won 13 straight starts, led his team to a 15-1 record as a rookie, become the darling of a town that holds football as dear as any town in America, save perhaps Green Bay. But it really seemed Big Ben had blown it with just less than two minutes to play. He had gone an entire season without throwing a killer interception, but the regular season isn't the postseason and his pass over the head of Plaxico Burress that turned into a David Barrett interception appeared to be a stone-cold killer for the Steelers. Talk about rookie mistakes (whether his jammed right thumb was hurting or not). And talk about a play that changes careers. . . .
Big Ben could have been forced to live a long time with this despair. Meanwhile, the Jets' Brien was standing at redemption's doorstep. He had missed a 47-yard field goal with two minutes to play that would have put the Jets ahead, but this one, with four seconds left after Roethlisberger's bad pass, was from only 43 yards. If Brien could hit this one, it would give the Jets unthinkable back-to-back road playoff victories in overtime. You do that in New York, even after clanging the first kick off the left corner of the crossbar, and you're up there pretty high . . . until next week, anyway.
But Brien missed again, didn't even clang it off the corner. "The second one I missed, the first one just didn't go in," he said.
Toby Gowin, the Jets' punter and Brien's holder, said Brien had been making field goals from 51 yards in pregame warmups. He was certain Brien was going to make the second one. "I thought we were going home winners," Gowin said.
Roethlisberger, who probably should have gone home a loser, then got his second chance. He was stunned in overtime when, from his 13-yard line, coaches called for him to throw a pass on the very first play. He completed it, barely, to Hines Ward for nine yards. Butterflies the size of bats flew out of his mouth when he exhaled. "I was really surprised at that call," he said, "and it wasn't really a good pass I threw." But Ward caught it, and the Steelers were on the way to a game-winning drive.
"I did almost everything I could to lose the game," Roethlisberger said. "A lot of [the team's offensive struggles] come back on me. We'll learn from our mistakes; I will. That wasn't me out there today."
Asked if he has to play better next week if the Steelers expect to win the AFC championship, Roethlisberger, growing animated, said: "Oh, yeah! I've got to play better. I was terrible today."
Asked if he was more nervous before his first playoff game, he said: "No, I wasn't. But maybe I need next week to be a little more stressed, more nervous or something."
Little did Roethlisberger know that mini-dramas were going on all around him. Even veteran running back Jerome Bettis, toward the end of a 101-yard rushing day, wasn't immune. Just before overtime, Bettis felt his leg cramping. He could barely walk. All he'd done to that point was carry the Steelers by rushing 26 times and scoring one touchdown.
And now, just before overtime, he couldn't take the field. "Nobody knew what was going on," Bettis said. "I limped over to [Duce Staley] and said, 'You've got to go.' There was no sense of me going out there and doing something stupid."
Bettis had fumbled away a great scoring opportunity for Pittsburgh early in the fourth quarter. "I had a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach," he said. "I pride myself on being a guy you can count on and I put my team in a terrible situation."
But on that final drive, Bettis came back for a critical carry. Roethlisberger completed 3 of 4 passes for 32 yards. The Steelers were determined not to let Brien have a third chance for the Jets. As close as Roethlisberger came to blowing it, Bettis was certain the kid will wind up being all the better for having won the hard way.
"What he can really learn from this, what he can really benefit from," Bettis said, "is knowing that he and his team can overcome some mistakes, that he can play less than his best, yet still win if he keeps his head and his poise."
Cowher, asked if he found anything to like about his quarterback on such a day, said: "He is unflappable. He does display a certain calmness, an ability to move to the next series. Even after he threw that last interception, you have a sense that he's a very focused quarterback and hasn't lost any confidence. He's a special quarterback and he's going to get better. He sometimes has to be more patient move the chains and he'll come to understand that."
Whether he can come to understand it in the next eight days is the question. The Patriots have a better defense than the Jets, who have twice harassed Roethlisberger. The Colts score enough to put pressure on Roethlisberger to do more than hand off to Bettis and Staley. Still, seven rookies have started NFL playoff games since 1970 and only two before Saturday — Pat Haden and Shaun King — had won their first starts. Now, Ben Roethlisberger knows that the thrill of victory, especially in the playoffs, is the sweetest kind of human drama in athletic competition.