Roethlisberger struggles in first playoff game

PITTSBURGH -- Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox warned rookie Ben Roethlisberger all week to get through the first two series of Saturday's playoff game. After that, Maddox said, things get easier. Well, they didn't.

Roethlisberger, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, looked like -- let's say it -- a rookie during Saturday night's gut-wrenching 20-17 overtime victory over the Jets. His stats -- 17 of 30 for 181 yards -- didn't tell the story. His misguided throw toward Antwaan Randle El was picked off by Jets safety Reggie Tongue and returned for an 86-yard touchdown in the third quarter. On the next play after Jets kicker Doug Brien gave Roethlisberger and the Steelers a reprieve by missing a 47-yard field goal with 1:58 left in regulation, Big Ben threw another interception.

But Brien saved him and the Steelers again by missing a 43-yard field goal as regulation ended. Roethlisberger won over even more fans this week by donating his playoff game check to the Tsumani victims, but during the game, his charity was too much and he almost gave away the game.

"It's good experience to get the first one out of the way," Roethlisberger said of his first playoff appearance. "Obviously, it wasn't me out there today."

While the Steelers got by despite Roethlisberger's mistakes, their overall level of play will have to improve next week or they will be looking at another AFC Championship disappointment.

"We won the game, but we certainly didn't play our best game," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "We are going to have to play a lot better to move on. But the one thing I can say about this team is that they are a resilient bunch."

The Steelers did everything you need to lose a playoff game. They made six trips to at least the Jets 33. Though they scored two touchdowns and two field goals, they also had a Roethlisberger pass intercepted for a touchdown and a Jerome Bettis fumble at the Jets' 22, his first lost fumble of the season. If that's not bad enough, Santana Moss beat the Steelers punt return team for a 75-yard touchdown.

Tongue's interception return for a score gave the Jets a 17-10 lead with 3:52 left in the third quarter. Steelers fans had seen these ghosts before. They've seen Troy Brown and the Patriots score on a punt return and a blocked punt in the 2001 AFC Championship Game. As the Jets led, Steelers fans were waving their Terrible Towels, but the terrible thought was sinking in that they could be losing as the No. 1 seed in the AFC for the third time in a decade.

"I'm not going to go on any depression watch or anything like that," Steelers center Jeff Hartings said. "It's a game and it's just a learning lesson. We made a lot of mistakes. We probably should have lost that game, really. You don't expect them to miss two field goals and get that many chances. That's for sure."

To the team's credit, they rallied around Roethlisberger instead of abandoning him. Down seven in the third, the defense played tougher, and Roethlisberger stayed focused.

"I remembered to stay in the game and stay within myself, don't do too much," Roethlisberger said.

He's fortunate to have coaches and players who believe in him. Roethlisberger completed only four of 12 passes in the first half. Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt made it a point to try to let Roethlisberger pass on first down to start the series, particularly with the crazy defensive schemes employed by the Jets.

To counter the Steelers' ground game, the Jets lined up in a 5-3, basically using three defensive lineman in three-point stances flanked by either a defensive end or a linebacker in standup positions to fill running lanes. The Jets' strategy in the second half and most of the game was to try to force the Steelers to win through the air instead of on the ground.

"I don't think it's really a problem with Ben as far as his confidence," Whisenhunt said. "I really think he believes in himself. I want him to know that we had no problem, that we were still going to call those plays. We're going to do what we planned to do. I think that's a credit to Coach Cowher because he believes in sticking with that."

Down seven, Roethlisberger completed two passes toward the end of the third quarter and got the offense on a roll. Then Bettis fumbled with 14:19 left in regulation. The sense of defeat started filling the stadium. The defense held the Jets to a three-and-out, and Roethlisberger responded with a 66-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 4-yard shuffle pass to Hines Ward for a game-tying touchdown with six minutes left.

"The one thing I like about him is that he is unflappable," Cowher said of Roethlisberger. "He displays a calmness and willingness to move on to the next series. He's going to continue to grow and continue to learn. I like the look in his eyes. He throws an interception for a touchdown, but he still was a focused quarterback after that."

Roethlisberger also experienced the craziness of what goes into playoff football. Before the game, CBS suggested Roethlisberger injured his right thumb in pregame warmups. Turns out he didn't, but that was a distraction. So was the glove on his right hand. Though this was his fifth game in gloves, he had some difficulty with his grip with the glove and it threw off his throws.

Things got crazier in the fourth quarter when Bettis had to rest because he was experiencing cramps even though the temperature had fallen into the teens.

"Whoever thought about cramps in Pittsburgh in early January?" Cowher said.

The rallying cry for the Steelers came during the overtime. The Steelers had the ball at their 13-yard line. Whisenhunt called a pass that ended up going 9-yards to Ward. Even though Duce Staley and Bettis were wearing down the tired Jets defense with the run, the pass call meant a lot to Roethlisberger.

"I was surprised at that call," the quarterback said. "It showed the coaches have confidence in me. I like that. We opened with a pass. It wasn't a good pass, so they probably got scared."

After two runs, Roethlisberger put the Steelers in position to win the game by scrambling to his right, and, instead of running, firing a quick pass to Ward, who had gotten behind a fallen defender. Ward went 17 yards to midfield, and from there the Steelers basically stuck to the ground to put Jeff Reed in position to win the game with a 33-yard field goal in OT.

"I did everything I could to lose the game," Roethlisberger said. "I was lucky the defense did a good job of holding. I've got to play better. I was terrible today."

Their rookie quarterback played like a rookie and was terrible on this Saturday, but Steelers fans will get to wave their Terrible Towels for another game.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.