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The toughness rep: Five reasons Ben Roethlisberger has it

Ben Roethlisberger's ability to withstand punishment and come back for more has added to his legend, both in Pittsburgh and around the NFL. AP Photo/Gary Landers

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had just attempted eight passes on a separated shoulder Saturday night when a text popped up from an NFL scout reminding me that Roethlisberger is an "elite" quarterback.

Roethlisberger didn’t need the 18-16 wild-card win in Cincinnati to validate his elite status, but the game solidified Roethlisberger’s reputation for toughness. The drive helped set up a game-winning 35-yard field goal by Chris Boswell.

Roethlisberger’s well-known pain tolerance has the Steelers feeling optimistic about his chances to play Sunday in Denver even though he says he’s torn a few ligaments in the shoulder to go along with the sprained AC joint.

Here are five reasons Roethlisberger has earned this rep.

Games like Saturday night: Roethlisberger didn’t have to re-enter the Bengals game, but he took a painkiller in the locker room, ran back onto the field and got back out there. He could barely throw the ball 10 yards. Still, he kept throwing. That earns street cred with teammates and prompted defensive end Cameron Heyward to offer ice-pack deliveries to Roethlisberger’s house this week if necessary. “For him to gut out a performance like that, I don’t know if any other quarterback could do that,” Heyward said. “The grit and toughness he shows, it’s special. You can’t teach that. We’re lucky to have him on our sideline.”

Never misses extended time: Despite 30-plus sacks per year and several trips to the training room, Roethlisberger hasn’t missed more than four consecutive games in 12 seasons. The list of injuries, though mostly minor, is lengthy. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Roethlisberger missed three games in 2012 (shoulder); one apiece in 2011 (ankle), 2009 (concussion), 2007 (ankle) and 2006 (appendix); four more in 2005 (knee); and one in 2004 (ribs). Fighting through injury is nothing new. He’ll miss some time on occasion, but he’s usually back quickly. He’s going on his fourth injury this season -- MCL sprain, bone bruise in his foot, concussion protocol, shoulder -- and likely will have missed four of 18 games by the end of this week. Not bad.

Returning from weird injuries: In 2012, Roethlisberger dislocated a rib against Kansas City that could have been much worse. As Roethlisberger told reporters after talking to doctors about the situation: “That’s the more scary part, I guess. If [the rib] goes in the wrong direction, it could puncture the aorta.” Roethlisberger said he had to sleep in a chair for a while. He missed three games. His quick return fueled the Iron Man narrative.

The sacks: Roethlisberger has taken 439 of them. He’s reduced the sacks in recent years but still has 136 more than this week’s opposing quarterback, Peyton Manning, who’s played six more seasons than Big Ben. Getting hit by pass rushers increases the probability of injury (hello, Vontaze Burfict), but it also perpetuates the keep-fighting story line. Fans love to see athletes who can face adversity and keep getting after it. As Roethlisberger says, he’ll never play scared from the pocket. He’ll stand tall in there. He’s not Small Ben. Taking sacks reminds that Roethlisberger is a big guy who can absorb them more than most, which bolsters the toughness quotient.

The weekly drama associated with his injuries: For at least six weeks this season, Roethlisberger’s health has been a major story line. This season is a bit of an aberration because of the volume of ailments, but the weekly updates about Roethlisberger’s status builds anticipation. How’s he progressing? Can he fight through it? When he comes back, and he usually does, it’s a victory for the team, and relief for Steelers fans.