EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It matters. Don't think for a second that it doesn't. And it's of no consequence to them that the matchup doesn't actually occur in the sport they play.
It matters because the great ones are the most competitive people on the field, and Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning are two of the great ones.
The backdrop of this particular installment of Steelers-Giants was the devastation left by the early-week visit to this area by a hussy named Sandy, and there were civic and public safety issues at the forefront. But come the weekend, and with the decision to play the game endorsed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, it began to feel OK to turn the focus to the football game.
The Steelers and Giants have been playing games against each other since 1933, and this was the first of those where each team walked onto the grass with a homegrown franchise quarterback to call its own. The 2004 NFL Draft brought Ben Roethlisberger to the Steelers and Eli Manning to the Football Giants, and in the eight full seasons between then and now each of them has added a couple of Lombardis to his team's existing collection.
Quarterbacks of this pedigree are familiar with the others in their select circle, and so it was that when this game matching two of the league's storied franchises was scheduled, the first thought of most people when they saw it was, Ben vs. Eli.
Roethlisberger saw it this way, because he sees everything as a competition. Manning claimed to be above it, but that's hard to believe from somebody who grew up as the Great Peyton's little brother. Coach Mike Tomlin saw it a different way.
"I think that elite quarterbacks reveal themselves during the course of competition, at some point when it's appropriate for their teams," said Tomlin, "but it might not be in direct response to what the other one has done or is doing. Being great at the quarterback position is delivering the timely plays for your group."
Coming into the game as the NFL's top third-down quarterback, Roethlisberger and the Giants defense did the thrust-and-parry routine until late in the first quarter. Then he converted a third-and-6, a third-and-4, and then stuck it in a perfect spot for Emmanuel Sanders along the back of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Just what you need from your franchise quarterback. Gets you in the end zone – not a field goal – to take an early lead against a very good team on the road. A timely play delivered for the group.
In the fourth quarter, the Steelers owned every big play in each of the three phases of the game. There were critical sacks by Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, a 63-yard punt return by Emmanuel Sanders who was filling in there after both Antonio Brown and Chris Rainey were injured. There was Isaac Redman, who had to be the running game by himself because of injuries in the backfield.
But Roethlisberger also delivered every time the Steelers needed it. It's understood that Mike Wallace made a great play to turn a short pass into a 51-yard touchdown, but Roethlisberger still read the coverage and hit Wallace in full stride to convert a third-and-5 even if he hadn't run for another yard. He completed two passes for 26 yards to move the chains twice early in a later possession that ended with Redman's deciding 1-yard touchdown.
And then on third-and-9 from the Pittsburgh 29-yard line, with 2:40 to play and the Steelers trying to protect a four-point lead against Eli when he's also carrying a timeout in his back pocket, Roethlisberger ended it. Perfect throw to Sanders for 16 yards and a first down. Next thing you know, it's victory formation. The Steelers defense never had to take the field.
That's called being great at the quarterback position.
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