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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Father Time chasing famed draft class of Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers

Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts during

Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts during loss to the New England Patriots in AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 22, 2017, in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Elsa

Understandable frustration two days after a disheartening loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game? Or is Ben Roethlisberger truly ready to end his career after 13 mostly brilliant seasons?

Whatever the case, the Steelers must be genuinely concerned about their future now that the 34-year-old Roethlisberger has wondered aloud whether he’ll be back next season.

“I’m going to take this offseason to evaluate, to consider all options,” he told Pittsburgh’s “Cook and Poni” radio show on Tuesday. “To consider health and family and things like that, and just kind of take some time away to evaluate next season, if there’s going to be a next season.”

That sure sounds ominous, particularly because Roethlisberger never has spoken openly about being ready to walk away. Coach Mike Tomlin didn’t seem overly concerned, particularly because Big Ben previously mentioned it in private conversations with members of the organization.

“I’m not alarmed by it, that’s football,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, I’m hopeful he returns. Not surprised by that thought process by Ben. We’ll react and plan accordingly. We haven’t met yet. He’s one of the last I meet with.”

With Roethlisberger’s uncertainty and with Giants general manager Jerry Reese telling reporters the day after a playoff loss to the Packers that the organization needs to think about life after Eli Manning, the graying of the Class of 2004 quarterbacks is upon us.

Manning never has expressed a desire to retire, nor has the other first-round quarterback that year, Philip Rivers. But with them all in their mid-30’s — Manning is 36, Rivers is 35 — it may not be much longer before their long and successful run comes to an end. Their franchises must face the very real possibility that change is inevitable after 13 seasons of remarkable stability.

And it is yet another reminder of just how incredible Tom Brady has stood the test of time. With Manning showing signs of regression this season, with Roethlisberger thinking out loud about whether he’ll come back, and with Rivers coming off a season when he threw an NFL-high 21 interceptions, the 39-year-old Brady shows no signs of slippage.

With three touchdown passes and no interceptions in a 36-17 win over the Steelers, Brady remains at the top of his game. He’ll be playing in a record seventh Super Bowl and has a chance to become the first quarterback to win five Vince Lombardi trophies, one more than Roethlisberger and Manning combined.

It isn’t over just yet for the Class of 2004, and my sense is that Roethlisberger will rest up, recharge and decide to come back next season. After all, he is only halfway through a four-year, $87.4-million deal he signed in 2015. He is a highly emotional player who played through any number of injuries over the years, and it’s hard to see him walk away after getting so close to a fourth Super Bowl, especially with a young team that has plenty of upside.

But with a handful of elite players opting to retire earlier than expected — including Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis — it’s surely possible Roethlisberger has had enough. And don’t forget that saying among many coaches, including Hall of Famers Chuck Noll and Bill Parcells, that once a player starts thinking about retirement, he’s already as good as retired.

That may or may not be the case with Roethlisberger, and I see him coming back. But his willingness to at least entertain the idea is the latest sign that this magnificent run by what might be the greatest single draft class of quarterbacks will soon be over.

If Ben Roethlisberger decides he’s had enough, he would leave the NFL with two Super Bowl rings and these regular-season numbers:

SEASONS 13

STARTS 183

W-L 123-60

COMP./ATT. 3,804/5,932

PCT. 64.1

YARDS 46,814

TD PASSES 301

INTs 160

QB RATING 94.1

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