It might not have been the Super Bowl most people wanted, but it was the Super Bowl GAME everybody wanted. You just can’t ask for much more than the Steelers and Cardinals gave us Sunday night at Raymond James Stadium. A 16-point rally by the Cards in the fourth quarter, capped by a 64-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald? A subsequent length-of-the-field drive by Pittsburgh in the last 2 1/2 minutes to win it 27-23?
Has there ever been a Super Bowl like that? Will there ever again be a Super Bowl finish as good? Inasmuch as it has taken 43 tries to produce this jewel, the answer to the last question, I suppose, is: Maybe not in your lifetime.
“You are seconds away from me crying in the locker room - and them being out here [accepting the accolades],” said Troy Polamalu, the Steelers’ ball-hawking, bone-rattling strong safety. “That’s how amazing this game is.”
Where to begin… We could start, I guess, with the play that seemed to turn things irreversibly in Pittsburgh’s favor - except that it didn’t. I’m talking, of course, about the interception return for a touchdown by James Harrison, the NFL‘s defensive player of the year.
Harrison, in case you hadn’t heard, has unusual tastes in television viewing. He never watches sports or other programming, he claims, “only cartoons, 24/7.” Which animated features, specifically? ” ‘Adult Swim,’ ‘Family Guy,’ ‘American Dad’ … or I can go old school with ‘Bugs Bunny,’ ‘Daffy Duck’ and a little bit of ‘Pink Panther.’ Depends on what time it is and what’s on.”
In the last few moments of the first half, with the Cardinals perched at the Pittsburgh 1 and poised to take a 14-10 lead, Harrison suddenly turned into one of his beloved cartoon characters: Road Runner. He stepped in front of a Kurt Warner pass meant for Anquan Boldin and took off in the other direction, very determinedly.
When Deshea Townsend crossed his path and suggested a handoff, the outside linebacker ignored him and kept chugging downfield. A hundred yards later, the clock showing zeroes, he squeezed over the goal line to complete the longest play in the history of the Roman Numeral Game.
It’s hard to remember many Super Bowl plays as jaw-dropping as that one. The infamous Rocket Screen that ruined the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII, I’ll just remind you, came with the Raiders already leading 14-3 and in clear command. Jack Squirek’s touchdown return, moreover, was a mere stroll by comparison - 95 yards shorter than Harrison’s marathon.
You just knew the Cardinals wouldn’t come back from that punch in the solar plexus. A 14-point swing just before halftime? With the underdog on the verge of wiping out a 10-0 deficit and going into the locker room on top? It was like watching Wile E. Coyote blow himself up.
But as they showed throughout the postseason, this was a different group of Cardinals than the hopeless stumblebums we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the past 60 years. And the reason might have been that, despite their playoff inexperience, they had a quarterback and a coach (Ken Whisenhunt, formerly Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator) who had already won the Super Bowl.
And so despite being outgained in the first quarter a million-to-13 and looking like the Cards of December - that is, like a club in the running for the first pick in the draft - they gathered themselves and answered the Steelers strongly in the second quarter… and then Harrison went Looney Tunes.
But this was Arizona’s postseason almost as much as it was Pittsburgh’s, particularly Warner’s and Larry Fitzgerald’s. And they very nearly completed their hijacking by collaborating on two touchdowns in the final eight minutes - which, wrapped around a safety, turned a 20-7 Steelers edge into a 23-20 Cardinals advantage.
Unfortunately for the Cards, they left Ben Roethlisberger and Co. just enough time to break their hearts. As he did all night, Roethlisberger refused to be sacked in the last drive and kept finding open receivers; he finally inserted the dagger by lofting a perfect 6-yard TD pass to Santonio Holmes in the far right corner of the end zone with just 35 ticks to go.
Holmes, who provided big plays in all three postseason games, went up for the ball like a competitor in a slam-dunk contest. His ninth and last catch - for 131 yards total - enabled him to steal the Super Bowl MVP award and the Lombardi Trophy out of Fitzgerald’s and the Cardinals’ hands.
“I feel empty right now, to tell you the truth,” said Fitzgerald, who finished with seven receptions for 127 yards. “It’s kinda all for nothing.”
Meanwhile, Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh’s young coach, was a picture of postgame calm. “There’s going to be ebb and flow,” he said. “… I wasn’t the least bit surprised about that. If you look at our story this football season, that has been our story. We had to win the division in Baltimore under similar [nerve-wracking] circumstances. Our guys don’t blink.”
The Steelers, who won their sixth Super Bowl and second in four years, figure to be in the mix again next season - and for the foreseeable future. The long-destitute Cards, on the other hand, have less certain prospects. But they gave us a fabulous Super Bowl, even if their improbable dream slipped away.