Big Ben Roethlisberger vs. the distinguished Donovan McNabb: Now there's a matchup made in heaven. In a game to be presented on Pittsburgh's Heinz Field next Sunday, McNabb, the Philadelphia Eagles' veteran quarterback, will lead pro football's only 7-0 team against the 6-1 Steelers.

Like McNabb, Roethlisberger is undefeated this season. Astonishingly effective for a rookie, he has made five starts as a pro and won them all since coming over from school at Miami (Ohio). Most recently, Roethlisberger presided during Pittsburgh's surprise 34-20 conquest of New England, which ended the Patriots' record winning streak at 21. It happened for two reasons:

First and most meaningful, with running back Corey Dillon injured and out, the Patriots lost their vital ground-game threat.

Second, Roethlisberger gave the Steelers what they have missed most since Coach Bill Cowher began to open up his offense:

They've needed a quarterback with superb passing skills and the instincts of a born leader, and that seems to be Big Ben. The Steelers, heading into 2004, could block, run, catch, and defend. They could do it all but throw the ball with consistent brilliance, and lately they've been doing that. Their upset win could only have materialized, to be sure, in a passing era. Running teams can't do what the Steelers have done. And it could only have been accomplished by a coach with a double-barreled pass-run threat. That, surprising his old friends, is Cowher.

Is Roethlisberger Better Than Waterfield?

THE STEELERS almost certainly aren't yet on the same road the old Cleveland Rams traveled in 1945 when they wound up in the NFL championship game — the 1940s equivalent of the Super Bowl — and won it with a rookie quarterback, Bob Waterfield. But so far, Roethlisberger has been playing better football than almost any other rookie since Waterfield. And he's a better passer than Waterfield, the great all-around athlete who made the Hall of Fame as a leader.

In another respect, Sunday's Patriot-Steeler game was also unique. When Roethlisberger carried the Steelers toward a 21-3 first-quarter lead with well-placed passes, two for touchdowns to wide receiver Plaxico Burress — and when, later, Cowher opted for a bunch of running plays to protect a lead that grew to 34-13 in the third quarter — the sports fans of Los Angeles didn't see any of it on network TV.

For the second week in a row, CBS, whose executives keep saying they have more viewers than anybody, shut L.A. viewers out of the NFL's big game. And these weren't merely big games. They were historic games. No NFL team had ever won 21 consecutively until last week, when New England set a record that has defied all other pro clubs for 85 years. And on Sunday, Pittsburgh became the only team in the NFL's 85-year history to beat a 21-game winner.

Those were the two most historic events of the season in pro ball; and if CBS could keep them out of the L.A. market, it's a good thing that Sunday's Roethlisberger-McNabb matchup has been awarded to Fox.

Talented QBs Mature Faster Now

FOOTBALL IS A sport that changes markedly from year to year and from decade to decade, unlike baseball, which is pretty much the same game it was in the days when the Red Sox won the last time (with Babe Ruth).

A rookie who had Roethlisberger's skills couldn't have found himself on an NFL winning streak 30 years ago when quarterbacks called their own plays. The coaches who since then have taken on that job have effected a decisive change in modern quarterback play. In the years when quarterbacks made the calls, Hall of Fame passers Sammy Baugh and Johnny Unitas used to say that play-calling was well over half their job.

The 1964 NFL champion, Dr. Frank Ryan of Cleveland, who upset Unitas that year in the title game, said the making of a pro quarterback takes seven years. When he said it, he was in his fourth year in the league. He was traded to Cleveland that year, and he was in his seventh NFL season when he finally beat Unitas.

Coaches have often insisted that it takes five years — at least — to make a pro quarterback. So how could Roethlisberger do it in five games?

The first part of any answer is that he has the talent as well as a coach who believes so much in pass offense that he will let a rookie throw. But more than that, football, as a game, is strikingly different from what it once was. During the ironman era, for example, when NFL rules prohibited unlimited substitution, many of this season's best receivers — including Roethlisberger's — couldn't have participated. They simply lack the skill and size to play defense.

Only in recent years, moreover, have college coaches embraced pass offense as the most certain way to win. They used to say that when you throw a football, only three things can happen and two of them are bad. Today, by contrast, college coaches teach passing — from Miami, Fla., to Miami, O. — as diligently as they once taught blocking and tackling. So there are good passers everywhere today.

On every major college and pro team in the land, quarterbacks now have their own personal coaches who, over the years, have learned passing first-hand. One NFL team hires no fewer than three quarterback coaches who are on the job either full or part-time. In Vince Lombardi's day, pro clubs hired a total of no more than five or six coaches. Today they have 19 or 20. The upshot is that quarterbacks can mature in a hurry these days if they have Roethlisberger's talent, and if they have a coach who believes in pass offense.

Double-Barreled Threat Mandatory