If there was ever any question about the value of ASN-affiliated players to the Pittsburgh Steelers, that question was answered unequivocally on Saturday night. Ben Roethlisberger (Miami Ohio) returned from a shoulder injury to engineer the game-winning scoring drive, which was capped by a 35-yard field goal by Chris Boswell (Rice), whose holder was Jordan Berry (Eastern Kentucky).
The Steelers won their first playoff game since 2010, but at great cost. Roethlisberger dodged questions about his injured shoulder in post-game interviews saying only, “It hurts a lot,” and “We won this game, so I’m happy.” The NFL Network reported Roethlisberger suffered a separated shoulder Saturday night when he was driven shoulder-first into the ground by Vontaze Burfict but will try to play on Sunday against the Denver Broncos in an AFC Divisional game.
Also on that final drive, receiver Antonio Brown (Central Michigan) suffered an illegal hit that landed him in the NFL’s concussion protocol, leaving his status unknown for Sunday’s game. Prior to the hit, Brown caught a team-leading seven passes for 119 yards.
Defensively, Antwon Blake (UTEP) made a critical interception that resulted in Pittsburgh’s first score of the game.
Overall, ASN players played key roles in advancing their teams through the playoffs. The top five notable players from wild-card weekend:
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Saturday’s 18-16 victory over the Bengals was further proof of Big Ben’s incredible toughness and why he will be a shoe-in to the Hall of Fame. Roethlisberger was sacked at the goal line at the tail end of the third quarter and much to the chagrin of Steelers’ fans, was carted off the field. It seemed improbable that the veteran quarterback, who completed 18 of 31 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown in the game, would return. But late in the fourth quarter, after watching a 15-7 lead morph into a 16-15 deficit, he returned with 1:43 to play, following a game-changing Bengals’ fumble. On the ensuing drive, Roethlisberger moved the ball 74 yards on a series of short passes and two Bengals’ personal fouls to set Boswell up for the game-winning field goal.
Chris Boswell, Pittsburgh Steelers
A first-year kicker, Boswell sure made a name for himself in his single playoff appearance. Boswell accounted for 12 of the Steelers’ 18 points against the Bengals, kicking field goals of 39, 30, 34 and 35 yards. He didn’t miss a single attempt, even in the driving rain and under pressure to win the game. His holder for every attempt was Berry, also a first-year player, and the Steelers punter. Berry punted seven times for an average of 37 yards. Boswell’s performance was record setting – it marked the first time a Pittsburgh rookie or first-year kicker made four field goals in a single postseason game. He was also stellar on his six kickoffs – putting all of them into the end zone and four stood for touchbacks.
Antwon Blake, Pittsburgh Steelers
In a game-changing play, the veteran cornerback found himself wide open for an underthrown ball and picked off Bengals’ QB A.J. McCarron on third-and-12 in the second quarter. Blake’s 36-yard return set up the Steelers’ first scoring drive, which culminated with a 30-yard field goal with 2:27 to play in the half. Blake had only two interceptions through the regular season and three for his career leading into the playoffs. In the game, Blake was also credited with a tackle.
James Starks, Green Bay Packers
Starks (Buffalo) scored what was ultimately the game-winning touchdown when he took the handoff and rushed four yards down the right side in the Packers 35-18 victory against the Redskins. At the time of the TD, the Packers trailed, 18-17. Starks, who scored five times during the regular season, carried the ball 12 times for 53 yards and caught two passes for 12 yards. Green Bay advances to play the Cardinals in a Divisional Playoff game next weekend.
Charcandrick West, Kansas City Chiefs
West (Abilene Christian) didn’t get his first playoff touchdown, but he did play a good-sized role in keeping the Chiefs’ offense moving against Houston. West carried the ball eight times (only leading rusher Spencer Ware had more touches) for 26 yards and he caught a pass for nine yards in Kansas City’s 30-0 drubbing of the Texans. The Chiefs will travel to New England in a Divisional Playoff game.
Khalil Mack (Buffalo) didn’t play a single down in the playoffs, but he may well have accomplished the most impressive feat of the week of any ASN-affiliated player. Mack, the Oakland Raiders second-year linebacker out of Buffalo, became the first player in NFL history to be selected to two spots on the All-Pro team. Mack was selected All-Pro as both a linebacker and defensive end. He finished the regular season ranked No. 2 behind Houston’s J.J. Watt in sacks with 15, including a stunning five-sack performance in Week 14 against Denver. … RB Alfred Morris (Florida Atlantic) led the Washington Redskins in rushing with 50 yards on 11 carries in their 35-18 loss to the Green Bay Packers. … Houston Texans S Quintin Demps (UTEP) was credited with five tackles (three solos, two assists) in a 30-0 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. … S Andrew Sendejo (Rice) was credited with three tackles in the Minnesota Vikings’ 10-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Above: Vontaze Burfict of the Cincinnati Bengals sacks Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third quarter during Saturday’s AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Steelers won, 18-16, but Roethlisberger was injured on the play. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)