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Rookie QB has shaken off Jets game

By now, certainly, Ben Roethlisberger has heard, read, and/or seen the stat of this week, probably enough times to have memorized it:

Bill Belichick's Patriots are undefeated the last 13 times they've faced a quarterback for the second time in a season.

And so Roethlisberger, the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year, essentially finds himself back in the role he started in nine months ago, when he was the third quarterback taken in the draft behind Eli Manning and Philip Rivers: underdog. Manning and Rivers were supposed to be more pro ready. Wrong. Forced to start by his third game, Roethlisberger was supposed to struggle the way all rookie quarterbacks do. Wrong again. At the very least, he was supposed to lose. Still waiting.


Conventional wisdom holds that if New England mystified two-time league MVP Peyton Manning last week, then surely the Patriots will make life miserable Sunday for the Steelers' quarterback, who tossed two touchdown passes in Pittsburgh's 34-20 Halloween win in the teams' first meeting. Don't be so sure. It would be unwise to underestimate this rookie and assume a repeat of Saturday's two-interception performance in the Steelers' 20-17 overtime win against the Jets.

Roethlisberger, looking to improve to 15-0 as a starter, has proved to be nothing if not exceptional.

"Anybody who's a competitor, if you have a tough game like that where you don't play as well as you would like and then you have the opportunity to go out the next week, the great competitors do play better the next week," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday. "As a competitor and as a player, I think our defense is expecting him to rebound. It seems like he's done that all year. The way that team performs, it seems like they have an awful lot of confidence in him. If they have reason to believe he'll bounce back then we should, too."

The key word is confidence, for which anybody who has watched or spoken to Roethlisberger knows he doesn't lack. He said something after Pittsburgh's final regular season game, against Buffalo, that provided tremendous insight. He said that his goal was to be regarded as the best quarterback in the league when other young quarterbacks would simply set their sights on getting better. Coincidentally, he said then that he wanted everything Tom Brady has. Sunday he gets his chance to take it.

"I wish I didn't lose a game this year," Brady said. "Maybe I should get some pointers from him."

Struggling in his first playoff game isn't enough to take away Roethlisberger's shine. Perhaps it was the euphoria of the Steelers' 15-1 season, but in talking to him for just those few minutes, let me tell you, the kid has the presence of a platinum-selling emcee. No doubt he's long since brushed Saturday off his shoulder.

"About five to 10 minutes after the game ended," he said Wednesday when asked how long it took to put the Jets game behind him. "I know what I did wrong, the mistakes I made. I came in and watched the game just to get an understanding of how things went. You can't dwell on the past. You've got to get ready to move on. This game's too big to look back at how the game went last Saturday."

Few expected the Steelers' games of Oct. 31 against the Patriots and Nov. 7 against the Eagles to go the way that they did. Remember? Roethlisberger hadn't faced any "real" competition to that point, and it would be victories over what were regarded as the league's best teams that would convince everyone that the Steelers and their rookie quarterback were legit. Granted, the Patriots lost Ty Law early in the game and played it without Corey Dillon, so they're a much different, better team. But Roethlisberger's a different player, too, even more mature now with 10 more games under his belt and his first playoff game out of the way.

There's a school of thought that as the year went on, the rest of the league began to "catch up" to him. His stats back that up: nine touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 108.9 in his first six starts compared to seven touchdowns, eight interceptions, and a passer rating of 83.2 in his last eight starts. All 14 starts have one thing in common, however: they were victorious.

"Here's what I know," said a personnel evaluator who scouted Roethlisberger extensively prior to his last season at Miami (Ohio), "people may say that [the league caught up to him], but they weren't beating him."

Anyway, it isn't as though Romeo Crennel's defense didn't show Roethlisberger a bunch of exotic looks the first time they saw him. The Patriots may indeed manage to confuse him the second time around, but he's a lot less likely to be unnerved again in his second postseason start.

He's as cool as they come, an unflappable leader. In that regard, he already has what Brady has. "We threw some blitzes at him last time and he was able to stay calm, cool and collected and was able to deliver the ball downfield," New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "We brought an all-out blitz at him, he hit Plaxico Burress for a touchdown. What I recognized was that he didn't get rattled by the looks that we threw at him. We were free on him a couple of times and he broke the tackle and threw the ball to an outlet receiver."

Said another of Roethlisberger's receivers, Hines Ward, "He has so much poise. To sit there and throw two interceptions (against New York) and come back in overtime and still drive us down the field and lead us to the game-winning field goal -- that speaks volumes about the kid. He showed that determination all year. So I have all of the confidence in the world that he's going to come out and have an excellent game."

"He wants to prove to people that he can go out and play this game, it doesn't matter if it's a divisional playoff game or an AFC championship game," Burress said. "He's definitely going to bounce back and play better this weekend, and we have all the confidence in the world in him."

There's that word again. Confidence. It makes perfect sense to place your faith in the defending champs, their two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback with a 7-0 playoff record, and a coach whose reputation alone is enough to intimidate a quarterback into an interception. But be careful not to doubt Big Ben in the process.

"I don't know what he's going to do on Sunday," the personnel man said. "But even if he has a bad day, he'll be back. Not that I'm expecting him to have a bad day. I think a lot of people are because he showed some chinks in the armor against the Jets. But I'm not expecting him to have a bad day. And if he does, he'll be back. The kid's good."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.