By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Like clockwork, Big Ben Roethlisberger is leading the Steelers to another Super Bowl despite a disturbing off-season in which the strapping quarterback was nearly sent packing by Pittsburgh.
Roethlisberger, 28, will be striving for his third Super Bowl ring in six years when he takes the field February 6 against the Green Bay Packers in Dallas for the NFL championship.
The season began with Roethlisberger barred from playing after Commissioner Roger Goodell imposed a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy after a second accusation of sexual assault against him.
Although no criminal charges were filed from the incident with a 20-year-old college student in a Georgia nightclub, the bad-boy behavior of the brawny quarterback led the Steelers to explore trade possibilities and Goodell to punish him.
"In your six years in the NFL, you have first thrilled and now disappointed a great many people," Goodell said in a letter to Roethlisberger. "I urge you to take full advantage of this opportunity to get your life and career back on track."
On the gridiron, Roethlisberger resumed his winning ways.
Roethlisberger used his 6-5, 240-pound (109 kg) bulk to shrug off pass rushers or utilized quick steps to avoid blitzers and buy time for receivers to get open.
He did just what he has done since joining the Steelers as a first-round draft pick in 2004 -- win.
Roethlisberger helped the Steelers compile a 12-4 record to become the AFC's second seed, steered them past division rival Baltimore in the playoffs and then downed the New York Jets in the AFC championship to improve his career postseason record to 10-2.
Rival players spoke admiringly about his toughness.
"We don't look at him like a diva quarterback. We look at him as a football player," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said before the game.
"He's a quarterback that's willing to take the hits and look down the barrel of the gun for his team. I don't think you'll ever see Ben Roethlisberger flinching in the pocket."
Roethlisberger has been proving his grit since he entered the NFL from Miami of Ohio in the quarterback-rich 2004 draft.
He was the third signal caller taken in the first round that year when Pittsburgh picked him with the 11th selection after Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers went one and four, respectively, and joined the Giants and Chargers.
Those quarterbacks have had success but nothing like Big Ben, whose NFL ride also withstood a serious motorcycle crash in 2006 when he suffered a concussion and broken jaw after defying a team order by not wearing a helmet.
Titles in the 2005 and 2008 seasons gave the Steelers a record six Super Bowl crowns in all. The AFC championship triumph over the Jets illustrated Roethlisberger's value.
Despite a performance that produced a weak statistical line, Roethlisberger made crucial plays when the chips were down, scrambling for first downs and rushing for a touchdown.
With time running out and Pittsburgh holding a 24-19 lead with about two minutes left, Roethlisberger clinched the victory when he rolled out and hit rookie Antonio Brown for a first down on third-and-six when the conventional play would have been a rush to take time off the clock.
Roethlisberger completed just 10-of-19 passes for 133 yards as the Steelers relied a punishing running attack, but he was able to put sufficient points on the board where Peyton Manning and Tom Brady had failed in their playoff losses to the Jets.
(Editing by Steve Ginsburg)