Steelers rally beats Cardinals rally

Super Bowl 43 looked like a grinding Pittsburgh win before the two teams started trading thrilling comebacks.

By King Kaufman

Published February 2, 2009 12:00PM (EST)

Did someone make sure the Arizona Cardinals realized the Super Bowl has ended? If not they're probably in an airport lounge somewhere trying to figure out how they're going to come back one more time against that tough Pittsburgh Steelers defense.

The Cardinals got to Tampa by answering Philadelphia's second-half comeback in the NFC Championship Game with a magnificent game-winning touchdown drive. Sunday night they played the opposite role. Down 20-7 in the fourth quarter the Cardinals scored a touchdown and a safety before Larry Fitzgerald raced 64 yards for the go-ahead score with 2:37 to go. But that was enough time for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to collaborate with receiver Santonio Holmes on a trophy-winning drive.

Steelers 27, Cardinals 23. Super Bowl 43 was a beauty, not quite a match for the historically significant upset of a year ago, but a similarly thrilling game at the end, the would-be winning score one-upped by the real winner.

The record books will say the Steelers won it by going 78 yards in eight plays, capped off by Holmes' toe-dance catch at the right sideline near the back of the end zone. But they really went 88, since the first thing they did after taking the kickoff following Fitzgerald's long TD was back up 10 yards on a holding call.

Holmes caught four passes on the drive for 73 yards, including a 40-yard catch and run that turned the possession from a quest to get into field-goal position and force overtime into a shot at winning in regulation. First-and-goal at the 6. Holmes had a chance to catch the game-winner on the left side but the ball went over his head and through his outstretched hands. Catchable, but it would have been a nice one.

The next play was harder. Holmes got behind three defenders on the right side, snared Roethlisberger's throw en pointe, inbounds, and hung on as he fell to the sidelines, Arizona safety Aaron Francisco hitting him as he went down. There was a review but little doubt. Touchdown, and the Steelers led 27-23 with 35 seconds left.

That was enough time for Kurt Warner to add one last drive to his legend. Ceded the middle of the field, he hit Fitzgerald and J.J. Arrington on back-to-back passes for 33 yards, from the Arizona 23 to the Pittsburgh 44. But the Cardinals had to use their last two timeouts after those plays and were left with just 15 seconds.

On the next play Warner was hit by LaMarr Woodley before he could get his arm going forward. He fumbled, the Steelers recovered and that was it.

It was a finish all the more remarkable because the game looked in the third quarter like it would devolve into a grinding beatdown by the Steelers. They'd opened the game with two long drives that resulted in a field goal -- after an apparent Roethlisberger rushing touchdown was overturned on a challenge -- and a touchdown for a 10-0 lead.

The Cardinals had run only five plays when they took possession a minute into the second quarter. They'd gained 13 yards and given 10 back on a penalty. But they got back into the game with an 83-yard drive highlighted by a 40-yard catch and run by Anquan Boldin to the 1. Warner hit tight end Ben Patrick for the score.

Then the Cardinals actually had a chance to take the lead late in the half following the game's first turnover, a Roethlisberger pass batted into the air by defensive end Bryan Robinson and intercepted by linebacker Karlos Dansby at the Steelers 34 at the two-minute warning. Seven plays later Arizona had a first-and-goal at the 1 with 18 seconds left in the half.

Warner tried to hit Boldin for the score but linebacker James Harrison, who had taken a step in to fake a pass rush, bounced back and intercepted the pass at the goal line. He then rumbled 100 yards, tumbling over the opposite goal line as Fitzgerald wrestled him down. The longest play in Super Bowl history gave the Steelers, who'd been about to fall behind by four, a 10-point halftime lead.

When the Cardinals couldn't get their powerful offense going in the third quarter, it looked like Super Bowl 43 had already settled into a long denouement. Fitzgerald, the game's best receiver, hadn't caught his first pass until the final minute of the first half, and, blanketed by Pittsburgh's defensive backfield, he wouldn't catch another in the third period.

Arizona's running back by committee, Edgerrin James, Tim Hightower and Arrington, wasn't finding any room to run. Meanwhile the Steelers offense chewed up most of the third quarter with a 16-play, 79-yard drive that ended in a Jeff Reed chip-shot field goal and a 20-7 lead. Harrison's interception was looking like it would go down as the back-breaker, the play that turned a competitive game into a slow march to victory by the superior team.

But if there's one thing the Arizona Cardinals, a thoroughly ordinary 9-7 team during the regular season, have shown in the playoffs, it's that they're no ordinary ordinary team.

Warner began finding Fitzgerald on quick slant routes that exploited Pittsburgh's willingness to let the Cardinals throw underneath. Fitzgerald's second, third and fourth catches of the game, along with gains on passes to Arrington, Hightower, Steve Breaston and Jerheme Urban, put the Cardinals at the Steelers 1, where Warner let Fitzgerald beat Ike Taylor on a jump ball for a 1-yard touchdown: 20-14.

After forcing a three-and-out the Cardinals drove 49 yards before stalling at the 36, but Ben Graham's punt was downed at the 1. Steelers running back Willie Parker's Herculean effort to escape the end zone on second down prevented a safety, but a holding penalty on the next play got the Cardinals their two points and the ball -- and, with about three minutes to play, a chance at the win, something that hadn't seemed possible a few minutes before.

Fitzgerald's 64-yard touchdown put the Cardinals on top for the first time. He'd lined up wide right, with Boldin in the slot. Pittsburgh's brilliant safety Troy Polamalu bit on Boldin's move to the outside, leaving no help over the top when Fitzgerald slanted in and collected Warner's pass in stride. He went in untouched.

A Cardinals defense that had stepped up heroically in the postseason, turning the Cardinals into an extraordinary team, needed one, maybe two stops in the last two and a half minutes to give the Cardinals their first NFL title since 1947, when the league and the game itself were barely recognizable compared to today.

Roethlisberger and Holmes, the game's MVP, would have none of it. The Steelers became the first team to win six Super Bowls, which is five more than the Cardinals have played in.

It might be 60 years again before the Cardinals make it back. But not if the last month's any indication. One thing about them: They do come back.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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