PITTSBURGH – Experience matters. Just ask Ben Roethlisberger.
"It matters for me," said the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I think it definitely matters. I think I'll be better this year than I was last year."
Roethlisberger had a dismal playoff showing as a rookie last season. In two games, he threw five interceptions and only three touchdown passes and his passer rating was 57.4.
This year he's feeling better physically, which, he said, has led to better decision-making.
"I was worn down," he said of last season's foray into the playoffs. "When you get to that point in the postseason, you have to be on top of your game. I felt like I was falling off the table. The speed was so much faster that the mistakes are magnified. You can't turn the ball over because if you do, they're going to take advantage of it. If you get behind in the playoffs, you may never catch back up."
Roethlisberger said that his rookie season felt like a continuation of his college season. He led Miami (Ohio) to a win over Louisville in a bowl game on Dec. 18 to conclude a 14-game college season. Down the stretch, Roethlisberger led Miami to several important wins on nationally televised Thursday night games. It was the greatest stretch of football in school history.
"Then I did all the training for the draft and then came here," he said. "It was two years of non-stop throwing. This year, I got an off-season, I got better rest, took care of my body better. I feel like I'm better prepared."
Yet, the numbers are nearly identical this year.
As a rookie, Roethlisberger had a passer rating of 91.6 in his last five games after posting a rating of 101.6 through his first eight games.
This year, his rating over the last five games is 91.7. It was 103.5 in the first seven games.
But, as a rookie, he had hit a wall and knew it.
"Mentally, your brain is fried," he said. "I know it sounds crazy, but you're trying to learn a new offense and every week you're putting new plays in. Mentally, I was trying to figure out what was going on. Physically, my arm felt like it was dragging on the floor."
He said the physical ailments carried over to his decision-making.
"I think it did. Like I said, it just made it tough to go out and make the crisp decisions I think I'm making now."
Roethlisberger obviously isn't taking statistics into account. Against the Detroit Lions last Sunday, Roethlisberger threw two interceptions and posted a season-low passer rating of 34.1. His counterpart is coming into the game riding a two-game losing streak, but Carson Palmer's numbers are better than Roethlisberger's.
Palmer played only two offensive series last Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, but in the loss to Buffalo the previous week, Palmer threw two interceptions with a passer rating of 86.1.
Palmer, of course, lacks playoff experience, and he knows he's the man under the gun in his town.
"You get goose bumps going into this week," Palmer said. "You realize how big of a game it is and how big it is for this city and this organization."
The Bengals haven't been in the playoffs since 1990, so it's the biggest game in Cincinnati in 15 years. Playing the rival Steelers only adds to the pressure on Palmer.
"It's even bigger," he said. "They're everybody's pick for the Super Bowl and everybody's saying they're the scariest team in the playoffs and they definitely are."
While Roethlisberger believes experience will help his game, he doesn't believe a lack of playoff experience will hurt Palmer, the third-year quarterback.
"It is Carson's first playoff game, but he's a better quarterback than I was," Roethlisberger said. "So I don't know how much it will affect him. Hopefully our defense will make it really difficult on him. That's the hope and the goal. It was tough for me. I had to make adjustments. I'm sure he'll be able to make adjustments, but hopefully we've got some guys who will make it tough on him."
During his Wednesday session with reporters, Roethlisberger twice said that Palmer is the better quarterback of the two players.
"Just look at the things he does," Roethlisberger said. "That's just my opinion. He does some good things for his team and I think we lean our team in a different way."
Then again, Roethlisberger has two games of playoff experience under his belt. And he knows that it matters.