The hits were so bruising and the play so intense that Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin likened it to an epic fight. Hagler against Hearns, he suggested, with only the winner standing in the end.

After the scrapes Ben Roethlisberger has been through in the last year, perhaps it was only fitting that he delivered the knockout blow.

The quarterback who once seemed on the verge of being run out of town is once again the toast of the town in Pittsburgh, thanks largely to a desperation heave that succeeded against all odds. And the Steelers are a game away from playing for their third Super Bowl title in six years because the one thing that hasn't changed about Roethlisberger is the way he plays.

New and improved off the field, he's always been a winner when he straps on his helmet.

"If I see him in the huddle," receiver Hines Ward said, "I know I've always got a chance to win a ballgame."

A lot of Pittsburgh fans might not have felt so confident about their team's chances when the Steelers gave Baltimore a gift of two touchdowns within seconds of each other Saturday and trailed 21-7 at the half. But Roethlisberger didn't go to all the trouble of reinventing himself just to get knocked out in his first playoff game since being suspended by the NFL for his actions with a female college student in a bar.

His numbers weren't terribly impressive, and he took a pounding from a Baltimore defense that sacked him six times. But a 58-yard pass to rookie Antonio Brown on third-and-19 that set up the winning touchdown was Roethlisberger's biggest play since the day he sat himself in front of a mirror and vowed to straighten out his life.

And, it put the Steelers in the AFC championship game.

He's been a model citizen for months now. But there's nothing that spreads love more than winning, and even the Steelers fans most critical of Roethlisberger must have liked what he managed against the Ravens.

It happened because Roethlisberger took a chance on a pass he seemed to have no hope of completing. Not against a Baltimore defense dropping eight players back to prevent it, and not with a receiver who wasn't even activated regularly until midseason.

"I saw the young fellow just take off, so I'm just going to throw it up for you," Roethlisberger said, referring to the pass that Brown cradled precariously against his helmet before being run out of bounds at the Baltimore 4-yard line.

Five plays later, Rashard Mendenhall scored up the middle. Not long after, the Steelers were walking off the field, 31-24 winners of a game they seemed destined to lose.

"Right now I don't feel anything but joy," Roethlisberger said.

That had to be better than whatever he felt when Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for what turned out to be the first four games of the season for violating the league's personal conduct policy. The penalty stemmed from Roethlisberger's actions on the March night the college student accused him of sexually assaulting her. He was never prosecuted.

Roethlisberger could have served his suspension and come back unchanged. But he seemed eager to improve his relationships with his teammates and the media, in addition to behaving off the field.

After the game, he made it a point of praising the Rooney family that owns the Steelers, and the coaches for being the best in the business.

"We're family," he said. "We have been ever since I've been here."

In a way, Saturday's game was a microcosm of Roethlisberger's year. In trouble early, he worked hard to dig himself out of a deep hole — and did some growing up along the way.

The Steelers move on to face either the Jets or Patriots next Sunday, with the winner going to the Super Bowl. That's familiar territory for Roethlisberger, who already has two rings and seems intensely focused on adding a third.

"He may not be Brady or the other guys, but you can't knock the guy for what he's done," Ward said. "History shows he's a proven winner."

History will also show that he's a fighter. Maybe not a Hagler or a Hearns, but a fighter nonetheless.

Because a champion fighter knows how to get up after being down.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org