Second-year QB flawless for Detroit-bound Steelers

DENVER -- These are the kind of games that, particularly for quarterbacks, make and break reputations.

And which, in some, but clearly not all cases, reinforce nicknames.

Ladies and gentlemen, at opposite ends of the spectrum on Sunday afternoon in the AFC Championship Game: "Big Ben" Roethlisberger, who played brilliantly for a third week in a row, leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 34-17 victory and into Super Bowl XL, and a man whose time has arrived. And the Denver Broncos' Jake "The Snake" Plummer, who morphed at the most inopportune time into his old, turnover-prone persona, and who might soon be re-nicknamed Jake "The Mistake" by despondent local fans.

"Oh, I don't think there's much doubt about who made the difference," said Pittsburgh wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, nodding in the general direction of Roethlisberger's empty stall in a remarkably restrained visitors' locker room at Invesco Field. "Our guy made the plays. The other guy, well, you know. 'Big Ben,' I mean, he's growing up real fast. The clock has struck all the right numbers for him, man."

Indeed, there are a lot of reasons why the Steelers, who became the first-ever No. 6 seed to advance to a Super Bowl, are in the league's championship game. None, though, are bigger than Big Ben.

Roethlisberger had vowed to Jerome Bettis early in the season that he would reward the veteran running back for delaying his retirement for a year, by guiding the Steelers to a Super Bowl berth in Detroit, the future Hall of Fame runner's hometown. And he delivered on that promise in huge fashion as the Steelers defeated each of the top three seeds in the conference, all on the road.

To have ever predicted in the blue-collar Steel City that the Steelers might finally claim a fifth Super Bowl title on the strong right arm of a callow, second-year quarterback and not on the piston-driving legs of some beefy-thighed runner would once have been anathema. But on Sunday night, throaty 'Burghers likely were raising their Iron City beer bottles, and toasting Roethlisberger late into the night.

The second-year veteran, who was miserable in the playoffs as a rookie, completed 21 of 29 passes for 275 yards, with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 124.9. He went into the game seeking to expose Denver's defense every time the Broncos blitzed or played eight men in the box.

On the flip side, the more experienced Plummer, with just seven interceptions in the regular season (Denver's offense tied for a conference low with 16 turnovers), lost the ball four times Sunday. He had two interceptions and two lost fumbles and Pittsburgh scored touchdowns following three of Plummer's miscues.

Plummer was also sacked three times, including two by Steelers weak-side linebacker Joey Porter, who is performing like a man possessed in the postseason.

"You can't give up easy points [in the postseason]," lamented Plummer, whose Grizzly Adams-inspired beard at least provides him a built-in façade for the offseason. "We did and they didn't, it's that simple, right? Their guy [Roethlisberger] was excellent."

In the three playoff victories, Roethlisberger completed 49 of 72 attempts for 680 yards, with seven touchdown passes, just one interception, and a 124.4 efficiency rating. In the 2004 playoffs, Roethlisberger threw five interceptions in just 54 attempts, and two of the pickoffs were returned for touchdowns.

Notable is that Roethlisberger, the Steelers' first-round choice in the 2004 draft, averaged 24 pass attempts in their three postseason victories. In his 25 regular-season starts in two years, Roethlisberger averaged just 21.8 attempts, and registered more than 24 attempts in only nine outings.

But the days of Roethlisberger throwing just 20 times a game, with the Steelers relying on their power running attack to insulate the youngster and reduce the number of third-and-long situations he might face, could be history after this playoff streak. Besides, the widely held perception that the Pittsburgh offense is severely skewed toward the run is being rendered a fallacy as well.

In his postgame news conference, Steelers coach Bill Cowher referred to his players as "a really grounded" bunch of guys. But Pittsburgh's offense is no longer a strictly land-locked unit, thanks to Roethlisberger and the way he's spinning the ball right now.

Roethlisberger, 23, is performing like a seasoned veteran. And Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, whose three-game run has been every bit as brilliant as that of his quarterback, is certainly demonstrating increased confidence in the young passer.

"We're not the ones who said we couldn't or wouldn't throw the ball," Roethlisberger said after shredding a Denver defense that statistically ranked No. 15 in the league and was second in the NFL with a plus-18 turnover differential. "Let the outsiders think what they want to. We kind of think this is a really well-rounded offense, that we can play it just about any way we have to, and that we'll do what it takes to win."

Whisenhunt, who is crafting a pretty nice résumé this postseason and figures to merit consideration for any future head coach openings (he may still get a nibble for the lone remaining vacancy, in Oakland, since the Raiders work on a timetable known only to owner Al Davis), seemed to sense that the No. 29-rated Broncos pass defense was suspect in some areas. Principally at right cornerback, where rookie Domonique Foxworth is the starter, and at strong safety.

While he would not acknowledge it publicly, Whisenhunt directed much of the passing game at Foxworth, who played with a big, imaginary bull's-eye on his chest. And for a second week in a row, Whisenhunt designed a game plan that stretched the opposition's secondary horizontally, forcing safety Nick Ferguson to chase plays outside the numbers, which he could not do with his limited range.

Pittsburgh also took advantage of its own offensive tendencies, knowing full well that Denver's coaches would seize on them, and countered by tweaking some things.

Exhibit A: The Steelers love to run slants inside the red zone, especially inside of the 10-yard line, and had scored on slants out of an empty formation in each of their first two playoff wins. So on their second possession, already leading 3-0 and facing a third-and-8 at the Denver 12, the Steelers aligned in a four-wide receiver set. On the snap, Roethlisberger made an exaggerated shoulder fake and Denver star cornerback Champ Bailey bit, anticipating the slant route and jumping in front of Wilson. Bailey also sneaked a peek into the Pittsburgh backfield, and that allowed Wilson to float free to the deep right corner of the end zone, where he easily gathered in Roethlisberger's lob.

Pittsburgh also used more spread formations Sunday, largely on third down, which had been a situation where the Steelers went to a bunch-formation look in each of their first two postseason victories.

But no matter the formation or the play call, the two-headed sword known as "align and design" in the vernacular of the game, the key for the Steelers from the outset was being able to successfully block a Broncos defense that has an unusually high blitz quota. And while Roethlisberger was sacked twice, and flushed from the pocket on perhaps a half-dozen other occasions, Pittsburgh's offensive line was stout in providing protection. Consider this: The normally grueling Steelers running game totaled just 90 yards on 33 attempts, with no run for more than 14 yards and 17 carries netting 2 yards or fewer, and the offense still dominated the tempo.

Using a diverse and cleverly designed passing game that mixed vertical throws with screens, the Steelers enjoyed a huge edge in time of possession (36:07-23:53) and led in first downs (20-16) and total yards (358-308).

"It really all started up front," acknowledged Roethlisberger, picking up on a theme that Whisenhunt had made minutes earlier. "They gave us time to make plays. Lots of time on some of the biggest plays. [Protection] was the thing we probably stressed the most this week. And it was the key [element] to the whole deal today."

By unofficial count, the Broncos either blitzed or played eight in the box on nine of Pittsburgh's first 16 offensive snaps. On those 16, the Steelers averaged 6.13 yards. On the nine "pressure" snaps, the Steelers unofficially totaled 96 yards, an average of 10.7 yards per play. Roethlisberger was also big-time on third down, converting 6 of 7 in the first half, as the Steelers jumped to a 24-3 lead at intermission.

In the opening two quarters, Roethlisberger moved the chains on five third-down plays in which 8 or more yards were needed. His touchdown pass to Wilson came on a third-down play. On the ensuing possession, which culminated on Bettis' 3-yard scoring run to push the Steelers to a 17-3 advantage, Roethlisberger threw for 21 yards to Hines Ward on third-and-10, for 10 yards to Antwaan Randle El on third-and-9, and for 8 yards to nickel tailback Verron Haynes on third-and-8.

"You know, the knock on us is, like, 'Well, they don't have a deep threat since they lost [Plaxico] Burress in free agency,' or, 'They don't have a real go-to guy,' all that stuff," said Ward, who had five catches for 59 yards and one touchdown. "But we have guys who just go out and do their jobs. Everyone catches the ball. People get their share of the football. Ben spreads it around, and on any play, anyone can come up big. We're a whole lot better passing offense than people give us credit for being."

In each of Pittsburgh's three playoff wins, Roethlisberger completed passes to at least six different receivers. He had seven receivers catch at least one pass each in the wins at Indianapolis and at Denver. Most of all, Roethlisberger has been poised, scanned the field like a man playing beyond his years, delivered the ball with superb accuracy, and delivered game-altering plays with uncanny regularity.

"I'd say his time has come, but let's remember, he's only in his second season," Ward emphasized. "It's scary to think how much better he might get. No telling how far he can go. But for now, 'Big Ben' is going to Detroit, and, hey, we're all going with him."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.