The first great moment of the Super Bowl for the Pittsburgh Steelers came just before kickoff, when Franco Harris, introduced with all the other former MVPs, pulled a Terrible Towel out of his pocket and waved it. It would be a while before the next.
But the Steelers had just enough of them to beat the Seattle Seahawks 21-10 and win the NFL championship Sunday in a game that brought back memories of the grand old days of dull, poorly played Super Bowls.
Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward won the MVP award for his five receptions and 123 yards, with one touchdown plus a catch on a bomb that set up another. His touchdown catch came on a trick play, a Pittsburgh staple. Leading 14-10 in the fourth quarter, the Steelers ran a reverse to wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, a former college quarterback, who pulled up and hit Ward for a 43-yard score, the last of the game.
Though the Steelers were never able to get their running game going, Willie Parker raced through a hole on the right side and ran 75 yards for a touchdown on the second play of the second half, the longest run in Super Bowl history, giving the Steelers a commanding 14-3 lead.
Pittsburgh appeared poised to extend that lead a few minutes later when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw an ill-advised pass into the right flat that was picked off at the 3-yard line by Kelly Herndon, who ran it back to the Steelers 20, setting up the Seahawks' only touchdown, a 16-yard throw from Matt Hasselbeck to tight end Jerramy Stevens.
Then, late in the third quarter, the Seahawks began what looked like a momentous drive. Still trailing 14-10 and starting from the Seattle 2, Hasselbeck marched the Seahawks 79 yards to the Pittsburgh 19 on 10 plays. Then he hit Stevens, the tight end at the center of the week's lone trumped-up controversy, for a first down at the 1.
But that play was called back for a holding penalty. After a sack and a seven-yard run by Shaun Alexander, who had a quiet 95 yards on 20 carries on the night, Hasselbeck tried to force a pass to Darrell Jackson. It was intercepted at the 5 by Ike Taylor, who returned it to the 29, a miscalled penalty on Hasselbeck adding 15 yards and giving Pittsburgh a short field.
Four plays later Randle El hit Ward with the gadget-play bomb, and the Steelers were on their way to the fifth Super Bowl title in their history.
The Steelers defense may have been the real MVP, holding one of the game's best offenses to 10 points, though no single player really stood out. Taylor was the team's leading tackler to go with his interception, but that was mostly because he gave up a series of catches by Jackson to open the game.
He also had an interception go through his hands in the first quarter and was beaten for what would have been a touchdown late in the first half had Jackson been able to get his feet down inbounds.
And the Seahawks weren't blameless in their futility.
Seattle went 15-3 and was the class of the NFC in winning the conference title, but on Sunday the Hawks looked more like the 2004 version of themselves, a team that stumbled into the playoffs and got bounced in the first round. They dropped passes, had big plays called back for penalties, mismanaged the clock at the end of both halves and were horrible on special teams.
The Steelers weren't much better, and in the first half, they were significantly worse, which made it nothing short of amazing that Pittsburgh somehow got off the field with a 7-3 lead.
The Steelers had been the last team in the AFC to make the playoffs, winning their last four to qualify. But on reaching the postseason as the sixth seed, they proceeded to play nothing like it -- until the Super Bowl.
Where the Steelers had started fast in playoff wins over the top two teams in the conference, the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos, they began Sunday in neutral. In Indy and Denver the Steelers had come out throwing and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had been sizzling. In Detroit they came out running, which didn't work, and when they threw, Roethlisberger was cold.
The Steelers went three and out on their first three possessions, covering the first quarter and part of the second, but found themselves trailing only 3-0. The Seahawks stalled on their side of the 50 on each of their first two series, and punter Tom Rouen booted the ball 57 and 51 yards into the end zone for touchbacks.
How different this game might have been had Seattle been able to pin the Steelers deep in their own territory on either or both of those kicks. And Rouen wasn't done. He'd kick another one into the end zone from the Pittsburgh 47 before the half. The Seahawks outgained the Steelers 154-113 in the first two quarters, but gave up 60 yards of field position on punts.
Considering Seattle's bad punting, an offfensive interference penalty on Jackson that negated a touchdown and a missed 54-yard field goal by Josh Brown -- a makable kick indoors, and it was long enough but wide right -- the Steelers weren't just lucky to be leading by four at the half, they were lucky not to be losing by 10 or more.
Rouen booted another one for a touchback from 52 yards out in the fourth quarter with Seattle trying to mount a comeback, and Randle El ran his other two punts back for a combined 32 yards.
The first of those returns was a 12-yarder that ended with Randle El jackknifing in the air, landing on his head and grabbing his back. It looked bad, but he missed only a few plays. That punt return, midway through the second quarter, gave the Steelers good field position at their own 41 and set up their first touchdown.
Roethlisberger kept that drive alive with a scramble and an awkward, backhand shovel pass to Ward for 12 yards and a first down on third-and-6. But that was just a warmup.
Facing a third-and-28 at the Seattle 40, Roethlisberger took the snap in the shotgun, was forced out of the pocket and scrambled to his left. Careful not to go over the line of scrimmage -- he took a peek at the down marker at one point to make sure -- he ended up standing flat-footed just behind the 40 and launching a long fly ball against the grain, toward the center of the field, a throw that had interception written all over it.
Ward stood at the 3 waiting for it for what must have seemed like an hour. It finally came down and he cradled it for a 37-yard gain and a first down.
After two unsuccessful runs by Jerome Bettis, the chief human-interest story of Super Bowl week, Roethlisberger scored on a keeper from the 1. Linebacker D.D. Lewis hit Roethlisberger's shoulder and drove him back just as he reached the goal line, but the officials ruled that the ball had broken the plane, and a booth review upheld the call and the Steelers' 7-3 lead.
It looked like the correct ruling, but Seahawks fans will surely forever argue that the go-ahead touchdown in their team's first, losing Super Bowl effort never should have counted. Coach Mike Holmgren was arguing that point as the half ended.
Bettis, the Detroit native who is the Steelers' heart and soul and the NFL's all-time fifth-leading rusher, announced in the postgame celebration that he would retire. He carried 14 times for 43 yards, so while his final game was a crowning achievement, it wasn't a particularly good performance.
That's true for the Steelers too. They didn't play all that well, but they had their moments, and that let them have the best moment of all.
- - - - - - - - - - - -