It seems fitting that Super Bowl XLIII came down to the final minutes of the fourth quarter. The best games build tension until the final minutes when a few memorable drives define whole careers. This season’s 27-23 victory by the Pittsburgh Steelers over the Arizona Cardinals will go down in history as one of the best in history. It had two momentum changing drives in the final three minutes and a safety to boot.
Prior to those final minutes the game had a cold, uncomfortable lull. The first quarter was dominated by the Steelers, who held the ball for over 12 minutes for the quarter but only managed to score a field goal on its opening drive. In the second quarter the Steelers and the Cardinals showed some life.
Both teams ran one in from one yard out. Arizona’s score came after Pittsburgh built up a 10-0 lead. To close the half the Cardinals took an interception from a tipped ball to the one yard line. The Cards could have had the lead or have a tie going into halftime, but instead a bad read by Kurt Warner put the ball in James Harrison hands.
Harrison returned the pick 100 yards for a touchdown and seemingly single-handedly ended the Cardinals Cinderella postseason. Despite the two interceptions and the longest play in Super Bowl history, the overall failure by both teams to establish meaningful drives made me worry that this was going to end up being a huge dud.
The third quarter did not help. Arizona began to move the ball, but they abandoned their prolific offense for runs up the middle and dump offs to the running back. The quarter ended with a mere field goal by Jeff Reed to give Pittsburgh a 20-7 lead.
Then it happened. Everybody at Raymond James Stadium was waiting for it. Pittsburgh fans were dreading it and Cardinals fans were expecting it. Warner came out and led a passing attack that re-established itself by finding ways to get the ball to the best receiver in football, Larry Fitzgerald.
With 7:33 left, Warner capped off a 3:57 drive that found him hitting targets all over the field with a lob to Fitzgerald to the right side of the end zone. Fitzgerald jumped, reached over the defender, and pulled in his sixth postseason touchdown while falling to the ground. After a failed drive that ended with fourth and long the Cardinals were force to punt with time quickly winding down. The punt put the Steelers at their one yard line.
Arizona crowded the line and stuffed a run up the middle, nearly tackling the running back in the end zone. Then Roethlisberger threw a quick pass that was dropped by the receiver. The Roethlisberger seemed to end the Cardinals season by converting on third down with a long pass over the middle.
All was lost. Time was running out and the Cardinals were about to be forced to waste their precious timeouts just to give Warner some time to put together a drive. But, time was not lost. A holding call in the end zone nullified the completion and gave Arizona two points for a safety and the ball back.
With the ball and a four point deficit Warner took over at the Arizona 36. On the second play of the drive Fitzgerald ran into the end zone and the record books with a 64 yard touchdown sprint after catching a slant pass over the middle. The two safeties the Steelers had playing deep all game long to avoid the big plays left the middle to cover the receivers on the sidelines and the poor single safety defending Fitzgerald was left on an island with a wide out with size and speed.
The Cardinals had completed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history with 16 unanswered points. They were two and a half minutes away from ending their franchises unprecedented suffering. Then Roethlisberger became Big Ben.
Big Ben went to the huddle on his own 22-yard line with two time outs, the two minute warning and 2:37 left to go. The first play seemed to spell doom with yet another holding penalty (there were 18 flags thrown for 162 yards total in the game). Big Ben kept the drive going with two passes to Santana Holmes for 27 yards. An 11-yard pass to Nate Washington, a four-yard run by Roethlisberger, and a 40-yard pass to Holmes landed the Steelers at the Cardinals six for first and goal.
Holmes could have won the game on the next play, but the ball sailed through his hands as he leaped after tight roping the back of the end zone. The same play to the other side of the end zone found Holmes triple covered, but a high arcing Roethlisberger pass landed in Holmes grasp and Santana was able to drag the tips of his toes along the grass to make an incredible catch in bounds that gave Pittsburgh the lead 27-23.
A desperate Arizona Cardinals drive with half a minute left ended with a fumble after Warner tried to by time in the pocket but had the ball knocked out of his hands by LaMarr Woodley, a fumble that defensive end Brett Keisel recovered.
The Super Bowl is the second heart stopping thrill ride in two seasons. The game had history. The game had an underdog. The game had huge defensive plays and amazing offensive highlights. The game had everything. The game in 2010 has a lot to live up to after two amazing endings that have served the NFL well.