TAMPA, Fla. -- Ben Roethlisberger held the football with both hands, occasionally spinning it in his lap as he sat and answered questions from reporters packed five deep in front of him in the postgame interview area of Raymond James Stadium.
"That's the ball I took a knee with and hung onto," the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback said. "I gave the last one to Jerome (Bettis). I'll hold onto this one."
The "last one" was from Super Bowl XL. Three years ago, Roethlisberger did the right thing in giving the ball to Bettis, who was retiring with a Super Bowl victory. That was one reason Big Ben was willing to part with the leather memento. Another was because he realized he hadn't done all that much to help the Steelers to their win over the Seattle Seahawks that night. In fact, he nearly cost Pittsburgh the game with two interceptions and the lowest passer rating for a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
Roethlisberger blamed his inability to overcome a severe case of the jitters on his mostly poor performance.
With 2:37 left in the fourth quarter and the Steelers trailing 23-20, it was up to Roethlisberger and his offensive teammates to decide the outcome. Unlike so many previous games in which Pittsburgh's top-rated defense led the way, this one was on the offense's collective shoulder pads. And no one felt the pressure more than Roethlisberger.
Before the Steelers took the field from their own 22-yard line, he said the following to his offensive teammates: "It's now or never, guys. You'll be remembered forever if you do this. All the film study, all the hard work, all the (negative) stuff people (said) about us … it will be for nothing. We have to go out and do this."
On the first play, guard Chris Kemoeatu was called for holding. On the second, Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes for a 14-yard gain. After an incompletion, Roethlisberger faced a third-and-6 from the Steelers' 26 with 1:56 remaining. Showing the cool that was absolutely necessary for the circumstances, Roethlisberger connected with Holmes for 13 yards and followed that with an 11-yard hookup with Nate Washington, putting the ball at midfield.
After a 4-yard Roethlisberger scramble, the Steelers called their second timeout with 1:02 remaining. Roethlisberger was clearly operating in a zone, and he proceeded to hit Holmes on a short pass that the wide receiver turned into a 40-yard gain to the Arizona 6. Pittsburgh then called its final timeout.
"Well, we called it, 'Scramble right, scramble left, find someone open,' and 'Ton got open," Roethlisberger said, jokingly. "It was one of those ones where the first read (running back Mewelde Moore in the flat) wasn't open, the second read (Hines Ward) wasn't open. I kind of saw 'Ton at the last minute. When I let go of it, I thought the corner dropped off and was going to pick it, but 'Ton went up and made one heck of a play and got both feet down."
The play sealed Holmes' selection as the game's Most Valuable Player. But it also put the finishing touches on a performance that will go a long way toward redefining Roethlisberger's reputation as a good quarterback who has mostly succeeded with a great defense.
"He prepared himself to play a great game," Arians said. "He's really light years from where he was then."
Roethlisberger recognized the importance of what he and the rest of Pittsburgh's offense had accomplished on the final drive, which he called "probably a drive that will be remembered for a long time, at least in Steelers history. It feels really good, really special."
What made it even more special was the fact that Roethlisberger and his teammates, after once appearing to be in control of the game with a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter, had to overcome adversity.
Midway through the fourth, Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught a touchdown pass to whittle the margin to 20-14. Then, with 2:58 on the clock, Steelers center Justin Hartwig was called for a holding penalty in the end zone, resulting in a safety to cut it to 20-16. Even worse was that it wiped out another spectacular catch by Holmes for 19 yards, which would have pulled Pittsburgh out of a deep hole and put the team in position to kill the remaining time on the clock.
"Any time you make a big play and it's called back, it's a little demoralizing," Roethlisberger said. "But you can't afford to (let it get to you) because you've got to be able to count on each other. We knew our defense was going to be able to step up, and if we had to come back out, we were going to do it."
"When it was down at the end, (overcoming) three points I thought was a given," Arians said. "We've been in this situation six times this year, I think, and (Roethlisberger) has done it every time."
For many years, this one will stand as the biggest of them all.