PITTSBURGH -- After a week of questions about his health, Ben Roethlisberger turned his hips and ripped a 50-yard pass on the first offensive play of the game, overshooting his receiver by a good five yards.
That play in Sunday's 23-16 loss to Denver was emblematic of the 2015 season for Roethlisberger, who kept throwing through injuries and good health, wins and losses, touchdowns and turnovers, while bearded or clean-shaven.
Save for an Aaron Rodgers-style, 68-yard Hail Mary, Roethlisberger's season had it all.
He suffered four different injuries, prompting at least six weeks of will-he-or-won't-he-play drama, including this week, when there were questions about a sprain to his AC joint, which is where the collarbone meets the shoulder. The Broncos weren't buying that Roethlisberger was limited. And it's not like he wasn't hurt. He very much was. But he always seems to come back, eliciting a shrug from opposing defenses. Missing four of 18 games after suffering knee, foot, head and shoulder injuries is a pretty good case of odds-beating. In mid-November, Roethlisberger started a week on crutches because of a foot injury and ended it with 379 yards and three touchdowns against Cleveland.
At times, Roethlisberger was masterful. His ability to get yards was an unrelenting gift, as 330 became an average day for him (his average was 328.2 yards per game, to be exact). He even got yards an hour after separating his shoulder, throwing eight passes to move the Steelers into field goal range in the wild-card win over Cincinnati.
At times, the interceptions were hard to watch. His aggressive style as a passer led to 16 turnovers in 12 games. Wild throws to the sideline while rolling to his left cost him once (Cincinnati, Week 8) and nearly a second time (Denver, Week 15).
He kept throwing. And he gave the Steelers a chance, just as he does every time he takes the field. Not once did the Steelers get blown out in 2015. In Roethlisberger's 14 games as the starter, the biggest margin of defeat was nine points at Seattle.
"There aren't many like him, and as tough as him," guard Ramon Foster said. "You can never count him out."
In Denver, against the game's best defense, Roethlisberger connected twice for 61 yards with Sammie Coates, a rookie who hadn't caught a pass since Week 4. Everyone gets involved when given a chance.
He missed a few throws, too, including one over the middle to Coates and a few targets to Martavis Bryant. The Steelers could have received more help from the running game. The Broncos game felt like a lost opportunity, since the defense played well for three quarters.
But in some ways, this felt like Roethlisberger's year right up until the avalanche of injuries became too much. He was on a record pace with Brown. The Steelers were 6-2 in the second half of the regular season and snuck into the playoffs thanks to the Jets' miscues in Buffalo. The Steelers felt -- and looked -- invincible for parts of the season.
That's what made Sunday's ending so puzzling. This team and this quarterback drove headlines and drove the ball downfield. The loss to the Broncos wasn't very dramatic, and though the offense moved the ball, you kept waiting for an explosion that never happened.
Maybe it seemed odd to Roethlisberger, too, considering this season looked headed toward a wild finish, possibly with the Super Bowl in play.
"You want to keep going, and you just feel like things are going your way because we've overcome so much and the way you come back from last week's game, it's just -- it's disappointing to lose," Roethlisberger said.