The debate over Ben Roethlisberger's status as an elite quarterback has gone on every since he burst onto the scene his rookie year and won every regular season start in 2004. Since then, the Steelers quarterback has added two Super Bowl rings and countless comebacks to his resume.
On the other side of the field this week will be Tom Brady, reigning league MVP and owner of three Super Bowl rings. Brady is widely considered to be the best quarterback in the NFL right now and certainly the most valuable in the league.
But here is a look at why Ben Roethlisberger is more valuable to his team than Tom Brady is to the Patriots.
The New England Patriots play in and dominate the AFC East. Up until 2009, they were pretty much the only consistent threat in the division. They won it one year without Brady for almost an entire season. This is the first year more than one other team has even been considered a threat to their supremacy.
The Pittsburgh Steelers play in the AFC North. This has never been a one-horse division. The Steelers are always fending off threats from the Baltimore Ravens, the other divisional powerhouse. They've also had to weather Cincinnati on the rare occasions that the Bengals prove dangerous.
The point is that the Patriots, for most of Brady's career, have never been threatened. They could have won the AFC East with any quarterback. The Steelers are never alone and never have been. Every season, an injury to Ben Roethlisberger could spell the end of the Steelers' aspirations.
This is small, but the disparity in competitive balance is significant when you consider what one injury does to a team in a division with other contenders.
This one is a bit interesting once you dig deep enough to see the major differences. The Steelers have developed into a team whose offense is built more and more on the threat of the deep ball. The Steelers have added three of the fastest receivers in the NFL in the past two years (Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown). Any or all can get 30 or more yards down field and get open for a big play.
The Patriots are built around two tight ends and the work of Wes Welker in the middle of the field. They added Chad Ochocinco in the offseason, but he's been mostly useless to their offense and has made more mistakes than plays. I'm not saying he won't get on track, but it's not essential to their system that he perform big.
Any quarterback can make the throws in the Patriots' offense. It's not built on going deep. It's built on ball control through short, quick passes. I could see the team having success with Brian Hoyer taking the snaps.
There is no other quarterback on the Pittsburgh roster who can throw the deep ball like Roethlisberger, who now owns the longest pass play in team history: a 95-yard bomb to Mike Wallace last week that traveled almost 50 yards in the air.
Both teams are built around what their quarterbacks can do on offense. The Patriots know that Tom Brady is the consummate pocket passer. The Steelers depend heavily on Ben Roethlisberger's backyard game.
So who is more valuable?
It goes back to what would (or has) happened when either quarterback has missed a game. The Patriots spent most of a season with Matt Cassel under center. Their offense wasn't as explosive, but the team never skipped a beat and didn't have to change their system at all to accommodate Cassel's game.
Whenever the Steelers have been without Ben Roethlisberger, the entire offense changes. Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon aren't nearly as adept at scrambling to keep a play alive and neither has any ability to break tackles and keep moving after contact. The Steelers need Roethlisberger to make the offense work against good opponents.
Without Brady, the Patriots can do the same things. Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers would have to adjust to a pocket passer (Batch) or a fringe player (Dixon) who's best attribute is his ability to run the ball. That makes Roethlisberger much more essential than Brady.
Until this year, the situation was mostly reversed. The Patriots have never been a running team with Tom Brady and really haven't had a marquee runner (unless you count Corey Dillon or Lawrence Maroney, which I don't). They've won with guys like Antowain Smith, Kevin Faulk and Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis. Does that sound like a trio you'd see starting over Jerome Bettis or Willie Parker or even Rashard Mendenhall?
Meanwhile, the Steelers have started those last three and found running success. It's different this year. The Patriots have turned Green-Ellis into a top notch back and also have Stevan Ridley gaining yards. They've become a balanced offense in so many ways.
The Steelers haven't been able to get Mendenhall going save for a big day against Jacksonville two weeks ago. Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore have contributed, but haven't broken the big gains needed to get on track. The Steelers right now are very much a passing team.
That inability to run makes what Roethlisberger accomplishes more important. When he has had a bad game this season, the team has either lost or barely survived. When he's been good (Tennessee and Arizona being good examples), they've dominated their competition without needing a runner.
No, I'm not going to try to say that either quarterback is more valuable for game-winning drives. That would be insane. Both are probably equally essential when the game is on the line and they need to go win it with a last-minute drive.
I will say that Ben Roethlisberger is more important to the Steelers in these situations because of the simple fact that the Steelers play more of these games than New England does.
If I could pick two guys for a game-winning drive, I'd take either one of these two. They never choke and rarely fail. They're the best two guys in the league. But New England doesn't routinely put Brady in that situation. For a long time, the Patriots simply blew people away.
For Roethlisberger, game-winning situations are routine. Sometimes, as with Jacksonville two weeks ago, he doesn't need to score necessarily, he just needs to keep the team moving and the clock running. Most times, however, he's got to drive the length of the field.
And he's done it. Frequently too. He's won a Super Bowl with a last second drive. He's got more comebacks in the first seven full seasons of a career than anyone else ever.
That's why he's more valuable. The Steelers win more games with Roethlisberger making a late push than they do by blowout or in any other fashion.