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Published: Thursday, 1/3/2008

Big Ben's arm Steelers' key

ASSOCIATED PRESS

PITTSBURGH - Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers' MVP in the eyes of almost everyone except his teammates, couldn't be more irritated.

Everywhere he goes in the Steelers' practice complex, he can't get away from the Jaguars - much like he couldn't while being sacked five times during Jacksonville's 29-22 victory in Pittsburgh three weeks ago.

The tape of the Steelers' only home loss this season is being looped constantly in their meeting rooms, the players' lounge, the team offices. It's all Jaguars all the time as the Steelers prepare for Saturday night's rematch in the AFC playoffs, and Roethlisberger has seen enough.

Flipping the channel doesn't help.

No matter what TV he turns on, Roethlisberger keeps seeing Fred Taylor's decisive TD run in the final two minutes and his 147 yards rushing. David Garrard's three TD passes. The sacks. Maurice Jones-Drew's 69 yards rushing.

"It's annoying, honestly," Roethlisberger said yesterday. "You get tired. You want to watch SportsCenter or see something else, CNN, I don't know, something. The Cooking Channel, something."

Roethlisberger suspects this is coach Mike Tomlin's brainwashing plot to get the Steelers so upset, so riled up, they take out their frustrations on the Jaguars.

However, the Steelers, losers of three of four as they limp into the playoffs with a patchwork lineup, know it will take more than hostility and a hijacked TV signal to beat Jacksonville.

They almost certainly need a big game from Big Ben, whose fourth NFL season has been easily his best, even if linebacker James Harrison unexpectedly beat him out for the players' MVP award.

Despite being sacked 46 times, second-most in team history, Roethlisberger has a 65.3 completion percentage while throwing a team-record 32 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. His 104.1 passer rating was second in the league only to Tom Brady's 117.2.

He would seem too young at 25 for any comeback awards, yet it was a major bounce-back year for Roethlisberger following his post-Super Bowl and motorcycle crash miseries of 2006: an 8-8 record, a league-high 23 interceptions, a 75.4 passer rating.

Roethlisberger did a lot of growing up while carrying the Steelers to a 10-6 record and their first AFC North title and home playoff game in three years.

"I think the whole year, he's been kind of handed the offense a little bit more to kind of put it more on his shoulders," Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca said.

With 1,316-yard rusher Willie Parker out with a broken leg and the Steelers down to their No. 3 left tackle in Trai Essex, Roethlisberger's throwing and his proven ability to win likely represent their biggest and best hope of beating Jacksonville. Roethlisberger is 44-17 as an NFL starter, 5-1 in the playoffs.

The Steelers, throwing to win in the postseason? How that's for a personality change?

"It would be nice, but we'll see what happens," Roethlisberger said. "I don't think we will just abandon the running game. I know we won't. We've thrown the ball when we need to and we've proven we can win the game when we have to throw it."

The Steelers traditionally lean on the run during the postseason, dating to the Franco Harris days of 30-plus years ago. Yet they crossed up the Colts and Broncos in the AFC playoffs two years ago by using Roethlisberger's throwing to seize early leads and the momentum, then went to the run to use up the clock and stay in the lead.

"He played phenomenal," Hines Ward said. "He got us to the Super Bowl."

The Steelers' one discernible edge over Jacksonville, besides the home-field advantage on their awful field, appears to be Roethlisberger's playoff experience. Jacksonville QB David Garrard's postseason record is 0-0.

"The first time I went through this [in 2004], you didn't know what to expect," Roethlisberger said. "It was like, 'Oh, this is just another game.' You don't realize that it's not. It's not just another game."

In their 75-year history, the Steelers have never lost twice to the same team in Pittsburgh in one season, much less in successive home games. Still, the Steelers are a home underdog, partly because it seems they have so little left after losing five key starters to injury and dropping four of their last seven games.

NEW YORK - Football fans around the country flocked to their TV sets last weekend, taking advantage of an expanded opportunity to see the Patriots become the first team in NFL history to go 16-0 in the season.

An average of 34.5 million viewers watched New England rally to beat the New York Giants 38-35 last Saturday night, the most-watched regular-season game since the Kansas City Chiefs played the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day in 1995.

In most of the country, the Patriots' finale against the Giants was originally scheduled to be shown only on the NFL Network, which is available in fewer than 40 percent of the nation's homes with TVs. But the NFL decided it would simulcast the game on CBS and NBC, the first three-network simulcast in league history.

CBS drew 15.7 million viewers, while NBC drew 13.2 million and the NFL Network 4.5 million. Local stations in New York and New England combined for an additional 1.2 million viewers.

The Patriots' march to an undefeated regular season, the first since the '72 Dolphins went 14-0, had captured the nation's attention for months.



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