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As Aaron Rodgers preps for ‘strange’ rare meeting with Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers’ situation may serve as cautionary tale
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As Aaron Rodgers preps for ‘strange’ rare meeting with Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers’ situation may serve as cautionary tale

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Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and quarterback Aaron Rodgers shake hands after the Steelers won 31-28 on Nov. 26, 2017, in Pittsburgh. Rodgers missed the game with a broken right collarbone.

GREEN BAY — They’re certainly not rivals, though they did meet on the biggest stage and with the most at stake as any two quarterbacks could.

They’re not friends, since they don’t know each other particularly well, but they do have a mutual admiration for how the other plays the position.

They’re, at best, contemporaries, having had their lengthy NFL careers overlap while rarely facing each other head-to-head.

Yes, by some weird twist of fate — or, more accurately, by two cracks of collarbones — when Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers face Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Lambeau Field, it will mark just the third time the two quarterbacks have gone against each other.

And this time, Roethlisberger and his late-career fade at age 39 also may be a cautionary tale as the Packers contemplate their own future with the 37-year-old Rodgers, the reigning NFL MVP who still appears to be at the top of his game.

But first, the history.

Their first meeting was in 2009, when Roethlisberger and the Steelers won at Heinz Field, scoring on the game’s final play of a 37-36 victory. And, of course, they met in Super Bowl XLV following the 2010 season, when Rodgers led the Packers to a 31-25 victory and earned game MVP honors to deliver Titletown’s most recent title, now more than a decade into the history books.

“It is strange how that happened,” Rodgers acknowledged Wednesday afternoon.

Because of the design of NFL’s scheduling rotation, the NFC North plays the AFC North only once every four years. Rodgers was a rookie in 2005, when Roethlisberger, in his second season, led the Steelers to the Super Bowl XL title. But when the Packers and Steelers met at Lambeau Field that year, it was still Brett Favre at quarterback for the Packers in a 20-10 loss — one of many during that team’s abysmal 4-12 year.

Then, after their 2009 and Super Bowl XLV meetings, Rodgers was sidelined for each of the next two matchups by broken collarbones.

In 2013, the Packers lost 38-31 to the Steelers in the second-to-last regular-season game, a week before Rodgers, who’d broken his left collarbone in Week 9, returned for the finale and beat the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field with a last-minute fourth-down 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb to propel the Packers into the playoffs.

And in 2017, Rodgers broke his right collarbone in Week 5 and missed a 31-28 loss in Pittsburgh — part of a stretch in which the Brett Hundley-led Packers lost five of their next six games after Rodgers went down at Minnesota.

“I remember the ’09 game very well,” Rodgers offered, trying to be helpful with an obvious storyline for this week’s game. “We were pretty explosive on offense, hit Greg (Jennings) down the middle for I think it was an 85-yard touchdown, then hit J.J. (James Jones) on a post late in that game to put us ahead. (But) then Big Ben took them down to beat us there right at the end. That was a good football game.”

As usual, Rodgers’ memory was on point — though the touchdown to Jennings was an 83-yarder, not 85. In that game, Rodgers threw for 383 yards and three touchdowns (101.3 passer rating) ang put the Packers up 36-30 on a 24-yard touchdown strike to Jones with 2 minutes, 6 seconds left.

But all Rodgers could do was watch as Roethlisberger and the Steelers marched 86 yards en route to his winning 19-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace as the clock struck 0:00.

Asked how well they know each other, Rodgers replied: “I met Ben I think in 2005 or ’06 at the Tahoe golf event (the American Century Championship). (I’ve) been friendly over the years when I see him, but I haven’t spent any time with him outside of the few times getting to see him on the field.

“(I) have always followed his career pretty closely. He’s had a lot of success. He’s had a great career, a Hall of Fame career. But it is strange we’ve played just the two times.”

Asked by Pennsylvania reporters about the oddity of not playing against Rodgers very often, Roethlisberger replied: “It’s the old cliché — everyone says it’s the quarterbacks against each other, and then we’ll say, ‘No, we play against the defense.’ But it’s still an honor to share a stadium with one of the greatest and a guy that I admire — and a lot of people admire — that has just done it at such a high level for a long time. It’s pretty cool to watch his mastery of the game. I just hope that this week our defense can hold up and maybe have something to say about it.”

How much Roethlisberger will have to say about the outcome remains to be seen. Struggling with injuries and struggling with his play, Roethlisberger comes into Sunday having completed only 63.8% of his passes for 801 yards and three touchdowns with three interceptions (79.0 rating) during Pittsburgh’s 1-2 start.

It got so bad during last week’s 24-10 home loss to Cincinnati — Roethlisberger finished 38 of 58 for 318 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions, four sacks and a 70.9 rating — that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was asked if he considered benching Roethlisberger to give the team a spark.

That night, Rodgers led the Packers to a 30-28 win over the San Francisco 49ers, conjuring up a 42-yard field-goal drive in the game’s final 37 seconds — without any timeouts — to win the game at the final gun on Mason Crosby’s 51-yard kick.

While Rodgers has made it abundantly clear he’s focusing solely on this season and not contemplating where his career will take him after this year, perhaps Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst sees Roethlisberger’s game cratering as proof of what can happen without a proper succession plan.

At the same time, Rodgers and Roethlisberger are completely different players, and just because Roethlisberger’s play has fallen off precipitously, Rodgers’ level of play could very well remain high — which is what Tomlin sees when he watches Rodgers on film, especially when Rodgers connects with No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams.

“What a ridiculous challenge he and they are, particularly in their venue,” Tomlin said. “You can’t go to Green Bay anticipating turning the ball over and being in it (because) Aaron Rodgers and the Packers don’t turn the ball over. (That) speaks to Aaron Rodgers; this guy operates with great fluidity. He takes care of the ball. He makes good and quick decisions and has for an extremely long time. And a guy like (Adams) coupled with a quarterback relationship like that, you’re working your tail off just to kind of minimize it in those moments. To think that you’re going to deny him is probably not realistic. We’ve got to minimize his impact on the game. It’s not eliminating, it’s minimizing.”

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