BALTIMORE -- Big Ben Roethlisberger was looking as small as he has ever looked in an NFL uniform. More than anything, for three quarters, he was looking like a tiny, neon advertisement for the summoning of Landry Jones.
Roethlisberger had 54 passing yards at the time, an interception, and two other throws that should've been easily picked off. His Pittsburgh Steelers had a grand sum of two first downs -- two -- and 69 total yards, not to mention an 0-for-9 conversion rate on third down. The Baltimore Ravens held a 13-0 lead in an oil spill of a game, and the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback on the visiting side was the principal reason why.
Three weeks removed from surgery on the torn meniscus in his left knee, Roethlisberger's aim was as bad as that baseball slide Joe Flacco attempted in the third quarter, the one that left the Baltimore quarterback hopping on one leg off the field and down the stairs with his knee brace all askew. And then a funny thing happened on the way to the most demoralizing defeat of the Steelers' season.
Roethlisberger reminded everyone inside M&T Bank Stadium that he is the toughest man in pro football, and the toughest player of a generation that will be defined by superior quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Up front, understand that a celebration of an athlete's game-day character isn't to be confused with a statement on his moral fiber, or lack thereof. Roethlisberger was twice accused of sexual assault (though never charged), and once suspended four games for violating the league's personal conduct policy. He might someday need to answer to a higher authority than NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for what did or did not happen in those incidents.
But between the lines of a sport that often brings powerfully built men to their knees, Roethlisberger is in a league of his own. At 6-5, 240, he is a grizzly bear of a quarterback with a tolerance for pain and an appetite for victory that somehow, someway, gave the Steelers a shot in the final minutes to come back from a 21-0 deficit, avoid their third consecutive loss and remain in first place in the AFC North. That the Ravens broke their own four-game losing streak (they hadn't won since Sept. 25) and prevailed by a 21-14 count was almost beside the point. Roethlisberger never should've been active on this day. How many athletes who rely so much on their legs would take the field three weeks after a knee surgery that is supposed to sideline patients for up to six? How many would put a rush on their return to compete against the Ravens' defense in their building?
Hey, even when the Ravens are mediocre it hurts to play against them.
And play against them Roethlisberger did in the end. On one functioning wheel, he threw for 210 yards in the final quarter, found Antonio Brown for a 23-yard touchdown, found Sammie Coates for what should've been a 27-yard touchdown (Coates dropped a perfect ball in the back of the end zone), and scrambled for a 4-yard touchdown run he punctuated with a headfirst dive with 48 seconds left. Pittsburgh's Chris Boswell tried some cute Lionel Messi stunt with the onside kick, made a fool of himself instead, and Roethlisberger was left to exchange postgame pleasantries with his fellow Miami (Ohio) graduate, Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
"I just told Ben, 'I respect you. I love you. I'll see you at Christmas, and say hi to your family,'" Harbaugh told ESPN.com. "I think his wife is mad at me. We were at a thing together and she says to me, 'You just make sure you watch out,' like I'm trying to hurt Ben. We've never tried to hurt him."
They have tried to beat him up, just like every other Pittsburgh opponent. Roethlisberger has been sacked 499 times in his career, postseason included, and it's hard to fathom how much more punishment his 34-year-old body can take.
In 2006, he missed only one start after an emergency appendectomy and a June motorcycle accident that left him flying headfirst (with no helmet) into the windshield of a Chrysler New Yorker. In 2012, he missed only three games after suffering a fractured rib that doctors feared could've punctured his aorta. In 2015, he replaced the injured Jones against Cleveland and on one good foot set a league record for a reliever with 379 passing yards. Three months later, Roethlisberger ignored a serious shoulder injury that forced him to be carted out of a playoff game with Cincinnati to return in the final minutes and -- with his right arm looking like a wet noodle tethered to a bowling ball -- lead the Steelers on the deciding drive.
So yes, the Ravens fully expected to see Roethlisberger on Sunday. "Absolutely," Terrell Suggs said in his postgame news conference. "He seemed like he wasn't hurt, right? He was very fluid, he scrambled, he almost shook off a sack. I mean, we broke the guy's nose [in 2010] and he still continued to play, so I wasn't fooled. I hope you all weren't."
Roethlisberger won that 2010 game after Haloti Ngata busted his nose and left the crushed bone looking, the quarterback said, "like corn flakes" on the X-rays.
"Hands down," Harbaugh told ESPN.com when asked if Roethlisberger is the toughest competitor his teams ever faced. "Oh yeah, yes, yes, his physical power, the strength, just a brutish athlete. He's incredible. The guy's a Hall of Famer, a lock.
"But it's his vision, too. How does he see down the field? He's got people bouncing off him, falling off him, he's shrugging them away, moving in the pocket, and all the time where are his eyes? I mean, how does he feel these guys? His eyes are downfield all the time. You look at his size, arm strength, accuracy, the fact he's at the line doing everything, calling their offense at the line. I don't think there's any other quarterback in history that you can compare Ben to. Who would you compare him to?"
The Ravens are better than most at getting Roethlisberger on the ground, especially here in Baltimore, where Big Ben has often been cut down to size (the Ravens sacked him nine times and intercepted him twice in a 27-0 victory in 2006). "We try to coach a way of tackling the guy," Harbaugh said as he stood outside the winners' locker room. "Basically what we coach is, tackle him. Tackle him like he's a tight end. Just tackle him. You don't knock him off his feet. He's not going to go down. You have to run up to him and wrap him up because he'll move just a little bit and you'll go flying past him."
Roethlisberger didn't do enough ducking and dodging to steal this game. He usually struggles in these comeback games (especially since he's forever expediting his returns), and Sunday was no exception. Roethlisberger spent most of the day missing open receivers, dropping shotgun snaps, absorbing hits on delivery and acting like a quarterback who should've waited to return for next week's showdown against Dallas and QB Dak Prescott.
When it was over, the losing quarterback revealed he decided he was fit enough to go a couple of hours before kickoff, and blamed himself for the substandard play to come. As to how his body felt, Roethlisberger said, "You never walk out of a Baltimore game feeling as good as you went in." And then the NFL's reigning king of pain grabbed the handle of his travel bag and started rolling it out of the ballpark with a noticeable limp. Ben Roethlisberger won't go down as the best player in the Brady-Manning generation. He will go down as the toughest.