Steelers, Ben fold in AFC title game

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> An exhilarating season ended in a crumpled heap for the Steelers in their 41-27 loss to the New England Patriots.<br><br> The same can be said of the Rookie of the Year. Ben Roethlisberger carried the Steelers into the playoffs, but in the playoffs he became one of the detriments.

On Sunday night in the AFC championship game against the New England Patriots, Roethlisberger played like, well, a rookie.

"It's tough," Roethlisberger said. "We had a record-breaking, storybook season. Unfortunately, a lot of people will see it as all for nothing."

Roethlisberger, in fact, is one of those people, if we are to judge him by his response to a later question. He was asked if he could consider this a successful season.

"There were times it was successful," he said after his first loss in 16 NFL games. "But the ultimate goal this year for this team was to win a Super Bowl. We didn't do that and so I can't say it was successful."

Even though there was no precipitation, Roethlisberger changed his routine and played without a glove on his passing hand. He explained the ball, with the AFC championship logo, felt fine in his hand, but his first pass of the game was intercepted by free safety Eugene Wilson.

Roethlisberger threw high and behind Antwaan Randle El. The ball was tipped by Asante Samuel and caught by Wilson. The Patriots turned it into a 3-0 lead on their first possession.

Down 10-0, Roethlisberger hit Ward for 19 yards, but overthrew him on third-and-6 from the New England 25 and the Steelers settled for a field goal.

At 17-3, Roethlisberger moved the Steelers to the New England 19 and made his biggest mistake of the game. His pass to tight end Jerame Tuman was intercepted by Rodney Harrison, who returned it 87 yards for a touchdown as Roethlisberger was dumped on his backside by blocker Mike Vrabel.

Harrison slowly jogged the final 20 yards for the score. It was the second 80-plus interception return served up by Roethlisberger in the Steelers' two-game playoff season. Reggie Tongue returned an interception 86 yards for the New York Jets.

"It was extremely frustrating," Roethlisberger said. "I saw Harrison driving on it. I thought I might be able to squeeze it into Jerame and I made a bad decision. When you see him make a play, and he's got a blocker, and I'm the only guy back, you're only hoping that he trips."

Roethlisberger wasn't helped much by his main man, Plaxico Burress. On a bomb on the next series, Burress lost his feet and the pass fell incomplete. On a fade pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter, Burress let the pass bounce off his right hand up above a smaller cornerback.

Roethlisberger did complete a 34-yard screen pass to Randle El to set up a touchdown and he completed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Ward. A 26-yarder to Ward set up a 20-yard field goal. Roethlisberger also threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Burress during mop-up time.

For the game, Roethlisberger's stats belied his mistake-prone performance. He completed 14 of 24 passes for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also threw 3 interceptions, giving him 5 in two playoff games.

"It wasn't a great game on my part," Roethlisberger said. "Defense kept us in it for awhile. We scored a couple times, but I just made too many mistakes today."

He was asked if it had to do with New England's defense.

"They're pretty tough," he said. "If a veteran quarterback's in there, and he reads it, maybe he does better. But you saw what they did to (Peyton) Manning."

"Ben did some things well but you just can't throw three interceptions, not in a game of this magnitude," said coach Bill Cowher. "But the kid'll learn. He's going to be a good quarterback. He really will. It's a very tough learning experience and I feel bad for our football team."

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