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Big question about Ben is 'what if?'

DETROIT -- There's simply no getting around it. I'm at the Super Bowl, hanging around another city, listening to the interviews with coaches and players from the two teams. But for some reason, the Bills are never far from my mind. It's reached the point where I perceive almost everything from a Buffalo perspective.

More than once this past week, while listening to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger talk about his development in his second NFL season, I was struck by a simple, nagging question: What if?

What if the Bills had found a way to move up and get Roethlisberger in the 2004 draft? How much differently would life have unfolded for the Steelers and the Bills? If Tom Donahoe had known Roethlisberger would be this good, might he have done more to get him?

The Bills picked 13th that year, the Steelers 11th. The Bills were determined to get their quarterback of the future. They tried to move up to get Roethlisberger, to no avail. Later, Donahoe said he couldn't find a willing "dance partner." He took Lee Evans with the 13th pick, then traded with Dallas to get J.P. Losman later in the first round.

I believe the Bills could have had Roethlisberger if they'd been willing to pay a steeper price. We'll never know for certain. What we do know is that the Steelers hit the jackpot. In Roethlisberger, they found that rarest of football treasures -- a franchise quarterback, a prototype leader at the game's most important position.

In Buffalo, we continue to wait and wonder about Losman as a capable NFL player. In an interview Thursday at the media center here, new coach Dick Jauron admitted there is a sense of "urgency" to find out if Losman can be a franchise QB.

There's no question in Pittsburgh, where in one year Roethlisberger has gone from flawed rookie sensation to emerging superstar, the story of this year's playoffs. Tonight against Seattle, Roethlisberger will try to cap his amazing postseason run by becoming, at 23 years and 11 months, the youngest QB to lead his team to a Super Bowl title. Only Dan Marino played in a Super Bowl at a younger age (23 years, four months).

"I don't look at him as a young quarterback, to be honest," Steelers head coach Bill Cowher said. "He's been doing this for two seasons. To me, he has earned that trust."

That trust came slowly. As a rookie, Roethlisberger's job was simply not to lose the game. The Steelers ran more than 60 percent of the time and went 15-1. Roethlisberger became the first NFL quarterback to go 13-0 as a starter. But in the playoffs, he was in over his head. He struggled against the Jets and was picked off three times by the Patriots in the title game.

This year, Roethlisberger has been a postseason revelation. The Steelers took the hard way to the Bowl, winning three road games. They did it in unconventional fashion -- by throwing early and often. In the first halves of those three wins, Roethlisberger completed 69 percent (34 of 49) of his passes for six TDs and one interception.

The Steelers' foes jammed the line of scrimmage, daring Roethlisberger to beat them. Cowher put the ball in his young quarterback's hands and the kid didn't let him down. He made all the big throws, in front of hostile crowds. His QB rating in those three games was 124.8.

The Seahawks finished 25th in the NFL against the pass. They are vulnerable in the secondary. The Steelers are confident that if Seattle overcommits to the run and makes Roethlisberger beat them, he will oblige them on the sport's biggest stage.

"His development has been incredible. It's the reason we're here," said running back Jerome Bettis.

"I like to hear that," Roethlisberger said. "It makes you feel good. Everyone said coming into the season that if someone stopped the run, we wouldn't be able to win because we can't throw the ball. But the last couple of games, we have won by throwing the ball. I think the receivers like that, and I definitely like it when you put it on our shoulders."

Roethlisberger, 26-4 as a starter, is a beloved figure in Pittsburgh, where he makes most of his reported $5 million in annual endorsements. In NFL circles, he is being compared with the Patriots' Tom Brady for his command of the QB position and knack for winning big games. If Pittsburgh wins tonight, his game-saving tackle after Bettis' late fumble in the Indianapolis playoff game will rival the "Immaculate Reception" in franchise lore.

The Ohio native and former Miami (Ohio) star has the size (6-foot-5, 241), skill, vision and poise every team wants in its QB. Most only dream of getting that package in the guy's second year.

"I'm more comfortable in a lot of areas this year," Roethlisberger said. "Last year at times, I tried to rely on my arm. I am trying to rely on my brain a little more this year. I've done a better job of staying in the pocket and looking for my second and third options, and if that is not there, then trying to get out of the pocket. It's a patience thing. I have been a lot more patient because I understand what is going on."

Ken Whisenhunt, the Steelers' offensive coordinator, gushes about Roethlisberger's "grasp of the pro game, understanding the speed, how small the openings to a receiver can be, the things that separate quarterbacks in this league."

Ultimately, winning a Super Bowl is what separates quarterbacks. Tonight, Roethlisberger has a chance to walk off the field as the MVP and take his place among the game's legends. But win or lose, the Steelers know they have the answer at the game's most vital position, while Bills fans can only wonder.


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