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BOB RYAN

Roethlisberger is looking good

DENVER -- The Kid may be the pigskin answer to The Mailman. According to Jerome Bettis, the QB delivers.

Go back a year to the 2005 AFC Championship game. The Patriots were putting a hurtin' on the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the rookie quarterback and the veteran running back were commiserating on the sideline.

''It was in the middle of tears," Bettis recalled after yesterday's stunning 34-17 conquest of the Denver Broncos had sent the Steelers into Super Bowl XL. ''He was boo-hooing and I was boo-hooing, and he said, 'Just come back. I'll get you to the Super Bowl. Just come back.' "

''It's been one of my driving forces all year, and I'm just glad I don't have to apologize," said Ben Roethlisberger.

Apologize? Not likely, now or ever again. Whatever personnel inadequacies the new AFC champs may have do not include the quarterback position. Last year Roethlisberger was a somewhat confused and humbled young man learning what the playoffs were all about at the expense of the evil Professor Belichick. Yesterday, the 23-year-old was ruthlessly efficient at Invesco Field at Mile High, completing 21 of 29 passes for 275 yards, two touchdowns -- one a highlight-reel special -- and no interceptions. He also spiced up the plot with an artful 4-yard bootleg for the icing TD in the fourth quarter. No other quarterback in the league could have been of any more use to his team.

''I know he doesn't put up those kind of numbers like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady," said wide receiver Hines Ward. ''But you need to mention him among the top quarterbacks in the NFL."

''He is a very composed young man," said Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher. ''The difference between him this year and last year is night and day."

One of the more abused statistics in all of sports is third-down efficiency. But there are times when it means something, and this was one of those occasions. As the Steelers were constructing a 24-3 lead, here is what Roethlisberger and his offensive unit were doing on third down:

They were converting seven of their first eight (the miss preceding a field goal), on distances from 3 to 10 yards. Roethlisberger completed six passes to four receivers, for distances ranging from 7 to 21 yards. And they all looked E-A-S-Y, which, of course, they weren't.

''Those third downs were big," said Cowher. ''Ben did a great job of taking what he was given."

To hear Roethlisberger tell it, he was a minor part of the equation. ''So many things go into it," he said. ''The offensive line, the receivers, who did something extra to get open . . . "

All true, of course, but there is a reason those big turkeys up front labor in anonymity and the other guys are said to play the ''skill positions." And the position with the most individual responsibility is quarterback. The Steelers will enter the Super Bowl believing firmly they have the better QB.

''Ben was incredible," said Bettis, who has seen a QB or two during his fabulous 13-year career. ''He did everything he had to do."

''It's his confidence," pointed out Ward. ''He's not going out and saying, 'I have to put it all on my shoulders.' He's playing football and letting his team work for him. He does a great job managing the game and throwing the ball where it is supposed to be thrown."

He was a veritable Browning love poem, beating the frustrated Broncos in countless ways. He hit the short men, he hit the medium men, and he hit Cedrick Wilson for a 30-yarder on a first-down play following a Denver touchdown that made it 24-10 in the third quarter. But his piece de resistance was a scrambling 17-yard pass to Ward for a killer TD following an Ike Taylor interception just before the half.

Rolling to his left on a broken play, Big Ben rifled one through a minute opening in the back of the end zone to Ward, who had deviated from Plan A into a thoroughly unscripted Plan B.

What you must understand, Ward explained, was that this was a demonstration of the old Branch Rickey belief that ''luck is the residue of design." Or Ward would have said that if he ever had heard of Branch Rickey. That play was no accident, you see.

''Yeah, we work on that all the time," Ward said. ''If you watch him in the pregame warmup, he's always rolling out, always trying to throw it out in the air, and we had a small window. He hit the middle of the bull's-eye. That's something he practiced. That's the kind of quarterback he is."

Big Ben's development means the Steelers present a much more difficult problem for opposing defensive coordinators than in Ye Olden Days. They still love to preach the run, but if they had remained dependent on the run yesterday (33 carries for 90 yards) they would have been going home for good.

''A lot of people said that if we have to throw the ball we can't win," Roethlisberger said. ''Myself, the offensive line, and the receivers kind of took offense to that. We think we have a balanced offense."

Or maybe not. Of the Steelers' 20 first downs, 15 were through the air. This keeps up, Willie Parker and Bettis will be begging for carries.

What it all comes down to is that the Steelers have happily put themselves in the hands of the young Roethlisberger. ''He's definitely a leader," said Parker, the prime Pittsburgh running back. ''When he comes into the huddle and says, 'Shut up!' we shut up. He's the leader. He's the captain of the ship. He may be young in the huddle, but he's the captain of the ship."

Bettis, Mr. Steeler, a.k.a. ''The Bus," is president of the Ben Roethlisberger Fan Club. ''He made a proposal to me to get me the footballs of all these games," Bettis said. ''He was going to get me the game ball of every game, and he's kept his promise. He promised me last year he was going to get me to the Super Bowl [this year], and every game ball, so he's 100 percent on his promises. So he's special in my book; I'll tell you that."

The Kid just got through quarterbacking the Steelers to road victories over the top three seeds in the AFC, and you know who'll be watching The Kid in the Super Bowl? Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, to name two. Ben Roethlisberger can play some serious football.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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